The police report describes what appears to be a serious crime — a youth mob rushes a downtown 7-Eleven to capitalize on a free Slurpee promotion, steals candy, punches the store owner and possibly takes an envelope from his pocket filled with $6,600 in cash.
But a closer look at two, nearly identical reports distributed by the Baltimore Police Department raises some questions. The incident is classified both as a petty larceny and a common assault, and not as a commercial robbery [read the full report here and decide for yourself].
The difference may seem trivial but in the world of police statistics, it's significant. Larcenies and common assaults are called "Part II crimes," and don't get counted to the state police and FBI as violent or serious. When year-end statistics are released, classified this way, this attack at the 7-Eleven won't be among the numbers.
And with all the talk about downtown crime and youth mobs of late, and whether police are hiding attacks from the public to preserve the image of the Inner Harbor and other tourist areas, this classification issue looms large.
In classifying robberies and thefts, police long ago ditched attaching a monetary cut-off to sort by category. Too many cops were simply lowering the estimated value of items taken to turn a felony robbery into a misdemeanor theft.
Now, it doesn't matter whether someone takes a 50 cent candy bar or an envelope stuffed with $6,000. What matters is whether there's any violence connected to the crime. A shoplifting becomes a robbery when the store clerk gets hit.
Here's the guidance the FBI gives to police departments:
"In the absence of force or threat of force, as in pocket-picking or purse-snatching, the offense must be classified as larceny-theft rather than robbery. However, if in a purse-snatching or other such crime, force or threat of force is used to overcome the active resistance of the victim, the offense must be classified as strong-arm robbery (3d)."
"A juvenile was observed by a store security guard concealing compact discs under his shirt. When he was confronted, the youth punched the security guard and fled the store, leaving the compact discs behind."
So, with this definition in mind, how does Wednesday's flash-mob become a petty larceny and common assault? And why two reports?
These aren't simple questions.
Police have broken this incident into two parts. Up to 40 youths walked into the 7-Eleven on Light Street, near the Inner Harbor, to get their free Slurpees. Another group of youths followed and started to take candy off the shelves, according to police.
The owner rushed to block the door but all the kids who had taken candy got out and scattered. That left the original group, holding their free drinks, trapped inside. They became angry and pushed their way out, punching the owner in the mouth and hitting him on his arms and back.
When everybody was gone, the manager told police that the envelope with the $6,600 was missing from his pocket. Police said they checked video surveillance tapes but found no evidence that any youth reached into his pocket.
Said Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi: "The video shows exactly what the kids did. It also shows them leaving the store. It does not show them going through his pockets. They stole candy. There is a minor assault. The other part, the cash part, is still open."
That's why two reports were written, and distributed publicly. The petty larceny was the taking of the candy, basically a shoplifting. The assault was the youths, who had nothing to do with the shoplifting, trying to get out of the store.
Instead of violence leading to a robbery there were two separate, but lessor crimes, committed, police say.
Michael Maltz, at the Criminal Justice Research Center at Ohio State University, and an expert on the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting system, said Baltimore police should categorize the 7-Eleven incident as a serious crime.
"I would call that a robbery," he said, after reviewing the police report. "It sounds like the Police Department is parsing it into two different events."
Maltz was quoted in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story in which the paper uncovered 500 serious crimes misreported to the FBI as minor. It's significant because the omissions allowed city leaders to tout a decrease in crime, when actually there had been an increase, the newspaper found.
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But Charles Welford, a criminologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, noted that police can, and often do, re-categorize crime labels. “There is an initial classification, then there is a review, then there is more follow up,” he said. “In the end, there should be a final determination. The classification can change during the course of an investigation.”
And that's precisely what Guglielmi, the city police spokesman, said will happen. Initial offense reports, typically written by patrol officers, go through what is called exhaustive staff review at several levels, and could, in the end, be listed as a robbery. Part of that process is to make sure the reports are properly classified. That process takes time, and is why many police departments don't release statistics until at least six months after the year has ended, to ensure the numbers they give to the public match what they gave to the FBI.
Proper labeling is important for another reason as well, by sending internal signals about how seriously to investigate a crime. A destruction of property complaint probably will not get a detective assigned, but if the destruction was caused by bullets fired from a gun, it might attract greater, and more urgent attention.
"If the officer's initial classification is incorrect, it will be flagged once the report arrives in Central Records for the official UCR review," Guglielmi said of the 7-Eleven incident. "Criminal charges, when applicable, would be determined in consultation with the States Attorneys Office."
Baltimore police have had their own issues with allegations of downgrading crime. The Baltimore Sun's Justin Fenton reported in 2010 problems with the way police categorized rapes. He found that the city recorded the highest percentage of rape cases that officers conclude are false or baseless of any city in the country. The revelations led to changes in how reports are taken and labeled.
Residents can feel crime downgraded in other ways as well. If someone fires a guy but doesn't hit anything, police classify it as "discharging" and don't write a report. For anyone attempting to find out what happened, such as why they heard gunfire outside their front door, the process can be aggravating. Police will say there was no shooting — a term reserved for a successful strike.
A similar scenario occurred earlier this month when residents reported a fight at Patterson Park. By the time officers got there, it had broken up. No report was written, and angry residents complained that the incident would be forgotten, and hidden. Police assured that the fight was very much on their radar, even it if it wasn't listed in a official report.