Counting Crime Stats: a Closer Look

By Beacon Staff

The Montana Board of Crime Control and the Federal Bureau of Investigation both recently released 2006 crime statistics for the state’s counties and cities, but Sheriff Mike Meehan and a local crisis center warn that measuring area crime isn’t as simple as new numbers.

According to the FBI’s crime statistics, the Flathead County Sheriff Department reported twice as many forcible rapes last year as any other county sheriff’s departments in the state, with 18 cases. Flathead County Sheriff’s Department and Silver Bow County Sheriff’s Department both reported the most violent crimes, 149.

City crimes are recorded separately: Kalispell reported an additional 61 violent crimes and 9 rapes; Columbia Falls and Whitefish both reported another 16 violent crimes each and no rapes.

At first look, the volume of crimes reported by the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department seems high for the third most populous county in the state, but Meehan noted an important difference between the Flathead County department and other county police departments. “Seventy-five percent of Flathead County’s population lives outside the incorporated cities’ limits. If you compare that to counties with similar populations – Lewis and Clark, Cascade, Gallatin – the bulk of their population lives in the municipalities – Great Falls, Helena, Bozeman. The majority of their crime is dealt with and reported by the city, not the county.”

When city and county reports are combined, several counties do report significantly more crime than Flathead County. Meehan said his department’s vast coverage area – 5,200 square miles – also increases response time: “The sprawl here, for lack of a better term, means we have subdivisions 30, 40 miles out of town.”

Several statistics were reported differently in the state compared to federal, with state numbers tending to be higher. According to the Montana BCC, variations can be attributed to definitional differences for statistical categories.

Federal numbers weren’t available for property crimes or motor vehicle theft for the sheriff’s office, because the FBI listed them as underreported. Meehan said he had no idea why those numbers weren’t included.

Meehan said it was also important to note that statistics don’t reflect the severity of the crimes reported, and that, for example, an aggravated assault can range from “a serious assault to kids throwing snowballs.”

Numbers are different and have a different meaning for the Violence Free Crisis Line, a Kalispell nonprofit that provides a crisis hotline, information and peer counseling. Director Janet Cahill said the group dealt with 49 cases of rape in 2006 and another 112 cases of sex crimes, and expects numbers are much higher than that.

“Rape, domestic violence, and sex crimes are all underreported because of the humiliation and fear that keeps victims from coming forward,” she said. “Only 10 percent of all rapes are ever reported. I used to think it was different here, but now I would be surprised if even 10 percent reported.”

But, Cahill and community educator Hilary Barshay cautioned against focusing on numbers. “A focus on numbers makes it easier for us to say we’re better or we’re safer,” Barshay said. “You don’t want anyone to go away from reading numbers thinking it’s not a problem here.”