Idaho's crime rates, like the nation's, are on the decline according to the FBI's annual crime statistics report. But a closer look at the recently released data show it's not Idaho's population centers that are posting the highest rates of violent and non-violent crimes -- it's small towns.
Ponderay, Idaho Police Chief Michael Hutter is used to his town standing out among the FBI’s annual crime statistics. “I hope people don’t get the impression that Ponderay is the hotbed of crime in Idaho,” he says.
But Hutter’s north Idaho town of 1,100 people had a property crime rate more than twice that of any other community in the state. He says it was a pretty normal year.
“When you only have 1,100 people residentially living in the city, if you have 200 property crimes, it looks like every fifth person is a criminal and that’s why numbers are skewed high,” he says.
Hutter says it’s not Ponderay residents committing the crimes, it’s the thousands of people who visit every day. Hutter says the town has positioned itself as the shopping center of Idaho’s panhandle. People come from neighboring Sandpoint, the surrounding counties, as well as Washington, Montana and Canada to shop at local businesses and big box stores.
The FBI numbers back him up. Violent crime is virtually nonexistent in Ponderay, but so are most forms of property crime (like burglary and arson). It's shoplifting that gives Ponderay the unlikely designation of having Idaho's largest share of non-violent crimes per 1,000 residents.
Nationally, Idaho has one of the lowest rates of non-violent property crime. Only New York state and Puerto Rico had lower property crime levels.
Laura King says comparing crime rates in large and small communities is difficult. King teaches criminal justice at Boise State. She says in small towns a little crime can seem like a lot.
“Maybe we have a group of people who commit several robberies or burglaries or whatever it might be,” King says. “That’s going to make it look like the rate of crime in that area has increased dramatically.”
That applies to Bellevue in the Wood River Valley as well. It had 15 violent crimes last year. With 2,283 residents, Bellevue had the highest rate of violent crime in the state in 2012.
Idaho’s statewide violent crime rate is also low. Just six states, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Virginia, Wyoming and Utah had lower violent crime rates.
Another reason King says the FBI data should be taken with a grain or two of salt is it doesn’t represent the total number of crimes committed, only those that get reported. So, King says the level of trust a community has in its police force, or how different departments keep records can have a big impact on the stats.
Still, King says the FBI report is valuable for tracking trends over time, especially when combined with other data sets. Nationally, in 2012, violent crime was up slightly and property crime was down. The West had the highest increase in overall crime of any region in the country. But King says the FBI and other reports agree crime rates have been declining nationally, and in Idaho, for the past two decades.
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