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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Biden’s Flint Fiasco, Continued

Murder, rape and robbery are declining in spite of police layoffs in Flint, Mich. — according to the most recent official report released by the State Police. Those and other reported “index” crimes were down 11.5 percent overall during the first six months of this year, compared with the same six-month period last year.

We’ve continued to dig into the statistics for crime-ridden Flint because we caught Vice President Joe Biden misrepresenting them repeatedly as he argued for passage of the administration’s jobs legislation. Republicans accused the vice president of fear-mongering, as he toured the country warning that there would be more rapes, murders, robberies and other crimes without fresh federal funds to help localities like Flint avoid further layoffs of police.

Speaking in Flint on Oct. 12, Biden said murder and rape statistics skyrocketed in that city from 2008 to 2010 (even though, as we reported, FBI data show rapes in Flint declined during that period). Biden then added: “God only knows what the numbers will be this year in Flint.” Actually the Michigan State Police know, for at least the first six months of the year, because the city is required to report instances of crime. And rather than supporting Biden’s argument, the evidence we found undercuts it.

All four categories of violent crime are down this year in Flint, according to the State Police. Reported murders are down 30 percent; reported rapes are down 18 percent. Robberies dropped 17 percent, and aggravated assaults declined 20 percent. These are figures tabulated by Michigan State Police from reports that local officials are required to make under state law. They are “preliminary” and subject to possible revisions, but they reflect reports received as of Sept. 6.

A similar pattern emerges for major crimes against property. Of the four categories given by State Police, three went down, and the only increase was in theft of motor vehicles.

Motor vehicle theft was up 40 percent (after a 26 percent decline between 2008 and 2010). But larceny dropped 18 percent; burglary declined 8 percent; and arson plunged 42 percent (after a huge 138 percent rise the previous two years).

Flint officials have told us that they gave the vice president the crime statistics he cited in his Oct. 12 speech in the city. They also say there were actually more murders in Flint in 2010 than the city reported to the FBI, due to an “internal clerical error.” But Biden later embellished and exaggerated the Flint numbers egregiously. And he ignored the recent decline in crime reports we mention here.

Biden focused on the change between 2008 and 2010. We find that Flint officials have yet to correct whatever errors may have been made in reporting their 2010 murder figure, either in tabulations by the FBI or the Michigan State Police. Had the city corrected the 2010 figure, the decline for the first six months of 2011 would probably be much larger, unless another error has resulted in under-reporting murders for the current year. But even disregarding the disputed murder figures, Biden’s claims about what happened between 2008 and 2010 are contradicted both by the FBI and Michigan State Police numbers.

In Flint, Biden said that the number of murders from 2008 to 2010 in that city climbed from 35 to 65 and rapes jumped from 91 to 229. He embellished upon those figures during a visit to the University of Pennsylvania six days later, claiming that Flint’s murder rate had nearly tripled and “the number of rapes have quadrupled.”

But the figures tabulated by Michigan State Police tell a different story.

Murder was up 66 percent, according to State Police figures, and 106 percent according to what Flint officials now say. Biden was clearly incorrect in saying that murders were “close to triple.” There was, however, a sharp increase in murder, so that bit of evidence would support Biden’s main point that reducing police staffing leads to increased crime.

But leaving that aside, the official statistics show rape was in fact down, no matter how it’s measured. Michigan State Police figures show a 9.8 percent reduction. FBI data show an 11 percent decline. (There is a slight difference in the definitions of rape. Both agencies consider rape for reporting purposes as forced sexual penetration between a male and female, but the FBI does not include male victims and the state does.)

Biden claimed rapes in Flint were up from 91 in 2008 to 229 in 2010, an increase of 152 percent, during his visit to the city. How could he have been so wrong? City spokeswoman Dawn Jones told us the city had supplied Biden with 2010 figures for “rape” that actually reflected all crimes involving “criminal sexual conduct.” We surmise that Biden was comparing 2008 figures for “rape” with 2010 figures for the much broader category of “criminal sexual conduct,” which includes forcible rape plus forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object, and forcible “fondling.” But when a proper apples-to-apples comparison is made, the broader category of “criminal sexual conduct” (CSC) is also down. State Police figures show a 10 percent reduction in total CSC reports between 2008 (242) and 2010 (217).

The city issued a statement Oct. 20 that said it “stands behind the crime statistics provided to the Office of The Vice President.” However, Jones told us she could not say if the 2008 and 2010 rape numbers the city supplied Biden were comparable because there had been a change of administrations during that time. She promised to provide more information, but said “it is going to take further work on our end to determine how another administration categorized and recorded crime data.” We, however, found the information readily available on state websites.

As for property crimes, the statistics from 2008 to 2010 are mixed. Some State Police figures on property crimes support Biden’s thesis: Burglary was up 9 percent, and arson more than doubled. It was up 138 percent.

On the other hand, State Police figures show that both larceny and motor vehicle theft plunged 27 percent during the period, despite the police layoffs.

So, even if Biden had consistently recited the figures Flint officials say they gave to him, he was cherry-picking and — regarding rape — comparing apples to fruit salad.

As we wrote earlier, we are not minimizing the crime problem in Flint. It is real. And we are not taking sides in the long-running discussion among criminologists about what effect police staffing levels have on crime. But the vice president misrepresented the extent of the city’s crime problem — flagrantly so, in the case of rapes. He also ignored the fact that crime this year is down, based on the city’s own crime figures, despite cuts in the police force and in direct contradiction with his larger point that Flint’s staffing cuts resulted in rising crime.

— Eugene Kiely and Brooks Jackson