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Police admit data errors on shootings Department blames computer system for overstating incidents; 'A level of inaccuracy'; Commissioner says audit will support claim of sharp drop

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore police acknowledge errors in calculating city shootings statistics, a finding that could undermine Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's claim that shootings have dropped nearly 60 percent since his arrival.

Police blame their miscalculations on a 20-year-old computer system that they said mistakenly counted 1993 incidents

involving guns as shootings. The department acknowledged the errors after The Sun found discrepancies during a review of police statistics on shootings.

A police audit found that the department over-reported the number of shootings for two months in 1993 by 25 percent. The significance of the finding is that the department used those figures as a base to compare subsequent years.

But department administrators caution critics from concluding that shootings for all of 1993 were overstated until an audit can be completed. Frazier said he is confident that the audit will back his announcement that shootings dropped nearly 60 percent from 1993 to 1997.

"We code 600,000 reports a year and there will be data entry errors in that volume of reporting," Frazier said. "You take two months, multiply it by six and call me a liar and that is a flawed methodology."

But the department's concession of significant errors for the two months studied promises to fuel speculation over whether police administrators knew they were using faulty figures when announcing the decline in shootings to the public last year.

The culprit, the department said, is a computer system called the Management Information System, or MIS. It was established 20 years ago to organize annual city crime statistics for the FBI.

The FBI doesn't require cities to report shootings as a separate category. The bureau includes shootings in aggravated assaults. But many cities, including Baltimore, have begun tracking shootings as a way to gauge violence.

The problem, Baltimore police statisticians say, is that the MIS system wasn't designed to isolate shooting reports. In 1996, the department developed a reporting mechanism that retrieved shooting statistics more accurately at the district level.

The initial two-month police review shows that the department compared more accurate 1996 figures with faulty 1993 calculations that overstated the number of shootings, raising the disparity to nearly 60 percent.

"Anyone who deals with this MIS information accepts the fact that there is going to be a level of inaccuracy," said retired Lt. John Tewey, who collected 1996 shooting data as commander of the department's Violent Crimes Task Force.

Numbers a guide

"You use it as a guide," Tewey said of the MIS figures. "I don't think anybody is willing to go to the bank with it."

Questions over the reported decline in shootings surfaced last month after City Councilman Martin O'Malley accused Frazier of perpetuating a "massive hoax" on the city by fabricating police statistics to make Baltimore appear safer.

O'Malley compared police shooting reports for November 1993 and November 1996. He alleged that shootings were over-reported by 30 percent under Frazier's predecessor, Edward V. Woods. The department then intentionally under-reported shootings in 1996 by a similar 30 percent to show the 60 percent decline, O'Malley said.

O'Malley, a former prosecutor who chairs the council's Legislative Oversight Committee, has asked for additional shooting reports to study September 1993 and September 1996.

Figures reviewed

The Sun reviewed police shooting reports from November 1993 that showed the department over-counted shootings by 18 percent. The department's review for September and November shows that police over-reported shootings by 25 percent.

The department said its finding translates into a decline of 34 percent, about 25 percentage points lower than what Frazier proclaimed.

Police warn, however, that further comparison of shooting reports for the two years will likely result in the discovery of shootings that were mistakenly left off the MIS tally, errors that will make up for over-reporting.

Frazier points to city homicide statistics to show one cannot draw conclusions from two months of data. In May 1997, the city had 36 homicides. Multiplying that figure by 12 results in a yearly total of 432. Yet the number of homicides in the city last year was 310.

"The statistical logic is faulty," Frazier said.

No intent to deceive

During the past three years, police chiefs across the nation have been under increased pressure to show a drop in crime because of reductions made in big cities such as New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles. Two weeks ago, the Boca Raton, Fla., police chief resigned after investigators found that his department altered 400 crime reports in 1997 to make the city appear more safe.

Despite acknowledging that shootings statistics were over-reported for two months in 1993, Baltimore police deny intentionally misleading the public about city safety.

Frazier was a San Jose police administrator before joining the Baltimore department in February 1994. When he arrived, he had to address complaints that the department was unable to cope with a spiraling crime rate that led to a record number of homicides in 1993 and Woods' dismissal.

The commissioner announced the nearly 60 percent drop in shootings last year based on the findings of his administrators, he said. "I don't have any way in the world of knowing what those numbers are going to be," he said. "What they are are what they are."

'Apples and oranges'

Frazier's denial has not halted O'Malley's contention that someone in the department knew the shooting calculations were faulty. O'Malley, who called for the dismissal of Woods six years ago, has called Frazier's crime-fighting strategies a failure.

"It doesn't change the fact that they were comparing apples and oranges and that they were cognizant of it," said O'Malley, of the 3rd District. "If you under-report your taxes by 30 percent, the IRS calls that per se fraud."

Jack Maple, a former New York City police officer who works as a consultant with the New Orleans Police Foundation, is credited with establishing the crime-fighting strategy that caused the dramatic drop in homicides, shootings and crime in New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles.

The system, which the press has dubbed "zero tolerance," relies tracking shootings and other crime statistics to concentrate police patrols. Maple rejects the Baltimore Police Department's contention that city shootings dropped nearly 60 percent from 1993 to 1997 while homicides remained with a range of from 300 to 350 per year.

"That's absurd," said Maple, who also is consulting with police in Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia to reduce crime in those cities. "Did criminals become better shots over the last three years? Where did they take their target practice?"

Murder, shooting rates

A panel of city health experts concluded that killers were using bigger guns and firing multiple times from closer range. But Maple contends that the drop in shootings should match the 12 percent decline in homicides that appears when comparing 1993 figures with those from 1997. "Murders and shootings should come down at the same rate," Maple said. "

Baltimore police recently searched the nation for other departments experiencing similar drops in shootings while homicides rose or dropped at a slower rate.

They reported finding seven -- most based on a drop in aggravated assaults, which include nonfatal shootings.

"The trend of increasing homicides with decreasing shootings may seem to defy logic, but it is not unprecedented," Frazier said in a letter to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on May 12. The examples include Indianapolis, which reported a homicide jump of 56 percent in 1994 while "gun assaults" declined 8 percent.

Figures elsewhere

The Miami-Dade Police Department reported a 7 percent increase in homicides in 1995 while nonfatal shootings dropped 17 percent. It happened again in 1997, when slayings went up 8 percent and shootings dropped 22 percent. "I would call it an unexplained phenomenon," Miami Detective Ed Mann said.

Baltimore police administrators complain about the time and expense required to answer O'Malley's accusations. The two-month review of shooting statistics has cost the city $20,000 in staff time to pull records. To compare both years will cost an estimated $240,000, an effort that Frazier said prevents his department from doing its real job -- fighting crime.

Whatever the review shows, Frazier said the city is safer since his arrival. During the past two years, Baltimore has reported drops in overall crime of 7 percent in 1996 and 11 percent last year.

'City is safer'

"The city is significantly safer," Frazier said. "It's absolutely obvious to this city that the Police Department is doing a good job."

Finding the true difference in 1993 and 1997 shootings will take some time. Frazier and O'Malley vow to continue reviewing and comparing the shooting figures until an accurate count can be determined.

'Credibility at stake'

"The credibility of every single person on this Police Department is at stake," Frazier said.

City Comptroller Joan Pratt has begun her audit of Baltimore shootings data, with the state police and FBI offering assistance.

Tewey, the former police statistician, said that flaws in the department's MIS shooting calculations before 1996 might be found. But he defends Frazier, saying the chief in no way intentionally misled the public.

"It's the tools you had and you improve your tools," Tewey said of MIS. "And that's what we did."

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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