ALBANY -- It would be difficult to convince family members of a crime victim that violent crime numbers are down in Albany, but they are, according to police statistics released recently.
A 1987 to 2009 timeline of violent crime issued by the Albany Police Department shows a massive violent-crime wave rising in 1988 and then slowly dropping down about 10 years later.
In about 2007 the wave rises again with a peak in 2008 then drops off like a cliff in 2009.
"It is too early to call it a trend," said APD Crime Analyst David Sparks. "It is a one-year downward turn. We need to get two or three years down to make a better statement."
The violent-crime upswing that started in about 1988 could be due to the massive flooding, poverty and loss of jobs in that era, said Glenn Zuern, an Albany State University associate professor of criminal justice.
Considering the many factors that affect crime numbers, it would be difficult to say for certain what caused the increases and subsequent decreases without studying population ages, gender and the economics of the era, Zuern said.
The drop in recent years doesn't offer enough data to really be called significant in terms of statistics. It is difficult to call something a trend with only a few years in view, Zuern said.
College educators caution the use of numbers, percentages and apparent trends, as they can be easily misunderstood.
Robert R. Freedmann, director of the Statistical Analysis Bureau of Georgia State University's Criminal Justice Department, offered an example of the wrong interpretation of numbers.
"I once read a headline that said there was a 100 percent increase in homicides in a town," Friedmann said. "It turned out that it was a small town and there was only one other man killed before that. Reading a 100 percent increase in homicides can scare people."
The difficulty in making conclusions from the numbers can be seen by comparing four years of the most recent total violent-crime numbers published in the APD timeline:
The first year, 2006, grows by 72 to 637. Then there is a larger increase of 464 from 2007 to 2008's total 1001. The 2009 drop reflected in the timeline shows a rapid decline to 778, but that total is still higher than 2006 and 2007.
Sometimes a declining population can lead to a decrease in crime. According to the U.S. Census Bureau Web site census.gov, Albany's population since the 1990 census decreased by 2,291 to 75,831 in 2008.
That shows a definite decline in population, but it isn't certain that a decline of a few thousand residents could be responsible for any decline in criminal activity, experts say.
There are always other factors to be considered, many of which are debatable in criminology circles. Economic factors, including income, poverty level and availability of jobs, are usually cited as influencing crime rates.
Having the correct numbers is also problematic in the study of crime rates. Crimes are not always reported to authorities.
"We can only count reported crimes," Sparks said. "There could be crimes that go unreported."
So can it definitively be stated that violent crime is significantly trending downward in Albany? Not with any certainty from the data provided, Zuern said.
"The only certainty we know about is what we call 'aging out'," he said. "The older a population becomes, the less crime there is. Aging out occurs across racial and economic lines."
The census data don't seem to support that any crime dip in Albany is due to an aging population. The median age -- the point at which half the population is older and half younger -- was 31.1 in 2000, according to census.gov. It remained 31.1 in 2008.
The age group that Zuern said commits the most crime, 10- to 24-year-olds, has remained static in Albany. In 2000 it had 19,468 members, and in 2008 it had 19,496 members, not a significant increase.
One thing gleaned from the numbers is certain, even to a person not schooled in statistics. A significant crime wave, for whatever reasons, developed in Albany from 1988 to about 1997, peaking in 1992 when 1,232 violent crimes and 10,052 total crimes were reported. That compares to 778 violent crimes and 5,579 total reported crimes in 2009.
Using the numbers helps police spot and map out what Sparks called "hot spots" in the city. The crime numbers are mapped so that police strategy can respond accordingly to the areas of the city that are more criminally active than others.
All the officials spoken to said that although they crunch the numbers, each and every victim of a crime matters more than a number.