Reporter’s Notebook: Breaking down the crime severity index

While rates of violent crime increased, Nanaimo’s overall crime severity index for 2021 dropped from a peak in 2019, writes Lys Morton.
A person walks by the community policing office in Nanaimo
A person walks past the Community Policing and Services Office in downtown Nanaimo. Photo by Jesse Winter/The Discourse

The local news headline “Statistics show violent crime severity up 44 per cent in Nanaimo” might have caught your eye a few weeks back. 

A much longer, but more nuanced, headline might have read: “Nanaimo’s rates of police-reported crime, as measured by the federal crime severity index, are slowly inching back to pre-pandemic levels, according to Statistics Canada’s latest release.” 

In 2019, Nanaimo’s overall crime severity index (CSI) rose 20.6 per cent from 2018’s rating. By 2020, this figure had dropped by 16.7 per cent, a trend that was seen across Canada as the pandemic shifted social behaviour. 

Then in 2021, Nanaimo’s CSI rose back up by about 9.3 per cent. In other words, Nanaimo’s overall CSI for 2021 was lower than the peak of 2019.

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A graph shows the crime severity index in Nanaimo between 2018 and 2021, compared to the average in B.C
A graph shows the crime severity index in Nanaimo between 2018 and 2021, compared to the average in B.C. Chart by The Discourse

The CSI brings together all criminal offenses, from traffic violations to theft to homicide. A separate CSI for violent crime severity shows a sharper jump between 2020 and 2021, which is where Nanaimo News Bulletin got its headline.

“Crimes shifted when the pandemic started,” Jon Stuart, the City of Nanaimo’s new Community Policing Coordinator, tells The Discourse. “You had a lot more people at home, so breaking and entering dropped. People were online and on electronics more, so those types of scams rose, but that’s weighted differently.” 

Across Canada, police-reported online harassment violations increased by around 25 per cent from 2019.

The CSI is a relatively new measure of crime. It aims to provide more information than a traditional crime rate, which only calculates the total number of police-reported incidents for a given population.

Instead, the CSI works by attributing a weight to each category of reported crimes based on its severity. If the same number of crimes are reported each year but the bulk of crimes shifts from weapon aggravated assault to theft under $5,000, for instance, the scale number will drop because the public disruption caused by crimes decreased overall. 

By that same measure, if public disruption offenses are reported at higher rates, the weight of that category will raise the scale. 

In 2021, an 18 per cent increase in certain forms of police-reported sexual assault drove up the violent CSI across Canada. Meanwhile, specialized units that investigate specific crimes, such as Nanaimo’s Domestic Violence Unit, can also affect CSI data. Nanaimo also reported five confirmed homicides in 2021 compared to zero in 2020, which would have added quite a bit of weight to the city’s CSI. 

As I work to calculate this all out, it’s easy to understand how incredibly nuanced this all is. An overworked, overstressed population might only have the energy to focus on specific parts of this report. 

With a community facing the direct consequences of a broken social safety net on a daily basis, including a young community member recently stabbed to death at Maffeo-Sutton park, it can be hard to relay nuance. A business owner left with yet another broken window or a café employee who knows local police officers by first name might recoil at the headline ”violent crime severity up 44 per cent in Nanaimo.” It becomes hard to disentangle feelings of safety from objective fact.

Related: Analysis: People living on the streets are struggling. Their neighbours are too.

Municipal elections are coming up, and the current state of crime and perceived safety in Nanaimo is already proving a key concern. 

To help residents and neighbourhoods grapple with the complexity of crime and work toward solutions, Nanaimo’s Community Policing program put together a series of in-depth neighbourhood safety audits last year. 

“This gives us more communication with those in the area,” says Stuart, who took over the program from former Community Policing Coordinator Christy Wood in June. “The index only shows crimes that were documented. [With] the audit, we can go through more nuances. One thing pointed out, especially in Harewood, is the lack of sidewalks. You’re now walking on the road, there isn’t the perceived safety of the sidewalk bubble, and you’re now more alert. People are more alert when they don’t feel safe, so more things are going to be noticed [and] reported. It’s going to become an area officers become familiar with and maybe patrol more.”

In other words, reported crime statistics can become self-fulfilling.

Above all, as one of the audits points out, crime is most often a “symptom of a lack of access to the social determinants of health” for both individuals and their neighbours.

As local candidates make their case for what needs to change, voters will want to know what actions they’ll take to address safety in Nanaimo. Knowing what you want to see to improve safety for yourself and your neighbours will be a key point to investigate as we head into elections.

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