ALBANY — Recently compiled statistics show Albany and Schenectady counties once again leading upstate New York in reported index crimes per capita, even as their crime rates continue to decline.
The seven specific offenses used as an index do not provide a complete picture of crime in a given community, and police agencies’ compilation of the data is not always complete. Further, not every crime is reported and not every incident reported as a crime turns out to be a crime.
Despite those limitations, the Uniform Crime Reporting system is one of the most visible measures of public safety used in New York state.
Albany and Schenectady counties have repeatedly posted some of the highest numbers, landing either first, second or third per capita among the 57 counties outside New York City from 2017 to 2020.
For 2021, Albany County was first and Schenectady County second among counties outside New York City. They had 2,529 and 2,424 index crimes reported per 100,000 population, respectively.
The two share a key similarity with each other and with other upstate counties with the highest rates, such as Broome, Erie, Niagara, Onondaga and Oneida: Each has a large, densely populated, economically struggling city where many of the county’s violent index crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) are reported.
Each has a collection of suburbs where relatively few violent index crimes are reported but property index crimes (larceny, burglary, vehicle theft) are reported in greater numbers.
The state Division of Criminal Justice Services maintains the statewide database of crimes reported and arrests made, and recently posted the 2021 Index Crime update.
The overall index crime rate is down substantially over the past five years — in all of New York state, in the 57 counties outside New York City and in most individual counties.
But not every index crime is declining. Murder and reports of aggravated assault are up sharply since the onset of the pandemic, while reports of rape and vehicle theft have been steadily rising for the past decade. Violent crime with firearms, a subcategory, is also up sharply since 2019.
The limitation of the Uniform Crime Reporting system, a creation of the FBI, is that the roughly 550 individual police agencies statewide are not necessarily taking crime reports in a uniform, identical manner; they are just sending the data along to the state and federal government in a uniform manner — and even that doesn’t always go uniformly.
The DCJS notes in its database that some police agencies may have technical problems that preclude accurate or complete reporting for a given period.
The FBI, meanwhile, warns that its own publicly searchable national crime database, the Crime Data Explorer, may be deceptive if viewed by itself, without considering the factors that influence criminal activity and crime reporting. These can include population size and density, economic conditions, employment rates, prosecutorial, judicial and correctional policies, administrative and investigative emphasis of law enforcement, citizens’ attitudes toward crime and policing, and the effective strength of the police force.
The FBI is transitioning from Uniform Crime Reporting to the more detailed National Incident-Based Reporting System, and New York state will follow. But the content will still be subject to the accuracy and judgment of the police taking the crime report, the policies and practices of their departments, and any limitations on their circumstances.
Melanie Trimble of the New York Civil Liberties Union said NYCLU has been pressing for legislation that would force transparency in crime reporting by police agencies in New York, with uniform standards and inclusion of demographic information about those being arrested.
“Until we get that, commenting on the data that departments are getting is very, very difficult and very fraught,” she said.
However, even accepting that there may be some variations in data accuracy or completeness, some differences would seem too big to write off as margins of error or artifacts of judgment.
For example, Glenville — population 29,000 — has averaged 15 reported violent index crimes per year over the past five years. Neighboring Schenectady, population 67,000, has averaged 529.
Schenectady Police spokesman Pat Irwin said department policy requires the department to document every criminal complaint in the city. That averaged out to 1,880 property index crime reports per year over the past five years and 529 violent index crimes.
The combined 2,409 is higher per-capita than New York City’s rate.
“They’re an accurate depiction,” Irwin said. “I don’t want to say we over-report, but we’re very strict about it, we report it and we’re honest about it.”
It’s not number crunching for the benefit of state and national agencies, Irwin said. The department uses the information to inform its strategies and to redirect them as needed.
“We have three full-time crime analysts working in the building,” he said. “We look at these stats monthly and we make adjustments.”
These changes have included more community-oriented policing and the creation of a gun violence prevention task force.
“I think it’s worth noting that prior to the pandemic we were on the decline” on crime rates, Irwin said.
(The Schenectady PD dropped from 2,646 index crime reports in 2017 to 2,105 in 2020, then bumped up to 2,246 in 2021.)
“And then the pandemic hit, and we had budget cuts and staffing cuts in 2021. Post-pandemic, I think we’re on the decline. We’re back on track.”
He doesn’t offer a single specific theory on Schenectady’s crime rate except that urban areas with higher poverty rates typically have worse crime problems.
Data from the 2020 Census show Schenectady with a 20% poverty rate, compared with 11% for the county as a whole and 6% for neighboring suburbs Rotterdam and Glenville, which each have about 55% fewer residents than the city but 94% to 97% fewer violent index crime reports per year on average.
Property crime is another matter, particularly in Rotterdam, where the property index crime report rate per capita is only 9% lower than Schenectady’s.
The Rotterdam Police Department’s data paint a picture of people misbehaving with other people’s possessions rather than doing harm to one another. It has averaged 33 violent crime and 784 property crime reports per year for the past five years.
“Most of our property crime is related to larceny,” Chief Michael Brown said, with Walmart and the adjacent Hannaford Plaza a hot spot for retail larcenies.
“We also get larcenies from vehicles. That’s something that’s rampant in town. There could be 30 in one weekend,” he said. These thefts from vehicles are preventable crimes — most involve unlocked doors being opened, rather than windows being smashed.
“Because of the increase in prevalence of Ring cameras, we have reels of video footage of people walking through neighborhoods and trying car doors. If it’s locked they move on,” Smith said.
Violent crime, he said, is typically harder to prevent because it often happens behind closed doors and in the heat of the moment.
“Those types of crimes are not deterred by routine patrols,” Smith said.
For the several hundred larcenies that are reported each year, the best strategy is public education — police advise residents to lock the doors to their cars and not leave valuables visible inside — and partnerships with retailers.
The department has stationed officers at Walmart on Black Friday, Smith said, and that seems to have limited thefts, but it’s an unsustainable strategy for a mid-sized police department.
Of the five municipalities in Schenectady County that have their own municipal police departments, Glenville has by far the lowest rate per capita of reported index crimes, averaging 15 violent incidents per year over the past five years and 336 property crimes, the latter almost entirely larcenies.
Chief Stephen Janik attributes that to a cohesive population that looks out for one another, a lack of bars where intoxicated people congregate and a visible police presence.
Glenville Police drive through every neighborhood regularly, trying to be seen.
“It’s why we continue to have the black-and-white scheme” on the cars, Janik said. “We were one of the only agencies that stuck with it. We wanted to be very visual. We wanted to be seen.
“People understand if you’re in Glenville, you’re going to see a Glenville Police car enforcing vehicle and traffic Law. Just being seen is a deterrent.”
Glenville does have a retail strip that attracts thieves, but it’s newer and smaller than similar districts in Rotterdam and Niskayuna, he said, which may be why fewer thefts are reported there.
The town is now going through one of its periodic waves of thefts from cars, Janik said, with the Indian Meadows Park and the Andersen Dog Park parking areas the most recent spots to be hit.
The interplay between police and community is important with preventable crimes such as this, he said. The department posts advisories on social media and residents reply. He and town elected officials make it a priority to interact with neighborhood groups to monitor or address problems.
“We have a really close-knit community here in Glenville,” Janik said.
Albany County and Schenectady County have both been atop the upstate index crime rates for five years, with reports from the city of Albany Police Department driving Albany County’s rate just as the city of Schenectady Police Department drives the overall rate of Schenectady County.
Averaged over the past five years, the city of Albany recorded 3,855 index crime reports per year, 9% more per capita than the city of Schenectady and 78% more than New York City.
About New York City: It is often broken off statistically from the other 57 counties of the state because it is so different from them. But there are great variations within its borders as well, and some of these shrink the city’s overall index crime report rate. As a result, New York City winds up with a lower overall rate per capita than many of the upstate cities.
In 2021, the Bronx had the highest violent crime report rate of any county in the state per capita and Manhattan was highest on property crime. But Queens didn’t even crack the top 20 on property crime per capita, and Staten Island was 51st out of the 62 counties on property crimes reported.
Albany Police did not provide comment for this story, but their reported data show a surge of aggravated assaults and murders in the past two years, along with a jump in vehicle thefts.
Next door, the town of Colonie has one of the largest town police forces in upstate New York and a different set of problems for it to deal with.
Colonie averages 78 violent crimes reported per year among its 85,000 residents over the past five years compared with 846 per year among Albany’s 98,000 residents.
The two are closer on property crime — an average of 1,943 reports a year in Colonie and 3,009 in Albany.
“We don’t have a lot of violent crime, which is good,” said Colonie Police spokesman Lt. Dan Belles. “We do have a significant increase in property crime over the last five years.”
Just over 90% of that property crime is larceny, and much of that happens along the extensive retail strips in town.
The town sits at the confluence of two major interstate highways and appears to attract regular visits of organized thieves from out of town or even out of the region, Belles said.
“A lot of times it’s in cosmetic stores where they’re stealing small but high-value items for resale,” he said.
There’s also a spate of repeat offenders since state bail reform kept most petty thieves from being routinely jailed, Belles said. One alleged shoplifter arrested this past week in the midst of a $1,000-plus haul had been arrested several other times recently, he said.
One aspect of the Uniform Crime Report in Colonie — a steadily rising number of motor vehicle thefts — could be misleading, Belles said. There are several rental car operations in the town, which is home to the regional airport, and when someone rents a car fraudulently or doesn’t return it on time it gets reported as a car theft.
Among the 83 reported vehicle thefts in 2021, few were privately owned vehicles swiped from a driveway or parking lot, he said.
Saratoga County (population 237,000) has the lowest rate of reported index crimes of any large-population county north of Westchester and Rockland.
In 2021, Saratoga and neighboring Warren and Washington counties are stacked near the very bottom of the list for violent crimes, 55th, 56th and 57th of the 62 counties in New York.
Property crime is reported much more often, though the rate is still below the state average.
The Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office fields or generates twice as many of these reports as any other agency in the county, accounting for about 40% of the total countywide volume.
Michael Zurlo, a four-decade veteran of the department and sheriff since 2014, said building communication and trust between the community and the department is the key to success.
“We are proud of the fact that Saratoga County routinely ranks as one of the safest counties in New York state year after year,” he said via email.
“Crime reporting systems can be a valuable tool for local law enforcement in understanding where and what types of crimes are being committed and in implementing appropriate policies to ensure the safety of the community. However, communities are more than statistics; people make up the unique fabric of every community, which is why I have made proactive community engagement a priority here in Saratoga County.”
About 20% of index crime reports for the county are generated in Saratoga Springs, which is home to 12% of the county’s residents. That gives the city of 28,000 a per-capita crime rate that is higher than the state average and higher than the county as a whole but well below many other cities across upstate New York.
What’s different about Saratoga Springs is that the number of people within its borders can triple on a day with big events at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center or the Saratoga Race Course, or both. The majority of those arrested in the city are nonresidents, Saratoga Springs Police Chief Shane Crooks said.
“As we head into our 2022 busy season, we are seeing an increase in certain crimes such as assault, burglary and larceny,” he said via email. “Having the proper staffing levels is vital to make sure that we have the resources to address this and ensure that our community stays one of the safest cities in New York state.”
Fulton County has one of the higher index crime rates per capita among rural upstate counties, coming in just above the statewide average in 2021 and well above the average for counties outside New York City.
The largest single share is handled by the Gloversville Police Department (463 reports per year on average for the past five years) followed by the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department (262), Johnstown Police Department (168) and locally based state police (93).
Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino said some details in the numbers surprise him.
“Our violent crime rate is less than the state average. Our property crime rate is greater but not much. Our violent crime rate with firearms is lower,” he said. “I don’t know what accounts for the disparity.”
There has been a rise in domestic violence complaints and mental health calls in the past two years, Giardino said, but he hesitates to blame any one factor for driving crime, not even the pandemic.
“The criminal justice system is a reflection of the failures of every other system,” he said, mentioning social services, schools, the economy, the people committing the crimes, their families and police themselves.
He explained: An officer with a backlog of calls on a short-staffed shift might not make a report or arrest in a borderline situation, and instead of resolving itself as the officer hoped, that situation festers into a more serious problem.
“Sometimes there’s a tendency when there’s so many calls backed up to not give priority to the more minor calls,” said Giardino, who has seen the matter from multiple angles, previously serving as a district attorney and criminal court judge.
He made a point similar to one Melanie Trimble of the NYCLU offered: Many crimes go unreported, and the rate may vary from one department or region to the next.
The officers in a small or rural community are more likely to know the people they are policing, Giardino said, and may be more likely to attempt to broker a solution short of arrest when a complaint is made.
Other times, in city or countryside, an officer shows up and finds the victim just wants to vent, or the officer discourages a complaint by telling the victim the chances of catching the culprit are minimal, Giardino said.
Sex crimes and domestic violence are notoriously underreported, he said, whether through fear, guilt, shame or concern that the consequences of coming forward will be worse than saying nothing.
“When we get down the line, there’s a multitude of reasons why people wouldn’t report a crime,” Giardino said.
Fulton County averaged 130 violent index crime reports and 859 property index crime reports per year from 2017 to 2021.
Fulton County’s neighbor to the south is a very similar place in some respects but consistently sees fewer crime reports.
Montgomery County averaged 73 violent index crimes and 682 property index crimes reported per year from 2017 to 2021.
For 2021, this resulted in a per-capita property crime rate about equal to the rate outside New York City and a per-capita violent crime rate that was among the lowest in the state.
The busiest police agency was the Amsterdam Police Department, followed by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department.
Sheriff Jeffery Smith said the Uniform Crime Report is accurate for what it is, but does not paint a complete picture.
“It doesn’t cover a lot of things we deal with,” he said.
That would include harassment and “simple” assaults, both of which are physical scuffles that fall short of the more-serious “aggravated” assaults tracked by the Uniform Crime Reporting.
Calls about domestic disputes are rising, Smith said, and deputies have also been making “a ton” of mental health arrests, which aren’t criminal cases but technically are arrests.
He’s skeptical of comparing one county’s rates to another, particularly if those two counties are very different.
“You really can’t even compare Montgomery and Schenectady,” Smith said. “I would say you could come closer to comparing us to Fulton.”
He said his department has received significantly more calls for service so far in 2022 than in the same period of 2021 (19,869 vs. 16,572 as of mid-June) and made significantly more arrests.
“We’re having a ton of retail theft, mainly in the town of Amsterdam,” Smith said.
These lower-level offenses — and maintaining a public presence in an attempt to make a dent in their numbers — make up the bulk of the work of the Sheriff’s Department’s road patrol.
The county’s low rate of serious violent crimes is a matter of luck as much as anything else, Smith said, as they usually can’t be predicted.
“We’ve been very lucky with our major crimes in Montgomery County over the past few years,” he said. “Which we’re very thankful for.”