Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Evaluating Crime Statistics

Usually in January and February, local law enforcement agencies begin to present the preceding year's crime report to the governing bodies and the public. It is helpful to better understand the data in these reports, because often the reports are used to suggest a need for increased budgets and personnel. Elected officials like to cite the statistics when the figures appear to show how safe their community is. Much of the data reported is inadequate for drawing reliable conclusions leading to budgetary or personnel changes, and in the absence of additional information, the figures do not correlate with community safety.

The closest thing to a national standard for crime reporting is the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) including the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). NIBRS takes advantage of better police reporting system and offers richer and more meaningful data than the UCR. Both are administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The purpose of these systems is to standarize the reporting. To best depict total crime and to provide the most meaningful data to police administrators, it was determined that the UCR Program would specifically collect data on known offenses and persons arrested by police departments. Findings of a court, coroner, jury, or the decision of a prosecutor are not recorded since the intent of the data collection is specifically to assist in identifying the law enforcement problem. The guidelines for preparing and submitting this data come from theUniform Crime Reporting Handbook.

The Coeur d'Alene Police Department's 2003 Crime Report, presumably prepared and reported according to UCR/NIBRS standards, is available on the Idaho State Police website.

But that is not the only report prepared by the Coeur d'Alene Police Department. It also prepared a report for more public consumption, presented at a city council meeting. That version of the Coeur d'Alene Police Dept. 2003 Annual Report is on the city's website. The format and data included in this report was determined by the Police Chief and the City Council. The department and city produce this report voluntarily.

It is important to understand that the value of the data in either report is only as good as the accuracy, completeness, consistency, and timeliness of reporting by the agency. Unfortunately, not all police and sheriff's departments report data according to the handbook standards. In some instances, this incorrect reporting has been intentional. For example, on January 15, 2005, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in an article headlined When is a crime not really a crime? by Jeremy Kohler that the St. Louis Police Department was caught intentionally underreporting certain crimes. Why? Well, one paragraph from the articles states:
While the use of memos (ed.: instead of formal crime reports) does not appear to be illegal, it clearly violates FBI standards for reporting crimes in a national compilation widely used for comparisons among cities. The effect makes St. Louis appear safer than it is - both to its own residents and to outsiders.
Interpreting the data in the UCR/NIBRS report can be challenging and requires understanding some of the terminology used and the rules which must be followed when data is submitted.

Crimes can properly be cleared by arrest or cleared exceptionally.

The term "cleared by arrest" or solved for crime reporting purposes when at least one person is (1) arrested, or (2) charged with the commission of the offense and turned over to the court for prosecution (whether following arrest, court summons, or police notice). Although no physical arrest is made, a clearance by arrest can be claimed when the offender is a person under 18 years of age and is cited to appear in juvenile court or before other juvenile authorities.

The term "exceptional clearance" means that in certain situations, law enforcement was not able to follow the steps outlined under "clearance by arrest" to clear offenses known to them, even though all leads have been exhausted, and everything possible has been done in order to obtain a clearance. For crime reporting purposes, if the following questions can all be answered "yes," the offense can then be cleared "exceptionally."

1. Has the investigation definitely established the identity of the offender?
2. Is there enough information to support an arrest, charge, and turning over to the court for prosecution?
3. Is the exact location of the offender known so that the subject could be taken into custody now?
4. Is there some reason outside law enforcement control that precludes arresting, charging, and prosecuting the offender?

If we look at burglary in the Coeur d'Alene Police Department's 2003 Crime Report, we see that there were 348 burglaries reported. Of those, 76 were cleared. In the next column we can see that there were 28 adult burglary arrests made, so by subtracting the number of adult and juvenile burglary arrests made (34) from the number reported (76), we can conclude there were 76-34 or 42 burglaries cleared by exceptional means. Astute observers often ask police chiefs to more fully explain high numbers of cases cleared exceptionally.

Occasionally, persons who do not understand the limitations of crime data will try to use it to make qualitative assessments about their law enforcement agencies. Simply put, the UCR/NIBRS reported data do not indicate how well or how poorly the reporting agency is doing its job. The are many other variables not reflected in the data that will significantly affect performance assessment.

ADDENDUM (added 01/20/2005 09:35 PST)

The January 19, 2005, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch carried an article headlined Police memos weren't meant as deception, panel finds. This article is a follow-on to the one cited earlier in this post. Its lead paragraph reads, "A panel that studied St. Louis police crime reporting concluded Wednesday that the department had made mistakes but had not tried to fool the public about the city's safety." Based on the newspaper's investigation and reporting of the police department's use of "memo reports" instead of "incident reports", the police chief ordered the department to stop using the "memo reports" and convert last year's "memo reports" to "incident reports." As a result of the mandated conversion, detectives now, "...have applied for criminal charges against suspects in at least two sexual crimes that originally were described in memos and filed away, officials said."

One of the panel members recalculated the city's reported crime rate after the "memo reports" were converted to "incident reports." His finding was that the city's crime rate would have increased by one-third of 1 percent had the correct reporting been done initially.

The panel's composition with members' names and titles was reported in a January 19 Post-Dispatch sidebar article headlined Panel insisted it was not a public agency.


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