ALBANY — Recently compiled statistics show Albany and Schenectady counties once again leading upstate New York in reported index crimes per capita, even as their crime rates continue to decline.
Meanwhile, Fulton and Montgomery counties show disparate statistics despite being broadly similar in many aspects.
The seven specific offenses used as an index do not provide a complete picture of crime in a given community, and police agencies’ compilation of the data is not always complete. Further, not every crime is reported and not every incident reported as a crime turns out to be a crime.
Despite those limitations, the Uniform Crime Reporting system is one of the most visible measures of public safety used in New York state.
Albany and Schenectady counties have repeatedly posted some of the highest numbers, landing either first, second or third per capita among the 57 counties outside New York City from 2017 to 2020.
For 2021, Albany County was first and Schenectady County second among counties outside New York City. They had 2,529 and 2,424 index crimes reported per 100,000 population, respectively.
The two share a key similarity with each other and with other upstate counties with the highest rates, such as Broome, Erie, Niagara, Onondaga and Oneida: Each has a large, densely populated, economically struggling city where many of the county’s violent index crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) are reported.
Each has a collection of suburbs where relatively few violent index crimes are reported but property index crimes (larceny, burglary, vehicle theft) are reported in greater numbers.
The state Division of Criminal Justice Services maintains the statewide database of crimes reported and arrests made, and recently posted the 2021 Index Crime update.
The overall index crime rate is down substantially over the past five years — in all of New York state, in the 57 counties outside New York City and in most individual counties.
But not every index crime is declining. Murder and reports of aggravated assault are up sharply since the onset of the pandemic, while reports of rape and vehicle theft have been steadily rising for the past decade. Violent crime with firearms, a subcategory, is also up sharply since 2019.
The limitation of the Uniform Crime Reporting system, a creation of the FBI, is that the roughly 550 individual police agencies statewide are not necessarily taking crime reports in a uniform, identical manner; they are just sending the data along to the state and federal government in a uniform manner — and even that doesn’t always go uniformly.
The DCJS notes in its database that some police agencies may have technical problems that preclude accurate or complete reporting for a given period.
The FBI, meanwhile, warns that its own publicly searchable national crime database, the Crime Data Explorer, may be deceptive if viewed by itself, without considering the factors that influence criminal activity and crime reporting. These can include population size and density, economic conditions, employment rates, prosecutorial, judicial and correctional policies, administrative and investigative emphasis of law enforcement, citizens’ attitudes toward crime and policing, and the effective strength of the police force.
The FBI is transitioning from Uniform Crime Reporting to the more detailed National Incident-Based Reporting System, and New York state will follow. But the content will still be subject to the accuracy and judgment of the police taking the crime report, the policies and practices of their departments, and any limitations on their circumstances.
Melanie Trimble of the New York Civil Liberties Union said NYCLU has been pressing for legislation that would force transparency in crime reporting by police agencies in New York, with uniform standards and inclusion of demographic information about those being arrested.
“Until we get that, commenting on the data that departments are getting is very, very difficult and very fraught,” she said.
However, even accepting that there may be some variations in data accuracy or completeness, some differences would seem too big to write off as margins of error or artifacts of judgment.
For example, Glenville — population 29,000 — has averaged 15 reported violent index crimes per year over the past five years. Neighboring Schenectady, population 67,000, has averaged 529.
Fulton County has one of the higher index crime rates per capita among rural upstate counties, coming in just above the statewide average in 2021 and well above the average for counties outside New York City.
The largest single share is handled by the Gloversville Police Department (463 reports per year on average for the past five years) followed by the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department (262), Johnstown Police Department (168) and locally based state police (93).
Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino said some details in the numbers surprise him.
“Our violent crime rate is less than the state average. Our property crime rate is greater but not much. Our violent crime rate with firearms is lower,” he said. “I don’t know what accounts for the disparity.”
There has been a rise in domestic violence complaints and mental health calls in the past two years, Giardino said, but he hesitates to blame any one factor for driving crime, not even the pandemic.
“The criminal justice system is a reflection of the failures of every other system,” he said, mentioning social services, schools, the economy, the people committing the crimes, their families and police themselves.
He explained: An officer with a backlog of calls on a short-staffed shift might not make a report or arrest in a borderline situation, and instead of resolving itself as the officer hoped, that situation festers into a more serious problem.
“Sometimes there’s a tendency when there’s so many calls backed up to not give priority to the more minor calls,” said Giardino, who has seen the matter from multiple angles, previously serving as a district attorney and criminal court judge.
He made a point similar to one Melanie Trimble of the NYCLU offered: Many crimes go unreported, and the rate may vary from one department or region to the next.
The officers in a small or rural community are more likely to know the people they are policing, Giardino said, and may be more likely to attempt to broker a solution short of arrest when a complaint is made.
Other times, in city or countryside, an officer shows up and finds the victim just wants to vent, or the officer discourages a complaint by telling the victim the chances of catching the culprit are minimal, Giardino said.
Sex crimes and domestic violence are notoriously underreported, he said, whether through fear, guilt, shame or concern that the consequences of coming forward will be worse than saying nothing.
“When we get down the line, there’s a multitude of reasons why people wouldn’t report a crime,” Giardino said.
Fulton County averaged 130 violent index crime reports and 859 property index crime reports per year from 2017 to 2021.
Fulton County’s neighbor to the south is a very similar place in some respects but consistently sees fewer crime reports.
Montgomery County averaged 73 violent index crimes and 682 property index crimes reported per year from 2017 to 2021.
For 2021, this resulted in a per-capita property crime rate about equal to the rate outside New York City and a per-capita violent crime rate that was among the lowest in the state.
The busiest police agency was the Amsterdam Police Department, followed by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department.
Sheriff Jeffery Smith said the Uniform Crime Report is accurate for what it is, but does not paint a complete picture.
“It doesn’t cover a lot of things we deal with,” he said.
That would include harassment and “simple” assaults, both of which are physical scuffles that fall short of the more-serious “aggravated” assaults tracked by the Uniform Crime Reporting.
Calls about domestic disputes are rising, Smith said, and deputies have also been making “a ton” of mental health arrests, which aren’t criminal cases but technically are arrests.
He’s skeptical of comparing one county’s rates to another, particularly if those two counties are very different.
“You really can’t even compare Montgomery and Schenectady,” Smith said. “I would say you could come closer to comparing us to Fulton.”
He said his department has received significantly more calls for service so far in 2022 than in the same period of 2021 (19,869 vs. 16,572 as of mid-June) and made significantly more arrests.
“We’re having a ton of retail theft, mainly in the town of Amsterdam,” Smith said.
These lower-level offenses — and maintaining a public presence in an attempt to make a dent in their numbers — make up the bulk of the work of the Sheriff’s Department’s road patrol.
The county’s low rate of serious violent crimes is a matter of luck as much as anything else, Smith said, as they usually can’t be predicted.
“We’ve been very lucky with our major crimes in Montgomery County over the past few years,” he said. “Which we’re very thankful for.”