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On his campaign website for his independent bid for U.S. Senate, Gov. Charlie Crist touts public safety laws enacted during his tenure as governor including the "Anti-Murder Act" that sends violent felony offenders who violate probation back to jail, a law requiring criminals to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, and the Jessica Lunsford Act to protect children from sex offenders.
"Due to these important policies and laws, Florida is enjoying its lowest crime rate in 39 years."
For this Truth-O-Meter we wanted to explore whether the state's crime rate is the lowest it has been in 39 years.
We turned to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which issued a press release on April 7, 2010, stating in the headline "Governor Crist announces lowest crime rate in 39 years."
The purpose of the press release was to announce the state's Annual Uniform Crime Report for 2009. The press release stated that "the report indicates the state’s overall index crime rate has reached a 39-year low, declining by 6.4 percent in 2009, compared to 2008. The number of violent crimes (murder, forcible sex offenses, robbery and aggravated assault) committed in Florida dropped 10 percent last year; the number of non-violent crimes (burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft) decreased 6.2 percent."
The report includes offenses reported during 2009 and data submitted by 409 of the 415 local, county and state law enforcement agencies that serve approximately 99.9 percent of the state’s population, according to the press release.
The FDLE's website includes a chart of crime stats starting in 1971. For 1971 it states that Florida's population was about 7.04 million and the total number of crimes was 399,055. Those numbers translated to a rate of 5,667.5 crimes per 100,000 people. By 2009, the state's population had risen to about 18.75 million and the total number of crimes was 824,559. That translated to a crime rate of 4,397.5 crimes per 100,000 -- or the lowest since the state started counting in 1971.
So clearly the crime rate in 2009 was the lowest it had been since 1971.
But it's worth noting that the drop in the crime rate below the 1971 figure -- 5,667.5 -- occurred years before Crist became governor in January 2007. The rate fell to 5,604.3 in 2000 and then stayed below that 1971 figure every year since. The rate was 4,632 in 2006, rose to 4,694.7 in 2007, rose to 4,699.8 in 2008 and then fell to 4,397.5. In other words, for two of Crist's years in office as governor the crime rate increased while in one year it decreased.
We asked Crist campaign spokesman Danny Kanner if Crist should get credit for the crime rate dropping to the lowest rate in 39 years if it had already dropped below that 1971 rate before he took office
Kanner wrote back:
"If the statement is 'Florida is enjoying its lowest crime rate in 39 years,' that means it's lower with Crist as governor than the years prior to the time he took office dating back 39 years, which is true."
We wondered did FDLE collect the data the same way in 1971 as it did for 2009? We spoke to Kristen Chernosky, a spokeswoman at FDLE. She said that FDLE collected the data in 1971 the same as today -- by asking law enforcement agencies across the state to voluntarily submit it. We asked: Did the vast majority comply during the first year?
Chernosky said there were 334 agencies that reported in 1971 but Chernosky was uncertain how many agencies existed at that time so she didn't have a percentage of reporting compliance.
Of course, crime statistics are only as good as the agencies that report them. In at least a few high-profile instances, South Florida police agencies were accused of doctoring crime reports:
* In Boca Raton in 1998, investigators concluded that a captain altered nearly 400 crime reports the previous year to make them look less serious than they were. The original list sent to the FDLE reported 3,250 crimes while the correct list reported 3,635 crimes, the Miami Herald reported in 1998.
* In Broward County, the state attorney's office launched an investigation in 2003 into allegations that Broward Sheriff's Office deputies manipulated crime statistics by using "exceptional clearances" -- when a crime is declared solved despite making no arrests, according to a Jan. 6, 2008, Miami Herald article. Deputies were accused of doctoring stats by making up false confessions and pinning crimes on the wrong individuals.
* After complaints by a police union in Miami, in 2007 the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated allegations that Miami police doctored crime statistics to make the city appear safer than it was. An Oct. 6, 2007, article in the Miami Herald stated that the reporter found "dozens of reports that were classified as less-serious offenses than the facts in the reports would indicate." The FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found no evidence of a systematic effort to suppress crime numbers.
But fudging crime stats is nothing new, said Dennis Jay Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
"There is no reason to believe the cheating is any worse now than it was 20 years ago -- that is a longstanding problem,'' he said. Kenney said it's possible to argue that the auditing procedures today are better than in the past but still "yes they can cheat."
So how does Crist's claim stack up? He's right on the math that the state's crime rate in 2009 was lower than it was in 1971. But Crist omits that it had dropped below the 1971 rate before he became governor and that the rate went up his first two years in office. So for that omission, we rate this claim Mostly True.
Gov. Charlie Crist website, "Charlie Crist on public safety," Aug. 31, 2010
Florida Department of Law Enforcement press release, "Governor Crist announces lowest crime rate in 39 years," April 7, 2010
Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Uniform Crime Report offense data 1971-2009
Miami Herald, "Sugarcoating? Officer faked Boca crime stats", May 3, 1998
Miami Herald, "Lamberti questions law firm's audit,"Jan. 6, 2008
Miami Herald, "Police reports can downplay crime", Oct. 6, 2007
Interview, Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Kristen Chernosky, Sept. 1, 2010
Interview, John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Dennis Jay Kenney, Sept. 1, 2010
Interview, Charlie Crist campaign spokesman Danny Kanner, Sept. 1, 2010
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