Reporter Ben Poston of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (May 23, 2012) has done some fine investigative reporting and concluded that “the Milwaukee Police Department has misreported hundreds of aggravated assaults as lesser crimes, lowering the city’s violent crime rate.” It is a story worth following because it is one of the four obstacles I identified in my book which has arrested the development of our nation’s police. Poston’s investigation is worth following.
You can read the entire article, “Crime Drop?’ at: http://www.jsonline.com/watchdog/watchdogreports/state-local-officials-seek-audit-of-flawed-milwaukee-crime-numbers-h15has4-153276775.html
In my book I wrote this about misreporting crimes, on the eastcoast it’s called, “jukin’ the stats” and it is becoming a way of life for many of our nation’s police departments. Misrepresenting crime data is being dishonest with the public. It is a form of corruption and needs to be stopped and eliminated.
In a recent interview, veteran journalist Bill Moyers talked with David Simon, creator of the popular HBO series The Wire. Simon, a former journalist and police reporter, talked about evaluation. Simon mentioned the propensity of corporations, governments, and their agencies to “juke their stats”—that is, to alter data so that it appeared that they were doing well, even when they weren’t. The following dialogue is from an episode from The Wire, in which “Prez” Pryzbylewski, a cop turned teacher, has an exchange with the school principal about numbers and teacher evaluation:
Principal: So for the time being, all teachers will devote class time to teaching language arts sample questions. Now, if you turn to page eleven, please, I have some things I want to go over with you.
Prez: I don’t get it—all this so we score higher on the state tests? If we’re teaching the kids the test questions, what is it assessing in them?
Teacher: Nothing—it assesses us. The test scores go up, they can say the schools are improving. The scores stay down, they can’t.
Prez: Juking the stats.
Teacher: Excuse me?
Prez: Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before. [i]
In his interview with Moyers, Simon further reflects on his life as a journalist and police reporter:
“You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America, school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, arrest stats, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on. And as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is… a police commissioner or a deputy commissioner can get promoted, and a major can become a colonel, and an assistant school superintendent can become a school superintendent, if they make it look like the kids are learning, and that they’re solving crime. And that was a front-row seat for me as a reporter. Getting to figure out how the crime stats actually didn’t represent anything, once they got done with them.”[ii]
I spent a good deal of my time as police chief trying to teach members of the media, as well as elected officials and community members, what exactly crime was and what it meant. To remind them that a numerical increase or decrease didn’t necessarily mean that crime was actually up or down. I didn’t juke the stats nor pressure my officers about reducing these imaginary numbers.
A reported numerical increase (as the UCR shows) could instead mean citizens have more confidence in the police to solve crime, and therefore are now reporting it. On the other hand, a decrease in the rate of reporting could indicate not that crime is down but that police are underreporting various crimes by labeling them as lesser offenses; a practice which many believe to be standard operating procedure in most American cities today.
For example, an attempted burglary might be classified as a vandalism; a forcible rape as an assault; a homicide as a sudden death. Each of these instances of downgrading would move a crime from the UCR’s closely watched eight Part I Offenses category to the lesser considered category of Part II Offenses.[iii] A decrease in reported crime could also mean that citizens have less confidence in the police to do anything about it and, therefore, simply don’t bother to report it.
The fact is that none of us can make a valid judgment one way or another when it comes to analyzing reported crime as the data are presently collected. However, there are more valid statistical methods in existence to determine actual, not simply reported, rates of crime. This method uses a statistical sampling of citizens, rather than relying on offenses that are reported to the police and that the police in turn report. Yet America and their police still are wedded to this archaic method of data collection and evaluation in spite of the existence of more effective and truer methods of measurement.
That said, and despite my years of educating the media, I don’t think many of them wanted to abandon the simplistic aspect of being able to report crime being either up or down—the data released by the UCR. Remember, when you hear crime is either up or down, it really isn’t a very good way to evaluate how your police are doing. You need to ask more questions.