Mayor steps up crime-data effort

Hospital figures offered to support reported drop in shootings

February 24, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN AND JULIE BYKOWICZ | DOUG DONOVAN AND JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTERS

Even as Mayor Martin O'Malley's top administration officials dismiss critics' doubts about Baltimore crime statistics as politically fueled attacks, they stepped up a campaign yesterday to restore public confidence in their reporting techniques.

In a hastily assembled morning news conference, the city's health commissioner and fire chief presented data showing that a downward trend of gunshot-related emergency room visits and ambulance calls appear to correlate with a five-year decline in shootings recorded by police.

The newly released data came a day after Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm passionately defended his department's numbers and said he and the mayor would welcome an unbiased audit of all crime reports statewide.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun on Baltimore crime statistics incorrectly reported the decline in gunshot injuries at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma and Johns Hopkins Hospital. From 1999 to 2005, the hospitals report an overall decline of 32.2 percent. The hospitals report that the decline in gunshot injuries to city residents during that period was 37.4 percent.
The Sun regrets the errors.

But political opponents said the new data fell short of proving the accuracy of Baltimore's crime statistics.

A week ago, O'Malley's campaign for governor had e-mailed its supporters details of the mayor's accomplishments - including statistics that showed that Maryland's statewide crime fighting strides lagged behind Baltimore's accomplishments.

"I bet you that other jurisdictions are having bigger problems because we are driving it [crime] somewhere else," Hamm told the City Council Wednesday night.

Kristen Mahoney, chief of technical services for the city police department, said it was natural for crime to migrate to areas near a jurisdiction, like Baltimore, that has been cracking down on violence.

"Perhaps having a more robust statewide crime plan would address some of the regional and statewide displacement [of Baltimore's crime] that some jurisdictions may be feeling," Mahoney said. "We haven't gotten the assistance from the state police in the areas that we need."

Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., dismissed the accusations and said O'Malley officials were desperate to change the subject from questions about the accuracy of Baltimore's crime statistics.

The Sun reported this month that the mayor's claims of a nearly 40 percent reduction in violent crime between 1999 and 2004 might be inflated because data from six years ago underwent a major, upward revision after an audit. The city has not applied the same audit techniques to its 2004 statistics. If the 2004 numbers are compared with pre-audited 1999 statistics, violent crime in Baltimore would be down 23.5 percent.

O'Malley officials have argued that the 1999 audit established new procedures for a near-perfect process - continually catching and correcting mistakes in crime reports through frequent audits that are smaller than the one conducted on 1999 figures.

To help buttress their argument yesterday, city officials presented data independent of police statistics that correlated with declines in shooting-related incidents.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said Hamm asked him "a few days ago" to gather gunshot data from independent sources to compare with police data. Flanked by Hamm and city Fire Chief William J. Goodwin, the city health commissioner announced his findings yesterday in a news conference at the city Health Department.

Sharfstein collected data from the fire department's dispatch system and the area's two major trauma hospitals, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Maryland Shock Trauma Center, for 1999 through 2005.

He said those two hospitals treat about 75 percent of Baltimore's gunshot victims.

Although the numbers are different - with both external sources reporting fewer shootings than the police department - the overall trends are all in line, Sharfstein said.

All three sources reported that 1999 had the greatest number of shootings and that shootings dipped in 2000, rose again in 2004 and declined last year.

Since the data from the hospitals and the fire dispatch system both reported that shooting incidents were at their highest level in 1999 and then declined, officials said the audit of 1999 data did not appear to have unfairly inflated crime statistics. However, a large portion of the reclassified 1999 violent crimes involved upgrading incidents to aggravated assaults - statistics unrelated to shootings.

Sharfstein said that while it was easy to compare police shooting data to similar data gathered by hospitals and the fire department, cross-checking other kinds of crime, such as assaults, was much more difficult.

Hospitals, he said, do not have a uniform way of identifying injuries from assaults, unlike gunshot wounds.

"When you're shot, you're shot," he said.

Overall, the Fire Department reported a 34 percent decline in gunshot-related calls, from 881 in 1999 to 581 in 2005, and the hospitals reported a 37 percent decline - from about 900 in 1999 to just more than 600 in 2005 - in gunshot-related emergency room visits, Sharfstein said.

The city police department has claimed a 40 percent decrease in gun violence in that same period.

"We didn't know what it was going to look like, but it looks extremely favorable," Sharfstein said.

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