Crime report errors found

Audit shows possible 10% underreporting by police in 1999

`It's not huge'

February 04, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police might have underreported crime by as much as 10 percent last year, an audit has found.

Preliminary findings of the audit contradict the optimistic picture painted last year by the Police Department: a 9 percent crime drop in the first six months, a downward trend that they said made the city the safest it has been in a decade.

The city's new police leaders are calling the review -- which has not been completed -- the most intense scrutiny of crime reports in decades. They're considering asking the FBI for a 90-day extension in submitting Baltimore's annual Uniform Crime Report, which is due next month.

Police auditors say discrepancies for the first six months of last year range from 8 percent to 10 percent.

"It's not huge," Mayor Martin O'Malley said of the discrepancies. "But it was bigger in some categories than others."

City officials are most concerned that more aggravated assaults -- a serious violent crime -- might have occurred than were reported.

The department found no intentional or "systematic" downgrading of crimes, said Maj. Walter J. Tuffy, who is leading the audit. Most of the discrepancies were error or misclassifications, Tuffy said.

"This is a like a physical for the organization," Tuffy said. "We want to make sure we are completely accurate."

O'Malley gained citywide recognition as a city councilman two years ago in challenging former Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier over the accuracy of reported city police shootings.

Frazier announced that city shootings dropped nearly 55 percent over a three-year period between 1993, when he was hired, to 1996. O'Malley spent a year reviewing police shooting reports for two months of 1993 and 1996. Finding inaccuracies, O'Malley accused Frazier of exaggerating the drop in city shootings to make the city appear safer.

Frazier denied the allegations, saying he had no knowledge of the inaccuracies and relied on department statisticians.

Overreported

Subsequent reviews by The Sun and city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt found that shootings had dropped by about 23 percent over the period. Shootings were overreported in 1993, an error that the department attributed to a change in the use of computer systems tallying the information.

O'Malley, who was inaugurated two months ago, denied yesterday that the latest audit is related to his battles with Frazier.

Frazier stepped down as police commissioner in September to become director of the U.S. Department of Justice's COPS program in Washington shortly after O'Malley won the mayoral Democratic primary.

Through his spokeswoman, Frazier declined to comment on the audit yesterday. His job as director of a federal police grant agency precludes him from speaking about matters in specific departments, she said.

Audit recommended

O'Malley said yesterday that the latest audit was recommended by his new police consultants, the Maple and Linder Group. The New York consultants wanted to have an accurate crime count to use in measuring future crime fluctuations, O'Malley said.

Over the past few weeks, up to 15 police sergeants have been reviewing crime report narratives and calling crime victims about the classification of their cases.

"You have to have an accurate baseline," O'Malley said of the audit. "Whenever somebody goes into a new company they do an audit."

The police consultants, who are being paid $2,000 a day to aid Baltimore, conducted similar audits in other cities. They found similar discrepancies in crime reporting in New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia.

Jack Maple declined to comment on the audit, directing questions to O'Malley and acting Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel.

Subjective

Col. Bert L. Shirey, chief of department patrol, said some department officials have expressed concern about the audit's findings because crime categorizing can be subjective.

The distinction between common assault and aggravated assault is usually at the officer's discretion. Upgrading crime reports could benefit the new administration, ensuring that future drops in crime appear more drastic.

"It's not unusual," Professor Eli Silverman of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York said of the discrepancies found in the audit. For example, Shirey said, Baltimore police routinely place decoy cars on city streets and arrest those who attempt to break in on charges of larceny theft. Others could consider the offense attempted auto theft.

"We're not in the business of creating crimes," Shirey said of the distinctions. "But the consultants in charge of this are honorable people."

`Nobody is conspiring'

The department routinely conducted in-house audits to ensure that crime was being properly reported, Shirey said, but never to the magnitude of the current audit.

"There was never a time when we didn't find problems," said Shirey, who plans to retire next month. "I personally know that nobody is conspiring to downgrade reports. But I do know people screw up."

Daniel, who is expected to be confirmed by City Council on Monday as the new city police commissioner, declined to comment on the audit results until it is completed. Daniel said the six-month review should be finished within three weeks, when the department will determine whether to finish the full year, which could take six to eight more weeks.

Whatever the outcome, the department wants to ensure that city crime figures to be sent to the federal government are accurate, Daniel said.

"What we give to the FBI will be acceptable and accurate," Daniel said.

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