Lies, damn lies and statistics.
The old line about how easy it is to manipulate statistics came to mind again this week as yet another critic of Statistics Canada took aim at the agency's data on crime rates.
Statistics Canada has been reporting falling rates of overall crime and violent crime for some time, a stance that is at odds with the federal Conservative government's efforts to toughen criminal laws and build new prisons.
There are exceptions to the overall trend. For example, Manitoba's violent crime rate increased by 10 per cent in 2009, primarily due to a 25 per cent increase in robberies. But Statscan data show national rates of crime reported to police dropping.
Conservatives argue the statistics are wrong and do not reflect all criminal activity. Critics say the Harper government is pandering to fears about personal safety.
The Macdonald-Laurier Institute added to the Conservative argument with a report that says crime is increasing and Statistics Canada's methods are suspect. Among the criticisms: the agency's reporting on crime rates does not account for unreported crime, even as other Statistics Canada data show people are increasingly not reporting crimes such as break-ins.
In my reporting life I covered police, courts -- even the Supreme Court of Canada -- and the work that Statistics Canada does.
What I learned was simple: The first thing you should do in any debate about tackling crime is forget about most crime statistics.
It is easy to criticize crime statistics.
One key problem with studies on police-reported crime is that they measures criminal charges, not convictions.
Thus the main thing that the most widely quoted crime statistics measure is police activity -- what offences they pursue, what charges they lay and even what resources they have.
A prime example of this happened last Christmas in Winnipeg. Take a look at the statistics and they seem to show drunk driving increased dramatically. What really happened is that police targeted locations, such as bars, that are more likely to produce impaired drivers, so they laid more charges.
Police themselves said it is unlikely that the prevalence of drunk driving changed in a single year. In fact, the new enforcement strategy could end up reducing impaired driving in the longer term by acting as a more effective deterrent.
I learned this as a young reporter looking at Winnipeg police statistics one year that appeared to show the logically impossible scenario of increased drug sales and decreased drug use.
Drug trafficking charges had shot up; simple possession charges had dropped. The reason had nothing to do with drug use, but was due to police changing enforcement tactics to focus on bigger drug investigations and catch bigger fish in the illegal drug chain, with the goal of ultimately reducing the drug supply.
Perhaps the only truly reliable crime statistic is the homicide rate. Killing, and how it's defined, has not changed that much over the years. All police forces can identify almost all culpable killings and there is a very high rate of laying charges.
Take a look at the homicide rate and you'll see it has been pretty steady for the past two decades. The 2009 rate was 1.8 victims per 100,000 population in Canada. In 1961 it was 1.3.
Again, Manitoba has bucked the trend here, with the 2009 rate of 4.66 per 100,000 tops among provinces and higher than in the 1990s, a fact often attributed to gang activity.
Those numbers highlight the fact that criminal activities and the ways to reduce them are not simple. In Manitoba it is gang activity, and not the overall homicide rate, that we should be worrying about.
Winnipeg learned this dealing with car thefts.
The city got rid of its unwanted title as Car Theft Capital of Canada with a comprehensive auto theft suppression strategy that involved players from the police, justice and social welfare systems, and even the vehicle insurance corporation.
In all areas of crime, we would do better if we focused on discussion on how to curb illegal activities, rather than whether the statistics are accurate.
Bob Cox is publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press.