Police underreport serious crime

Internal audit finds 14% mistake in city

April 10, 2000|By Peter Hermann and Eric Siegel | Peter Hermann and Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

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.

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