Crime statistics are malleable objects―their rise and fall subject to myriad influences, and not always a consistent reflection of criminal activities or police response.
According to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, a significant factor for LAPD in the measurement of serious and violent crime is cooked books.
A swarm of reporters at the newspaper poured through 94,000 officer reports between October 2012 and September 2013 and concluded that 2,000 serious crimes by FBI standards—these numbers go to Washington—were misclassified as minor. Seventy percent were violent and the rest were property crimes.
After running a sampling of its data past a team of experts, the paper reduced the number to 1,200 and showed the results to LAPD officials, who concurred and said they would fix the reporting.
The Times littered its report with individual cases of head-scratching misclassification that were clearly either egregious errors or willful deceit. A man stabbed his girlfriend with a scissors; another beat and stabbed his girlfriend with a screwdriver; another man beat a neighbor senseless with a metal bar. All were deemed minor offenses in the reports, although the prosecutor and courts usually thought otherwise.
One might expect that reporting errors would occur with minor offenses about as often as serious ones, but they were rare. A lot of the mistakes were found by searching the reports for words like “knife” and “stab.”
The LAPD did not need a newspaper to tell them that it had some problems with its crime reporting. Auditors have been telling them since at least 2009 that their numbers on aggravated assaults weren’t accurate.
Police departments have undergone enormous changes in crime reporting, driven, to a large extent, by the use of statistics to measure individual performance. It is not a phenomenum particular to law enforcement but apparently endemic to it.
John A. Eterno and Eli B. Silverman documented how widespread it was at the New York Police Department (NYPD) in their book, “The Crime Numbers Game: Management by Manipulation.” They interviewed 400 retired NYPD commanders who, like LAPD, used the CompStat system to report crime and Eterno painted this picture for Mother Jones:
“Once you have one ‘CompStat' meeting where they're screaming and yelling at you about your crime numbers, you get the hint and then you do what you can to make sure those numbers are looking the way they want them to.”
The numbers are not only used to impress the boss and the public. They are used to make policy decisions at the local, state and federal level about how to deploy limited resources in a dangerous world. They also muck up social research projects.
The FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR), which is built on statistical reporting from across the country, “has been the starting place for law enforcement executives, students of criminal justice, researchers, members of the media, and the public at large seeking information on crime in the nation.”
Under the best of conditions, crime reporting is a dicey endeavor. There are a lot of variables, including ever-changing definitions of crime categories and the process of collection, that can innocently distort the picture. Applying performance standards highly favored in the business world might not help.