Ithaca, N.Y. — It’s a common lament at local coffee shops, on Internet comment threads and all over Facebook: There’s more crime in Ithaca than ever before, and it’s only getting worse.

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One problem with this theory? It appears to have no grounding in reality, at least according to data and statistics.

Above is the FBI’s data for crime in Tompkins County. While comprehensive data for 2014 is not yet available, it’s hard to imagine how one could look at the numbers above and conclude that Ithaca has a major new urban crime problem.

Here’s the violent crime totals for the city of Ithaca, according to the FBI:

2009 — 72

2010 — 61

2011 — 36

2012 — 65

2013 — 50

The numbers for theft in Ithaca are somewhat more ambiguous. A few of the numbers go up, then go down; others show opposite trends. Either way, the data suggest that — at the very least — there’s no material increase in Ithaca’s crime rate.  

Chief’s perception

Police Chief John Barber urged people to look at the data publicly posted on the IPD’s website. “I would suggest people go to our website. We do post our crime statistics online so you can see for yourself … If you look at the numbers, you may see that for shoplifting, say, there’s an increase. But then you look at vandalism, destruction of property, and you’ll see a decrease. Am I seeing any real alarming spikes? No.”

Barber said he is sometimes asked by those who fear or believe crime in the city is on the rise.

“I think people say they feel like crime has really risen to a high level in Ithaca. You have to take the time to explain that we do have pockets of crime,” Barber says, “but, in general, this is a very safe city.”

The data appear to support this idea as well. The amount of crime in Ithaca is not only low in the aggregate — it also appears significantly lower than the amount of crime per capita compared with other cities in upstate NY.

Both Chief Barber and Officer Jamie Williamson say they think the rise of social media has helped fuel the perception that crime is increasing even if that perception doesn’t match reality.

“I think the public’s opinion has been swayed or influenced by the fact that … there’s so much coverage of crime in social media,” Williamson said.

Ten years ago, Williamson said, news of a stabbing would appear somewhere in a newspaper — not necessarily even the front page — a substantial period of time after the incident.

“Now, within 24 hours of that crime occurring, basically every resident of Ithaca can access that information at their home, at their workplace, in their car — anywhere,” Williamson said. “There’s a stabbing on West Hill: People can find out about it immediately. … Prior to social media helping to advertise incidents here in Ithaca people may not know about it for a couple days, and by then something more interesting may have occurred.”

National publications have also reported on a similar trend across the country. A New York Times story in September reported:

“Half of all respondents to a recent YouGov poll suggested that the violent crime rate had risen over the past two decades. The reality, of course, is that it has fallen enormously.

The decline in violent crime is one of the most striking trends over recent decades; the rate has declined roughly by half since 1993.

Far better to ignore the anecdotes and focus instead on the big picture, and the hard data tells us: There’s been a remarkable decline in crime.”

Like Chief Barber, Williamson said he is sometimes stopped around town by those who think crime in Ithaca is on the rise.

What does he do then? “I usually go into a small explanation of the ebb and flow … and that, more than anything, the crimes that are occurring in Ithaca are getting much more media attention.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.