The Cautionary Instruction: Crime rates influenced by reporting practices

Friday, 20 July 2012 06:00 AM Written by  Matt

20120720_policestatsB_photocom87610029_150Last fall, I posed the following question: Is there a black market in victimization -- an underground crime industry that is neither reported to police nor disclosed in a victimization survey? Can a culture of not cooperating with police have an impact on crime rates?

The question seemed relevant -- what we heard about crime rates did not jibe with what we were feeling in neighborhoods across the country.

The FBI's Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report for 2011 found that violent crime declined for the fifth consecutive year.  Despite the reports, a majority of Americans continued to believe that the nation's crime problem was getting worse. In 2011, sixty-eight percent of Americans said that crime increased over the previous year.

There is an unsettling influence on crime rates; it’s not a seamy underground crime industry, but rather law enforcement itself ...

In New York City, an anonymous survey of nearly 2,000 retired police officers found that the manipulation of crime reports -- downgrading crimes to lesser offenses and discouraging victims from filing complaints to make crime statistics look better -- has long been part of the department’s culture.

“I think our survey clearly debunks the Police Department’s rotten-apple theory,” Eli B. Silverman, one of the survey’s authors told the New York Times. The rotten-apple theory was the argument that very few officers manipulated crime statistics. “This really demonstrates a rotten barrel,” added Silverman.

Crime reporting manipulation is not new, nor is it isolated to a few big city police departments. In the last 15 years crime reporting issues have surfaced in Atlanta, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Broward County, FL and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Some law enforcement practitioners blame the “fudge factor.” Politicians cajole police chiefs and supervisory staff to get crime numbers down. The practice invites precinct commanders to make it appear as though crime has dropped when in fact crime actually increased. Fudging an aggravated assault down to criminal mischief or robbery down to theft can have a dramatic impact on violent crime rates.

In Milwaukee, a Journal-Sentinel investigation found rampant police under-reporting of violent crime. A subsequent internal police department audit showed more than 5,300 violent assaults were misreported since 2006. The audit revealed that 20 percent of aggravated assaults were under-reported as lesser crimes and were not counted in Milwaukee’s violent crime rate during that period.

Police Chief Edward Flynn contends the errors in reporting violent crime were bureaucratic mistakes and not an effort to manipulate data. Flynn said the coding errors will be sent to the FBI for revision, meaning last year’s touted decrease in violent crime was actually an increase.

(Top image: Thinkstock/Getty Images)


Matthew T. Mangino is the former district attorney of Lawrence County. He currently serves on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. He is a featured columnist for the Pennsylvania Law Weekly and a regular contributor to the Youngstown Vindicator. You can read his musings on crime and punishment at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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