Fudge factor: Cooking the books on crime stats
What do police report writing and fudge have in common?
Earlier this year, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman told me that he believes the biggest problem facing law enforcement today is altered crime stats. He encouraged me to write about it. What I discovered was alarming. Maybe some of you are already well aware of the matter.
Crime data collection, analysis, and pinpointed response help law enforcement agencies fight crime. CompStat is one of the best known such tools for police.
First implemented in New York City in the 1990s, it was intended to map crime and identify problems. NYPD execs would meet with local precinct commanders to discuss the problems and devise strategies and tactics to reduce crime in their assigned area. Resources were then deployed as planned. The regular meetings guaranteed fierce follow-up.
Accountability Sounds Great
What CompStat didn’t anticipate is what Robert Zink, Recording Secretary for NYPD’s police union, called the ‘fudge factor’ — the manipulation of Compstat data to make it falsely appear that crime rates have been reduced. Here’s just a sampling:
1.) In 1996, there was a concerted effort to conceal the magnitude of crime in Atlanta during the Summer Olympics selection process. An audit in 2003 revealed that 22,000 crimes were left out of reports for the previous year.
• Don’t file reports
An admittedly-insidious recipe for fudging the numbers is to make it hard (or impossible) for people to report crimes. Specific recipes include:
• Logging rapes as “inconclusive incidents”
Nor are the FBI’s stats immune from manipulation, irrespective of intent. In her article How the FBI and DOJ Minimize Child Sexual Abuse Reporting Dr. Judith Reisman demonstrates how changes in data category definitions can result in misleading data.
Fudge Still on the Menu?
The Phoenix police union also openly questioned the PD’s kidnapping statistics, especially the number of kidnappings for ransom.
Context is everything. In 2008, the Phoenix PD reported 358 kidnappings. The brass said it was a border crime wave that would sweep the nation.
Testifying before Congress, the then Mayor and Public Safety manager reported there was a kidnapping for ransom in the city “every night.” They said they’d need federal money to fight the problem and they got $2.4 million in grants. Phoenix got dubbed the “Kidnapping Capitol of the U.S.”
While it did not find evidence of intentional inflation, the OIG concluded that the Department did not follow its own reporting requirements. Through public records requests, the TV station found internal emails and records that showed police leaders internally counted far fewer kidnappings for ransom.
Just last month in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election, fudged crime stats reared its head when a newspaper’s investigation revealed that Milwaukee police record clerks routinely changed computer codes by hand in a way that removed serious assaults from the city's violent crime rate. This was done even when the department's computer system flagged the incidents as cases where an aggravated assault classification was warranted because a dangerous weapon was used.
That allowed Mayor Tom Barrett and Police Chief Edward Flynn to tout reducing serious assaults four consecutive years. The reduced crime claim became a much bigger matter when Barrett ran against incumbent Scott Walker in the recall election watched by the nation.
Getting Fat on Fudge?
I asked a colleague who serves on the IACP Ethics Committee, Dr. Patricia Robinson, whether the problem of fudged crime stats has ever been addressed at an IACP Conference or by the Ethics Committee. She said it hasn’t in the last 10 years that she’s been involved.
I found two articles online in Police Chief magazine by then Nashville Chief Ronal Serpas, one in 2004 and one in 2008 which addressed how police leaders could make CompStat accountable. Neither directly discussed fudged numbers.
In an interesting twist, while Chief Serpas was claiming to the Nashville Metro Council that his department had won of the best crime solving records in the country, in May 2010 a local TV station’s investigation included an outside expert’s analysis that the department appeared to be “fudging” the stats and statements from officers that they were just doing what their commanders told them, playing a numbers game to make their precincts look good to the chief.
Serpas went on to become Chief of the New Orleans Police Department where, in January 2011, his tenure in Nashville came under scrutiny amid revelations that the department downgraded hundreds of sexual assault reports. A Nashville news station also reported that while Serpas told citizens that burglaries were flat in 2008 and assaults, rapes, and larcenies were down, tallies by the FBI and state police agency showed jumps in those crimes in Nashville.
Who’s Getting Skinny?
Just this year, NYPD Sergeant Robert Borrelli was transferred to the graveyard shift at Bronx Central Booking after telling IA that cops in his old Queens precinct routinely downgraded crimes to keep the crime rate artificially low. Borelli even produced the paperwork as proof. The department’s Quality Assurance Division upgraded some of the crimes from misdemeanors to felonies which Borrelli said earned him his “highway therapy.”
Sgt. Borrelli has company. NYPD Officer Adrian Schoolcraft claims he was forcibly taken from his home and involuntarily put in a mental hospital where he spent six days — in retaliation for complaining his supervisors were cooking the books to make the crime rate seem lower. A 95-page internal report produced seven months later founded some of Schoolcraft’s fears. Schoolcraft also released secret audiotapes in which he recorded precinct brass urging cops to cook the books. He remains suspended without pay.
Now, You Weigh In
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