You probably already know that Mark Twain spelled out three categories of lies: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Crime statistics often are confusing, misleading, twisted on purpose, and usually incomplete. The numbers that will be coming out in January regarding 2016 crime totals will show a higher murder rate in most big cities. That happens almost every January, but you should probably read the headlines with a healthy dose of skepticism.

For example, in December of 2015, former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly charged that the current commissioner, William Bratton, was undercounting New York City’s gun crime totals by not counting people who were injured by broken glass caused by stray gunfire or those whose attire – but not their physical bodies – are pelted by bullets. Bratton, in response, said that such incidents have been ignored since the department started keeping track of shootings in 1994.

However, Commissioner Bratton added that both of these types of shooting crimes are counted as aggravated assaults in the statistics that were officially reported by the city to the FBI. Right there, federal crime statistics and New York City crime statistics don’t match up. The conflicting statistics make New York City a good example of what crime statistics can tell us – and also what crime statistics can’t tell us.

WHAT CRIME FIGURES ARE THE HEADLINES BASED ON?

Compiling and reporting crime statistics is a slow process. The headlines you see in January will be based on each city’s unofficial crime figures. Not all reported crimes, however, get reported to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system, the “official” national source for crime statistics, so UCR figures tend to be lower than “actual” crime figures. Furthermore, the FBI will not publish “official” 2016 crime numbers for more than 18,000 local police agencies until the fall of 2017.

Some police departments report “official” crime figures earlier in the year, but every police agency handles the process differently. Some issue a press release in the first week of January, some issue more detailed reports later in the year, and other police departments only release crime statistics on request. Each law enforcement agency handles information requests differently as well. The result: There are lots of “official” crime numbers, and they do not necessarily add up.

New York City, to no one’s surprise, is far from the only city where crime statistics can be confusing. In Oakland and Chicago in 2015, for example, homicides were up but overall crime was down. That’s not uncommon, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, which determined that overall crime declined in the largest U.S. cities in 2015 – except in Charlotte and Los Angeles – although the number of homicides increased in large cities. Homicide figures ran counter to overall crime figures in 2014 and 2013 as well.

WHAT DO CRIME FIGURES MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE PERSON?

What does this mean for the average person looking for information about local crime rates? Generally speaking, cities and communities with high homicide numbers also have high rates of violent crime and property crime, but there are plenty of exceptions and nuances that allow politicians and chambers of commerce to spin positive numbers when they need to. When those same politicians and chambers of commerce want more funding for law enforcement, they can spin the data negatively to justify the need for more funds.

Of course, as every New York and Long Island criminal defense attorney knows, a city as large as New York or a setting as diverse as Long Island is going to have low crime in some areas and higher crime in others. On his blog site, statistics professor Ben Wellington ranked 188 New York City neighborhoods for six different kinds of felony crimes based on the first nine months of 2015. Wellington found that a neighborhood’s ranking for homicides usually was a good indicator of the neighborhood’s ranking for assault and battery but seemed entirely unrelated to property crimes like auto theft.

Realistically, however, if you are concerned about becoming a crime victim, who you know may be a far more important factor than where you live. Police spokespersons in cities with rising homicide rates – including Portland, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C. – routinely remind the public that many homicide victims are gang members or people with criminal records and criminal associates.

WHAT ARE SOME ADDITIONAL PROBLEMS WITH CRIME DATA?

A further problem with crime statistics is the lack of a genuinely uniform reporting procedure. Often, whether or not a crime is reported or “counted” as a crime is left to the discretion – the subjective judgment call – of the police officer on the scene or that officer’s supervisor. There is no precise, codified definition – used across the board – for terms like “gun crimes” or “crimes of violence.” The FBI publication that tells local law enforcement agencies how to define crimes doesn’t even use the word “shooting,” and most police departments don’t count shooting homicides separately from stabbings, strangulations, and other homicides.

Media coverage is a related issue. Rising crime gets coverage. It brings out politicians seeking votes and community voices seeking action. It sells newspapers, garners ratings, and gets web-surfers to click on news sites. “Crime is up” is a front-page story, but if crime is dropping, it’s a story that’s invariably buried somewhere off the front page. Many police departments have been accused of tweaking their crime statistics, so even the “official” FBI numbers probably need to be questioned.

Unreported crime is another concern. Most people who tell poll and survey takers that they’ve been victims of crime added that they never reported the crime to the police. A theft victim may decide that the time and trouble of reporting the theft simply isn’t worth it. Prostitutes and drug dealers may not want to report some of the crimes committed against them, for obvious reasons. Underreporting of rape and sexual assault continues to be a major concern. Experts also believe that many – if not most – incidents of domestic abuse and domestic violence are never reported.

Another problem with crime statistics is fabricated crime accusations. Of course, anyone accused of a felony or a misdemeanor in the Long Island or New York City area will need the help of an experienced Long Island criminal defense attorney. However, anyone trying to learn something useful from the study of crime statistics will probably need more help than even a good attorney can provide.