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Tweaking the statistics on sexual assault in St. Louis

Statistics do not speak for themselves. They require a narrative to give them context and meaning.

This is as true for St. Louis crime statistics as it is anywhere else. As we noted in our December 3 post on the New York Times's scrutiny of crime in St. Louis, the impression that a story seeks to give depends on which facts are selected for presentation.

In this post, then, we will take note of one aspect of the latest statistics from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police. This aspect is the seemingly startling increase in the reported number of rape cases.

Reports of rape in the service area of the Metropolitan Police were up by 67 percent last year. The number of cases went from 185 in 2012 all the way up to 314 last year.

On closer analysis, however, the large uptick seems to become more like a statistical anomaly based on changing methodology for crime measurement.

As St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson pointed out, the city's elevated numbers appear to have a lot to do with a change in the FBI's definition of what constitutes "rape."

For decades, law enforcement agencies across the nation reported their rape statistics using a definition of that crime that dates back to 1929. Under this definition, rape was considered to be "carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will."

The FBI has finally updated this definition to encompass male-on-male sexual assault. The revised definition also includes both oral and anal sex - not merely the notion of "carnal knowledge," which seemed to imply only vaginal penetration.

Using this new definition for 2013, the numbers shot up in St. Louis. Chief Dotson reran the city's numbers for 2012 using the new definition, however, and concluded that rape in St. Louis was not up at all. It was actually down slightly, the chief said, compared to the previous year.

Source: Riverfront Times, "Adventures in St. Louis Crime Data: Rape Up 67% Following New FBI Definition," Danny Wicentowski, Jan. 14, 2014

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