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For years, San Diego police have been touting falling crime rates alongside their efforts to become a more efficient agency. But now, after a few months of rising crime, police say they need more money or crime will spike.

It’s no small request from the cash-strapped city of San Diego. Police want an additional $66 million over the next five years to hire more officers and other staff, upgrade their equipment and repair facilities.

And to support the need for this expense, police have been citing a recent shift in violent crime (murders, rapes, robberies and assaults). Between January and May this year, police reported 12.6 percent more crimes than the same period the previous year.

“It’s starting to get away from us a little bit,” Police Chief Bill Lansdowne told a City Council committee Wednesday. “It’s my professional belief that the crime rate will continue to rise.”

While the department’s statistic accurately reflects its crime reports, the figure distorts broader crime trends in San Diego. In its push for more funding, police compared current crime levels against one of the most unusual periods in city history.

The graphic below illustrates the number of violent crimes per month since January 2008. The areas shaded in blue represent the scope of the Police Department’s comparison, and the areas shaded in purple represent the same five-month period in three previous years.

The big takeaway: The five-month period in 2011 that police are comparing this year’s numbers to marked one of the lowest periods of violent crime in years. If you compare the current year to 2008 or 2009, crime has gone down. If you compare it to 2010, crime is nearly the same.

Criminologists generally discourage comparing crime over short periods like the Police Department did. They put more weight behind annual totals since crime can fluctuate radically in a matter of months.

If you compare violent crime over the past year like criminologists often do, the Police Department’s warning to the City Council evaporates. In the past 12 months, police reported 5,359 violent crimes. In the 12 months before that, they reported 5,392 crimes.

So between the two years, crime decreased slightly. It didn’t go up.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about local government, creates infographics and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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