Five months after the Los Angeles Times reported that LAPD misclassified 1,200 violent crimes as minor offenses over a 12-month period, the department reported (pdf) its first rise in serious transgressions in 12 years.
Aggravated assaults were up 24.2% in 2014 compared to the year before. Rapes jumped 13.9% while robberies and homicides moved slightly up. Overall, violent crimes were up 12.4%.
Aggravated assaults were at the heart of the Times investigation, published in August, which found police reports littered with mistakes that were either egregious errors or willful deceit. There were examples of men stabbing women with screwdrivers and scissors and having their cases classified as minor. The Times found a lot of the errors by doing a computer search of the documents using words like “knife” and “stab.”
Not nearly as many errors were found when less serious crimes were similiarly examined.
The Times said that as a result of its investigation the police department had tightened up its reporting policies. But LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said the stats were influenced by other factors. He cited a big jump in domestic abuse for the surging aggravated assault numbers.
The Times rebutted that. The newspaper agreed that domestic abuse reports quadrupled to more than 900 incidents, but noted the additional incidents made up less than half of the surge.
Although violent crimes were up, property crimes were down 4.4%. Burglaries, motor vehicle theft, thefts from vehicles and other thefts were all down single digits.
Crime statistics are often regarded by critics as a chimera, which the online Merriam-Webster defines as “something that exists only in the imagination and is not possible in reality.” They are subject to myriad influences, not the least of which is pressure by the powers that be to produce statistics that that are testimonials to the fine job being done by all. There are also ever-changing definitions of crime categories and the process of collection, that can innocently distort the picture.
New York City has trumpeted a policy called “Broken Windows,” which claims that tolerating small acts of criminality leads to rising serious crime numbers. NYPD and city officials have used the theory to justify enforcing the controversial stop-and-frisk and other aggressive police procedures that are being blamed by some for the racial tinderbox exposed there by the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, who has written extensively about crime and its causes, produced a couple of charts the other day that punched a few holes in “Broken Windows.” Yes, crime did drop precipitiously in New York during the ‘90s and the aughts after steep gains in the years preceding. And, yes, that coincided with the shift in policing policy.
But it also dropped just as much in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas that don’t use “Broken Windows.” Drum’s own theory, which has gained wide regard, is that the nationwide movement to reduce children’s exposure to lead is a prime reason for the drop in violent crime. Economist Jessica Reyes attributes (pdf) 56% of the reduction to phasing out lead.
But Dana Goldstein at the Marshall Project chronicled a range of ideas bandied about to explain the drop, including aging baby boomers, the popularity of Prozac, abortion legalization, the rise of in-home tech, a decline in the popularity of crack, an increase in the incarceration rate, more cops on the beat, immigration and gentrification.
There is a case to be made for each of them. It might be a crime to pick just one.