Which crimes increased, which ones decreased in the suburbs in 2020
Among 81 suburban police departments, about half reported more violent crimes including murder, rape, robbery and assault in 2020 than what they averaged annually over the previous 10 years.
Property crimes, such as arson, burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft, are down from the 10-year average in nearly three quarters of those departments' reports.
That is despite a deluge of identity theft complaints many departments received because of unemployment benefit scams that surged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
From 2010 to 2019, the 81 suburban departments reported on average 2,558 violent crimes per year, but they handled a combined 2,670 crimes in 2020. That's the most in a single year since 2011.
Those departments reported on average 32,773 property crimes per year over the past decade, but they recorded 28,172 property crimes last year.
That's according to a Daily Herald analysis of recently released Uniform Crime Reports by the FBI.
"It probably would have been much lower, but we had a massive spike in (Illinois Department of Employment Security) identity theft complaints to account for what we saw," Northbrook Deputy Police Chief Mike Metrick said of the property crime tally. "That became such a massively frequent report that we created our own unique template for it, and of the 641 cases of identity theft we dealt with last year 98% were from that."
Naperville police said they handled 729 IDES-related identity theft complaints in December of 2020 alone.
"Otherwise our case numbers would be down, too," said Cmdr. Michaus Williams.
IDES officials said they've handled more than 2 million such complaints throughout the pandemic.
"If an individual reports that they have received a notice that an unemployment claim has been filed in their name, and they have not filed for benefits, the unemployment claim is stopped," said IDES spokesman William Gomberg. "IDES has stopped over 2 million fraudulent claims through use of reporting tools, data analytics and identity verification assets. Investigations into the perpetrators of identity theft fraud are handled by law enforcement, with cooperation from IDES."
Wheaton and Lake Zurich figures also spiked because of these scams. But it didn't happen in every suburb.
"We had a few, too, but we were directed to pass them along to the federal government and the attorney general's office," said Campton Hills Police Chief Steven Millar. "That's why they're not on our report."
Campton Hills, a department with eight sworn officers, reported a single violent crime in 2020 -- a robbery -- and just three property crimes.
While Campton Hills has rarely dealt with violent crimes over the years, Millar notes a steady decline in property crimes over the past decade that he attributes to programs his department put in place to help prevent residential burglaries and car break-ins.
"We cover 20 square miles and over 100 miles of road," he said. "We do have lots of crashes that we handle, and our residents want their own police department. They don't want to have to wait 30 minutes for a sheriff's deputy to show up."
Millar believes the uniform crime statistics don't show the full scope of a police department's value to the community, and he's not the only critic of the annual reports.
"Frankly, the chief problem with (it) in terms of its usefulness in both police agencies and research is how untimely the data are," said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and former head of the American Society of Criminology. "We're 10½ months into 2021 and we're just getting 2020 figures, and, as we know, crime rates can go up and down pretty abruptly."
And much like how some departments chose to include IDES-related identity theft complaints in their annual figures while others did not, there are many other data collecting shortfalls of these reports, Rosenfeld noted.
There is significant research that indicates many crimes, both violent and nonviolent, go unreported to police.
"The public always has to be reminded that these reports are only the crimes known to law enforcement," he said.
He also noted that the FBI's "hierarchy rule" of reporting crimes creates a data flaw.
An example is if a murder is committed in the course of a robbery that also happens to include an arson. Often, the robbery and arson won't be included in the statistics because the FBI requires only the murder be recorded since it is "the most serious offense in a case," according to the FBI.
The reports also don't show a department's arrest clearance rate.
In some cases, police say the data is just plain wrong.
Both the Bensenville and Round Lake Beach police departments acknowledged the figures reported on the FBI's website are incorrect. In the case of Bensenville, the figures appear to have been input incorrectly at some point between the department's reporting to the state and the state's uploading the information to the FBI. Bensenville police officials provided the Daily Herald with figures the department reported for 2020.
In Round Lake Beach, Deputy Chief Wayne Wilde blamed the error on "a switch in our records management system vendor," but he said a remedy is in the works.
Next year, the FBI is switching to a new system called NIBRS, the National Incident-Based Reporting System, that will take all charges in a case into account and provide more details on the types crimes, the relationships between the victims and offenders and the circumstances of the crimes.
Police officials use the FBI data to strategize policing efforts in communities. But many acknowledge the pandemic shifted the way criminals operate.
Home burglaries dropped off significantly, as did motor vehicle thefts, but robberies and carjackings increased.
"We've had an entire task force created among multiple surrounding counties because of the increase in carjackings," said Wheaton Deputy Police Chief Bob Miller. "This isn't just a Chicago problem. We've seen some of them targeting cars and following those people to their homes."
Lisle Police Chief Ron Wilke said every police department has seen a shift in the types of crimes to some extent.
"Most of our burglaries were reported during the daytime, but when the pandemic happened with more people at home, there isn't that opportunity anymore, and that would have something to do with the reduction," he said.
And while Lisle saw a spike in violent crimes in 2020, Wilke doesn't believe that's because criminals have become more brazen but rather due to a spate of bad luck.
"There were six to eight months where we were all shaking our heads wondering what's next," he said.
A shooting that killed one and injured two others at a cigar bar in the village in January of 2020 was one such crime that accounted for several of the department's 26 violent crimes reported in the 2020 report.
"Murder and shootings are an anomaly for us here," Wilke said. "And as you know, if you look at how every department reports things, you're not always going to see it done the same way. But I want there to be as clear a picture as possible."
State, national stats
At the state and national level, crimes are reported per capita. In 2020, there were 384 violent crimes reported per 100,000 people nationally. In Illinois, it was at 415 per 100,000.
Nationally, the violent crime rate was up 3.8% in 2020 from the annual average for the previous 10 years. In Illinois, it was a 2.7% increase.
For property crimes, 2020 saw a 23.8% dip nationally compared to the annual average between 2010 and 2019, and a drop of almost 30% in Illinois when compared to that 10-year average.
Chicago reported a rise in violent crimes from 2019, but the 2020 figure of 26,583 violent crimes is down 1% from the annual average for the previous 10 years.
Chicago police officials also reported a nearly 38% drop in property crimes compared to the 10-year average in 2020.