Crime

Victoria’s crime severity index went up. What does that mean?

The number reflects crime type, population size, and this year, possibly the effects of the pandemic

By Arrthy Thayaparan
August 8, 2021
Crime

Victoria’s crime severity index went up. What does that mean?

The number reflects crime type, population size, and this year, possibly the effects of the pandemic

A city with a crime severity index of 168. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Crime

Victoria’s crime severity index went up. What does that mean?

The number reflects crime type, population size, and this year, possibly the effects of the pandemic

By Arrthy Thayaparan
August 8, 2021
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Victoria’s crime severity index went up. What does that mean?
A city with a crime severity index of 168. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

This article is based on interviews from the Capital Daily podcast. You can listen and subscribe here or on your podcasting app of choice.

Statistics Canada’s recent annual police-reported crime statistics showed an overall decrease in crime for Canada, but an unexpected high for Victoria.

Over the pandemic, Canada’s national volume of crime decreased by 10% and the overall crime severity index was lower than previous years. 

Meanwhile, the crime severity index, or CSI, for Victoria was 168—a value much higher than Vancouver, at 105, and the provincial average of 95.

At first glance the numbers might indicate cause for worry regarding Victoria’s crime rate in 2020, but according to experts that might not exactly be the case.

CSI investigation

The annual CSI report measures the year-over-year change in seriousness of police-reported incidents that violated the Criminal Code, including traffic and drug violations.

The index, which was introduced around 10 years ago, came in as an alternative form of measuring crime rates. While crime rate relayed the number of crimes divided by a city’s population, the CSI weighs each crime according to sentencing surveys, giving a better impression of how much serious crime is occurring.   

Sentencing surveys give a numerical value to each crime type, depending on the incarceration rate and average prison sentence in days. 

But Dr. Tarah Hodgkinson, an assistant professor of criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University, shares that the CSI isn’t a perfect alternative to crime rates. A recent paper she published focused on the small Saskatchewan town of North Battleford, which has a CSI that’s routinely ranked among the highest in Canada. 

“Oftentimes when we see high crime severity, we think, ‘Oh, wow, things are going really wrong.’ But different things can drive that,” she said. “For example when I did look at North Battleford, mischief was driving a lot of their CSI, and it wasn't violent crime. It wasn't the things that you would be concerned about, when you see a high crime severity index. If you have a lot of one crime type, it can actually push it up.”

One of the other issues with the CSI, according to Hodgkinson, is the way population size can distort the numbers. In North Battleford, with a population of 14,000, that’s exactly what happened, giving the city an undeserved reputation for being extremely dangerous.

“One murder, if we're just talking about crime rates, would be a murder rate of about seven-point-something.” 

In nearby Saskatoon, by contrast, a single murder would make less than a seventh the crime index impact that it would make in North Battleford.

As a result, all of the communities with the highest CSIs in Canada have populations less than 15,000. 

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Eyes on Victoria 

Taking population into consideration for Victoria, Hodgkinson sees a similar pattern when comparing Vancouver and Victoria.

“For population, Vancouver is more than six times the size of Victoria. And so once again, one homicide in Vancouver would be worth a rate of 0.13. Whereas in Victoria, it would be worth around one,” she said. 

In 2019 Victoria had zero homicides, but in 2020, there were two. 

Despite murder being a rare occurrence—and one that usually doesn’t affect community safety overall—the two homicides dramatically increases the city’s CSI. 

Rob Gillezeau, assistant professor of economics at UVIC, believes that the change in how numbers were recorded in 2020 also impacted the CSI value last year. 

“For the first year in all of the recorded data we have on crime, Stats Canada decided to split out Victoria from Esquimalt. So in previous reporting years, [the CSI] had figures for both areas combined, making comparison difficult [for this year].”

With the removal of Esquimalt from Victoria, according to Gillezeau, the population became smaller and further impacted the calculation for the CSI. 

Moving forward

Gillezeau says the numbers don’t make him worried for Victoria’s future.

“If we look back at Victoria over the last two decades, should we be worried about a 13% increase in crime? A hundred percent. But Victoria today is a drastically safer place than it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” he said.

“If we jump back in time, to Victoria in 1998, the crime severity index was 277.58, nearly twice as high as it is today. Throughout the late 90s, early 2000s, mid 2000s, crime was dramatically higher than it is now.”

Hodgkinson adds that much of the issues in Victoria stem around lack of support in the downtown core. 

“Some of the commentary around Victoria has been around some of the social disorder and physical disorder in the downtown,” she said, “We've seen massive decreases in crime—both property and violent—across the world, including in places like Vancouver. But in a place where folks aren't able to find safe places to shelter in place, we do see some of those issues spilling over. We also see a sort of aggravating of some of those social issues, because [people aren’t] able to access services in the same way [during the pandemic].”

An example of a social issue for Hodgkinson that needs serious remedy is the housing crisis. 

“I've always thought that Victoria Police are doing their best and working really hard … But I think we really need to be investing in alternatives and in social services that help folks in that downtown area and surrounding, because I think that will reduce some of the other issues that might also be contributing to that CSI,” she said. 

Gillezeau said that while policing is needed, the cost-effective solution would be to deal with issues proactively through social support programs. 

“Typically, we see upticks in crime during recessions … When folks run hard times, we are going to see increasing crime,” Gillezeau said.

“But honestly with respect to the role of the pandemic itself, outside of the economic shock, I think that's something that we're going to have to wait and see and figure out. Because it really has been 100 years since something like this has happened.”

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Victoria’s crime severity index went up. What does that mean?