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Making sense of Medford crime numbers

Sunday's front-page story about crime rates in Medford prompt two observations: Despite some worrisome numbers, Medford residents as a whole aren't appreciably less safe than those in other cities, and the Police Department's assertion that the numbers are artificially inflated isn't entirely satisfying.

The label of "the most dangerous city in Oregon" was bestowed on Medford by the real estate website Movoto, based on statistics in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program. Local police departments feed crime report statistics into the Oregon State Police Law Enforcement Data Systems, which forwards the data to the FBI.

Medford Police Chief Tim George says one problem is that the "uniform" reports aren't really uniform. For instance, he says, Medford includes more crimes in its tally of aggravated assault than other cities. While some departments report only first- second- and third-degree assault cases, Medford adds menacing with a dangerous weapon and strangulation if committed under certain circumstances, such as in front of a child.

Taking out those cases, George says, would eliminate 80-100 crimes a year from Medford's total, enough to drop it off the list of most dangerous cities.

While that may be true, it would still leave Medford well ahead of similar-sized cities in Oregon. Bend, for instance, reported 138 aggravated assaults in 2013, while Medford reported 346. Dropping crimes that don't meet the FBI's strict interpretation of an aggravated assault from Medford's total left 237, the department's records supervisor said, but's that still well above Bend's figure. Beaverton's and Springfield's numbers were even lower.

What's more, Medford led in several other categories, including rape, robbery, burglary and larceny.

George has an answer for that, too: Medford police take a report on every call that comes in, something other departments don't do. That's commendable, and it probably contributes to some of Medford's high totals.

No one would argue that Medford is a more dangerous place than parts of Josephine County, where lack of funding means no 24-hour police presence and no room in the scaled-down jail when arrests are made. As George has previously said, if you want to lower your reported crime rate, reduce your police force. Fewer cops, fewer reports.

In general, we don't think most Medford residents feel unsafe in most parts of town most of the time. There hasn't been a rash of stranger-on-stranger assaults. Most cases involve people who know each other, and many are fueled by alcohol and drug abuse, especially methamphetamine.

But no one who pays attention can doubt that Medford has a crime problem. The emergency services report in Monday's Mail Tribune lists 15 felony arrests, eight of them for drugs and three for assault.

While law-abiding citizens generally are not in danger of being assaulted, every assault case has a victim, and it's clear there are too many such cases. We attribute that to an entrenched culture of methamphetamine use, which in turn is tied to the persistent lack of employment opportunities in the local economy.

We don't fault the police department for the conditions that give rise to the crimes officers must confront on a daily basis, and believe the department generally does a good job of aggressively responding to calls for service. Declaring Medford Oregon's "most dangerous city" is a bit of hyperbole.

But dismissing what are still troubling crime numbers as statistical anomalies doesn't make the problem disappear.