Police underreport serious crime

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In North Baltimore, a car window was smashed and the vehicle ransacked. In Northeast, a woman was flung to the ground and cut by a masked man wielding a shard of broken glass. And in Southwest, a police officer responding to a 911 call burst into an apartment just in time to stop a rape.

In each instance, city police officers categorized the offenses as minor crimes: the first as destruction of property; the other two as simple assaults.

But internal auditors reviewing the cases determined that they were much more serious. The car break-in was upgraded to an attempted larceny; the street mugging became an aggravated assault; the attack on the woman in her home became an attempted rape.

These three were among thousands of 1999 police reports examined by auditors brought in by the O'Malley administration as part of an effort to verify crime figures and develop a clearer picture of violence in the city.

Last week, the Police Department released the audit's results, concluding that serious crime had been underreported by 14 percent. In all, it said, 9,572 more serious offenses were committed in Baltimore last year than originally reported to the public -- transforming a reported 10 percent decline into a 3.5 percent increase.

Police officials blamed the mistakes on poor training and said they found no indication that crimes were deliberately underreported to make the city appear safer, but they privately acknowledged that some serious cases might not have received the attention they deserved because of the way they were labeled.

How an offense is classified is also crucial to the department's credibility -- and its new statistical-based crime-fighting strategy that relies on accurate figures to pinpoint trends in criminal behavior.

"We want to have accurate figures so we can deploy our people based on sound data," said Maj. Walter J. Tuffy, who prepared the audit.

Several victims contacted last week were not aware that their cases, once considered relatively minor, were now deemed to be more serious, and they said it didn't matter much to them how police classified the crimes.

Carron Colbourne, 28, whose 1997 Nissan was broken into and ransacked in North Baltimore in May, had to pay more than $100 to have his passenger-side window replaced. "It was one of those things that happen," he said.

Tiffany Turner, 20, who was attacked by a man while walking to work in January 1999 and had her face cut with broken glass, said she didn't care under what category police put the crime. "The only thing that matters to me is that people like that should be caught and put behind bars," Turner said.

In the case of the thwarted sexual attack, which was classified for reporting purposes as a simple assault, the assailant was arrested at the scene and charged, nonetheless, with attempted rape. The man, a former boyfriend of the victim, pleaded guilty to felony assault as part of an agreement with prosecutors and was sentenced to eight years in prison -- with all but 11 days suspended.

Efforts to reach the victim in the case were unsuccessful.

Vital information

Knowing the exact type of crime occurring can be vital to the new police command, helping commanders not only understand how criminals work, but predict their next move.

A rash of automobile break-ins in a neighborhood, for example, can indicate desperate drug addicts searching for money or something to fence -- and signal to police that dealers might have moved into the area as well.

Listing those types of crimes as destruction of property can indicate something less dangerous, such as a group of juveniles running wild.

Professor Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie-Mellon University, said New York, where newly named Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris spent his career before coming to Baltimore in January, is the model in the use of statistics in cutting crime.

"Traditionally, chiefs haven't cared very much about crime statistics, other than as a public relations tool," said Blumstein, director of the federally funded National Consortium on Violence Research. "New York set an example of using them managerially."

The International Association of Chiefs of Police created a national system of annual crime reporting in 1930 as a way to put local trends in context. That system, called the Uniform Crime Report, was then taken over by the FBI. The FBI publishes a compendium of crime figures from 18,000 police agencies. Although the FBI collects data from major and minor categories of crime, called Part I and Part II, only the major crimes are included in its leading index used to measure whether crime is going up or down.

But the figures are not as exact or authoritative as they might seem. They are based on voluntary reports from individual agencies, which have periodically fudged their figures to make their policing seem more effective.

In Philadelphia, for example, thousands of crimes were purposely downgraded and police reports rewritten by supervisors to reclassify offenses, an investigation by the Inquirer found last year. They included rapes, which were coded "investigate persons" and not counted as crimes.

The revelations forced Philadelphia police to not only audit their reports, but to reopen previously closed cases that had never been investigated.

Baltimore has not been immune from scandal.

In 1964, an investigation by The Sun found that as many as half of all criminal complaints were not properly reported. Officers had a name for the practice of not reporting serious crimes. They called if "File 13" -- for forget it.

The report led to the forced retirement of the police chief and a series of sweeping reforms, including the creation of an internal investigations unit and the abolition of the requirement that only city residents could be considered as candidates for commissioner.

Seven years later, another investigation by The Sun found that police were altering the dollar amount of thefts in crime reports to keep them from being included in statistics on major crimes.

Michael D. Maltz, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the problem of downgrading crime usually stems from the top.

"The police chief says to his commanders, 'You're going to drop crime or you're out of your position,' because the mayor has told him to drop crime or he's out of his position," said Maltz, a visiting fellow at the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. "When there's pressure like that, it gets pushed down to street level."

But in Baltimore, officials -- including Mayor Martin O'Malley -- say they don't believe that the downgrades have been deliberate, but instead were the result of poor training and a lack of oversight. In 1994, former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier disbanded a unit that reviewed the way reports were classified, believing that reviews by street-level supervisors were sufficient.

"With staff review, at least we were all on the same page as to what was a crime and what wasn't," said Lt. Carmine R. Baratta Jr., who supervises Western District officers and reviews their reports.

A private consultant's report released last week said that almost half the officers who responded to a survey "believe that crime reports are often altered after the fact to downgrade incidents." The report did not elaborate.

No pressure felt

But more than a dozen officers, sergeants and lieutenants interviewed last week said that they felt no administrative pressure to downgrade reported crimes. All said they had received little training in how the FBI defines various categories of crimes.

Those definitions -- contained in an 88-page handbook that is supposed to be on every sergeant's desk but which supervisors say they rarely consult -- can be maddeningly nuanced.

For example, if one person throws an ashtray at another during an argument and misses, most officers would write up the crime as a simple assault. But the FBI handbook says the crime should be an aggravated assault because of the potential for serious injury.

Baltimore's audit found that 3,314 more aggravated assaults occurred than were first reported, with most of the increase coming from incidents misclassified as simple assaults.

In past years, as officials were unable to significantly reduce the city's murder rate, Frazier and former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke argued that the number of aggravated assaults, which they said was declining, gave a truer picture than homicides of violent crime. But Blumstein, the Carnegie-Mellon professor, said homicides are a far more reliable indication of social disorder because there is little room for argument about the crime. "I would much rather have the precise measure of homicide rather than the imprecise measure of aggravated assault."

One area the audit did not address was that of so-called "unfoundeds" -- instances where officers responded to calls for service but found that no crime had been committed.

Tuffy, who prepared the audit, said he had no indication of a problem in those responses, but added, "We do think it's an area to monitor."

Meanwhile, the auditors have begun reviewing reports for the first two months of this year, even as the Police Department enrolls supervisors in training sessions to help them better understand how to classify crimes and reinstates the disbanded inspections unit to review the reports.

Maltz, the University of Illinois at Chicago criminologist, suggested the Police Department go one step further. "I hope they do this [audit] once a year," he said. "A continuing audit would be a very useful thing to have to maintain in the Police Department, rather than doing it just once when there seems to be a problem."

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