Local, state and national statistics don’t paint a clear picture on crime rates
Ocala Police Chief Mike Balken speaks about the arrest of Albert Shell Jr. during a press conference at the Ocala Police Department in Ocala, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. Shell is charged with the shooting death of David Barron, 40, of Ocala, at the Paddock Mall in Ocala on Dec. 23, 2023. Shell was arrested in Marion County, in or around the Florida Highlands during the early hours of Jan. 8, 2024. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2024.
Is the rate of violent crime down in Marion County and across Florida and the nation?
Gov. Ron DeSantis has asserted many times during his presidential campaign and to his supporters over the years that crime rates are down across Florida. These comments raise questions about where the governor is getting the numbers to support his claim because the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the agency charged with gathering that information, admits it does not have accurate statistics.
Last year, the “Gazette” reported on the nationwide glitch in crime reporting statistics. The newspaper revisited the issue after Ocala Police Chief Mike Balken asserted during a press conference announcing the apprehension of Paddock Mall shooter Albert Shell that “violent crime is down locally, across the state and nation.”
Balken recently met with the “Gazette” to elaborate on his agency’s data. The newspaper has also reached out to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office to discuss the issue, but the agency has either ignored or provided excuses for its failure to provide crime data while also admitting that the statistics on file with FDLE and the FBI are not accurate.
The “feeling” among citizens that crime is increasing is prevalent across the country according to a recent Gallup poll. Balken said during the press conference if it “felt” like crime rates had increased locally it was because his agency was informing the public more of what has happening in Ocala through its social media channels.
Balken said his agency is reviewing thousands of files to recategorize crimes under the new reporting system and the department was hesitant to submit reports that hadn’t been verified. Balken says it’s a lot of work to backtrack through files, and practically speaking he’d like to “stop doing it and move forward.”
As the “Gazette” previously reported, in 2021 there was a change in how law enforcement agencies across the country report crimes to the FBI. It has been an awkward transition and possibly led to a false narrative that crime rates across the country are decreasing.
Since 1930, the FBI has relied on its Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program to generate reliable statistics for use in law enforcement. According to the agency’s website, the FBI has historically collected data from “more than 18,000 city, university and college, county, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies” that “participate voluntarily and submit their crime data either through a state UCR program or directly to the FBI’s UCR Program.”
But law enforcement agencies were notified a few years ago that starting in 2021, reporting requirements would be expanded to allow law enforcement agencies to provide more detailed information. The transition has caused a delay in many law enforcement agencies across the country reporting their details and raised questions about the methodology used in the UCR.
“The New York Times” reported at the close of 2022 that while crime in Florida fell to a 50-year low in 2021, according to statements by officials, “experts say the report comes with big caveats amid a muddled, incomplete picture as law enforcement agencies in Florida and across the United States shift to a new system to tally crime.”
This is the case locally. In May of 2023, the last time the “Gazette” reported on this subject, the crime index for the Marion County area posted by the FDLE for 2021 only included information from the Dunnellon and Belleview police departments.
Dana Kelly, communications coordinator for the FDLE, explained in an email to the “Gazette’’ last year that agencies were in varying stages of transitioning based on many “factors (IT support, software product, vendor support, software age capability, etc.)” and that “transition time will vary, and there may be time periods when data is not available for some agencies. This may result in incomplete or partial reporting for certain publication periods. Complete UCR reporting will resume once all participating agencies have successfully transitioned to incident-based reporting.”
As of Jan. 9, here is what we know about crime statistics from MCSO and OPD:
Marion County Sheriff’s Office
FBI crime databases reflect at least a one-third reduction in crime reported by the MCSO since 2020 when the reporting model changed. Recent headlines alone call into question the accuracy of this report.
For example, the stats from FDLE as of Jan. 9 showed only one murder reported for the MCSO in both 2021 and 2022. Information on file with FDLE from MCSO reflects no murders for the first two quarters in 2023.
In an email dated Jan. 17, MCSO spokesperson Paul Bloom provided the following murder statistics:
2021- 23 (Last year MCSO told us there were 24)
2022- 15 (Last year MCSO told us there were 14)
2024- 2 homicides ytd
Last year, MCSO Public Information Officer Zachary Moore confirmed that the data FDLE provided to the “Gazette’’ from its website were inaccurate.
“MCSO has a number of crime reports that are unable to be submitted through FDLE’s online reporting software for a variety of reasons,’’ he wrote in an email, “but principally there is a dysfunction with FDLE software where it will not allow MCSO’s reports to be accepted due to a coding issue. (When trying to submit these reports, an error message is returned.) In order to be able to submit these reports, the FBI must first resolve an issue with crime data reporting codes, then FDLE must update their reporting software to accept the codes, and, finally, SMARTCOP (our records management system) must update the codes in MCSO’s reporting software. Only after those steps are complete, MCSO can then submit the remaining unaccepted reports for them to reflect on FDLE’s spreadsheet. Presently, there is nothing we can do to submit the unaccepted reports, although we periodically attempt to submit them in hopes that the coding issues have been resolved.”
Moore added, “In a perfect world, FDLE will have accurate FIBRS (Florida Incident-Based Reporting System) data, and we expect that to occur in the near future. However, the data in the spreadsheets should not be relied upon until the issues are remedied. Until then, we will be happy to confirm whether FDLE’s FIBRS data is accurate and will let you know when that occurs.”
This week, MCSO spokesperson Paul Bloom said nothing has changed in recent months as to why the FDLE and the FBI don’t have accurate crime stats for the MCSO.
Repeated requests for the data MCSO previously sent to the FDLE have not been fulfilled. Repeated requests for crime statistics also have not been answered other than providing the number of murders over the past 10 years.
In the absence of this crucial data, the “Gazette” requested the MCSO’s daily two-page end-of-watch reports drafted during 2023 to create an accurate picture of crime in Marion County. This MCSO document provides a quick synopsis to law enforcement officers coming on duty each day of what happened during the prior shift. It is sent to hundreds of law enforcement officers every day.
The MCSO, however, told the “Gazette” it would charge the newspaper more than $7,000 for 356 of these 2023 daily reports, an onerous charge for information that is public record.
The MCSO to date has not accepted the “Gazette’s” request for a meeting to discuss the transparency of crime statistics, fulfillment of records requests, and other reporting issues.
Ocala Police Department
As of Jan. 9, a check of the FBI crime databases shows Ocala has reported only 221 crimes for 2022, half of what the amount has been for 10 years. There is no data from the FDLE for OPD for the year 2021, but in 2022 the numbers show six murders. There are no records available for the first two quarters of 2023 from OPD.
Balken confirmed OPD has yet to report 2023 statistics and that previous years’ numbers were not correct.
“I can certainly tell you that the FDLE numbers are not accurate and will likely not be fully corrected for several months,’’ he said. “That’s mostly because of coding issues related to the new Florida Incident Based Reporting System methods, which differs greatly from the older Uniform Crime Report which the state and FBI utilized for decades.”
Balken said the new categorization of crimes was making record-keeping difficult. He said coding was comingling certain crimes. For example, someone may be murdered, but that may be also coded as an aggravated assault or rape depending on what happened to the person before they were killed.
“I can assure you that homicide vs aggravated assault numbers are comingled, and we are working with FDLE to correct that. This is something that I believe many agencies are having issues with. Luckily, homicides account for a very small number of incidents so I can provide you with those numbers for the last 10 years now,” said Balken.
Those are as follows:
The statistics provided by OPD to the “Gazette” this month fall into three categories: Crime against Persons, which includes assaults, homicides, trafficking, kidnapping and sex offenses; Crimes against Property, which includes arson, bribery, fraud, theft; and Crimes against Society, which includes animal cruelty, drugs, gambling prostitution, weapon law violations.
According to the report, Crimes against Persons, total offenses in 2023 were 1,648, down from 1,679 in 2022 and 2,049 in 2021.
In the category of Crimes against Property, total offenses in 2023 were 2,586, down from 3,076 in 2022 and 3,140 in 2021.
Under Crimes against Society, the reported incidents varied from 1,395 in 2021 to 1,521 in 2022 and 1,781 in 2023.
Balken provided the “Gazette” context for the increase by email.
“Please understand that “Crimes Against Society” incidents are largely driven by proactive police work as it relates to our focus on the opioid epidemic. So, although it’s the one category that is in fact up, I’m happy to see the increase and I intend to see that number go much higher in coming years. And that number obviously does/will impact the crime rate.”
OPD also reported an increase in arrests over the past three years. In 2021, there were 3,327 arrests, 2022, 3,709, and 3919 arrests in 2023, as of Dec. 5 reporting.