Asheville – Every time I start looking at data, I’m reminded about the time-honored adage that “there are lies, damn lies and statistics.” Statistics rely on the formulas of the number crunchers. Figuring numbers one way will give you one result, but it gets a different result when you figure them another.
Press Release Trouble
Back on July 30, Aaron Sarver, Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer, released a press release stating, “Larceny/Theft is down two percent, Breaking and Enterings are down 18 percent and Non-Sexual Assaults are down three percent.” He went on to say, the “…new enforcement strategy appears to be paying off with a lower crime rate as reflected in the drop in crime rates so far in 2021,”
I looked at the numbers and doubted what I was seeing, but as with most stuff official agencies send me, we posted it on our Facebook, never running it in the newspaper. A few hours later, I looked back at the post and saw that he had garnered several comments, most also doubting the validity of the numbers. As a result, I thought we’d look closer at the numbers and asked Sarver to send the numbers. The email read:
In relation to your press release on mid-year crime stats today, the Tribune is requesting the same time frame 2020/2021 print out of the dates from your source. We’d like counts of the incident report by UCR/IBR numbers.
Well, what we got back on August 1 was nowhere close to what we asked for, so a former law enforcement officer submitted a FOIA request. We obtained the numbers taking to the first part of September when we ask Sarver about the differences, and after a few weeks of going back and forth we finally felt confident about our investigation into the statistics and published the article about the crime stats this week (see article page 1).
I want to say I don’t think Sarver was trying to mislead anyone with the press release he put out. The first rule of being a public information officer is “don’t lie to the press because it will come back to bite you.” I think Sarver is a very intelligent and good public information officer who as always, promptly responded to me when I’d sent him emails for information.
I do think what Sarver said was true when he told the Tribune, “I will be the first to admit I do not understand all the changes in top charge versus NIBRS versus UCR calculations.”
I believe this is where Sarver ran into trouble which, after looking at the stats and speaking with someone who knew something about crime stats, allowed me to file this week’s investigative story.
I hope Sarver will circle back and examine the numbers again, and what ever result, will show me where I am wrong or where he was.