Safety in numbers?

February 17, 2006

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is getting hammered on his claim of a nearly 40 percent drop in violent crime since he took office. Criminologists quoted in The Sun have challenged the extent of the decline, and a WBAL-TV report has alleged that police ignore some crime. The mayor's chief Democratic rival for governor has charged that city police have "cooked the books." And the Republican governor has launched his review on crime in the city and four of the state's larger counties.

The charges of manipulating the statistics and the countercharges - that it's all politically motivated - don't make the city any more or less safe, of course. But Baltimoreans are entitled to an accounting of the city's crime reporting and the methodology used to support the stated gains.

Mr. O'Malley defends the accuracy of the reporting, citing internal police audits. He should share those with the public, and let Baltimoreans see the extent to which his Police Department monitors and corrects itself.

Mr. O'Malley launched his mayoral bid by challenging the previous mayor's public safety record. He audited shootings to prove his point. As mayor, he embraced a New York crime-mapping, numbers-driven strategy to fight crime and ensure accountability, so he shouldn't be averse to documenting the department's internal checks.

The debate over the accuracy of the city's crime reporting centers on a consultant's audit of 1999 figures that became the baseline for annual crime rates; however, it increased the number of violent crimes reported that year. But even experts who challenge the use of that audited data say crime has dropped in Baltimore, just not as much as the mayor claims. Depending on who has done the math, violent crime between 1999 and 2004 declined 23.5 percent or 33.3 percent, as found in a review commissioned by the Abell Foundation.

When consultants John Linder and Jack Maple audited Baltimore's 1999 crime figures, they attributed the police's failings to poor report writing, insufficient training, a lack of an inspection unit and other factors. The city addressed those concerns and correlated 911 calls to crime reports so it could better track how each call was handled. Since 2000, internal police inspections of 55,000 crime reports led to corrections in some rape and assault statistics and a more rigorous standard for declaring a reported crime "unfounded." But reviewing crime reports doesn't get at the incidents of crime that don't result in reports.

What gets lost in the numbers debate is this fact: Crime statistics are only an indicator of the prevalence of crime. Federal surveys show that less than 50 percent of crime victims contact the police. But accuracy in crime reporting is essential to assessing public safety and Mr. O'Malley's role in it. In the absence of an independent, nonpartisan audit of city crime stats, the mayor will be defending his record and critics will be attacking it. At the very least, Mr. O'Malley should offer evidence that the data accurately reflect reported crime in Baltimore.

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