Decline in city shootings disputed Police reply angrily to O'Malley's charge

meeting set today

'A personal attack'

March 26, 1998|By Peter Hermann and Gerard Shields | Peter Hermann and Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Gady A. Epstein contributed to this article.

A Baltimore city councilman who has a running feud with the police chief labeled a reported drop in city shootings a "massive hoax" yesterday, prompting police denunciation of the accusations as an "affront to anyone who wears a badge."

The verbal exchange set off another rancorous debate between Councilman Martin O'Malley and Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who have been at odds for two years over city crime-fighting strategies and policing.

O'Malley contends that Frazier not only underreported shootings over the past four years but purposely inflated his predecessor's 1993 shooting numbers to dramatize the decline during his tenure.

O'Malley has asked council members to a special meeting of the Legislative Investigations Committee today at City Hall, which will be open to the public, to discuss the findings.

"I regret to inform [committee] members that after a year of investigation it would appear that the often-heralded decline in city shootings has been a massive hoax," the Northeast Baltimore Democrat said in a letter dated Tuesday.

Frazier's chief spokesman, Robert W. Weinhold Jr., called O'Malley's thick report an "uninformed, incorrect analysis which flies in the face of logic. It is a personal attack on the police commissioner and this agency as a whole."

O'Malley's review calls Frazier's integrity into question for hailing a drop in shootings from an all-time high of 2,488 in 1993 to 1,543 three years later.

"Either they are lying or they are extremely confused," the councilman said. "I am hard-pressed to believe that they are extremely confused."

The dispute centers on discrepancies between two sets of statistics kept by the department.

One set contains figures for a broad category of serious offenses called aggravated assaults, of which shootings are a part. Police officials say that while the overall numbers are accurate, figures for various subgroups are unverified and often inaccurate.

The other set lists figures only for shootings, and is carefully verified by a special police task force whose members enter each victim and incident into a computerized database.

In making his allegation, O'Malley relied on statistics from the first category. Comparing those figures to police reports, he concluded that 38 percent more people got shot during one month in 1996 than showed up in police statistics.

"What this should do is give the public a better picture of violence on our streets and a truer picture of the success, or lack of success, of this administration's public safety policies over the last few years," O'Malley said.

Police officials responded yesterday with a detailed accounting of the way they compile statistics, to assure that every person struck by a bullet within city limits has been properly recorded.

They said O'Malley located cases that appeared to have been missed in the final tally of shootings because the data he relied on were flawed.

"He did a good job in finding them," said Lt. Wesley R. Wise, who runs the department's Management Information System. "But we knew about them. The commissioner knew about them. They were counted in the year-end statistics. And they were investigated."

O'Malley has feuded with Frazier for years, criticizing him for failing to implement so-called "zero tolerance" policing credited with crime reduction in New York and for the chief's reluctance to arrest drug addicts for simple possession.

The sparring has grown petty at times, with Frazier balking at attending City Council hearings and sending midlevel supervisors instead of top commanders to answer questions at City Hall. Police commanders said yesterday that O'Malley's requests cost taxpayers $10,000.

The veracity of shooting statistics has been privately questioned by some police officials and politicians, sparked by unsubstantiated accusations that police were counting multiple shooting incidents as one to make their numbers lower.

But O'Malley's several-hundred-page compilation of police reports, spreadsheets and hospital data is the first attempt to prove whether the statistics are accurate. The two sides spent yesterday hurling numbers around trying to prove their point.

O'Malley said he requested a list of shooting victims from November 1996 and received 56 names and report numbers. He then scanned newspaper accounts and found additional incidents that didn't correspond. He pulled those reports and says he discovered that 86 people had been shot that month -- 30 more than reported by police.

But police officials say the data O'Malley used, on aggravated assaults, are often too high because they count every assault in which a gun played a part, such as someone hit with a gun, whether a person was ever hit by a bullet or not.

Police said their separate tally of shootings showed that the number shot and wounded that month was actually 66 -- with an additional 20 people shot and killed. That equals the number of shootings in the reports O'Malley found.

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