Crime By The (police) Numbers

CRIME BEAT

June 14, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

In the days before computers, the police had File 13, for "forget it."

The year was 1964, and Baltimore police discovered that half of the city's criminal complaints had not been properly reported. The police chief was forced to retire, the department established an internal affairs unit and lawmakers removed a restriction that only city residents could lead the agency.

Altering, fudging, manipulating and sometimes even ignoring crime has been a part of police work here and around the country since cops started counting and politicians started using the numbers to climb into office or to sabotage opponents.

In 1998, then-City Councilman Martin O'Malley, his eye on the mayor's office, accused police of engineering a "massive hoax" by purposely inflating the number of nonfatal shootings in 1993 to exaggerate their own 30 percent reduction that they had hailed three years later.

A study found that gunmen were aiming for the head and firing more lethal shots. Another review found that a computer glitch had counted every crime committed with a gun in 1993 as a shooting, regardless of whether the weapon had been fired.

When O'Malley claimed City Hall, he ordered 9,572 reports reclassified, turning the previous administration's 10 percent decline in crime into a 3.5 percent increase. An example: A cop burst into an apartment in time to stop a masked man armed with a shard of glass from raping a woman but wrote it up as a simple assault, which is not reported to the FBI. The audit upgraded it to an attempted rape, which is counted among national statistics.

Crime numbers are still being called into question. This month, Baltimore became the country's per-capita leader in homicides, but the title was short-lived: Detroit failed to report 33 killings to the FBI, and overnight Baltimore had to settle for second place, its rate of 36.9 killings per 100,000 residents edged out by a revised Detroit number of 37.4 per 100,000.

Critics continue to allege that police count multiple shooting victims at one scene as one shooting, that the medical examiner is hiding murder victims by ruling the cause of death "undetermined" in an inordinate number of cases and that authorities covered up a serial killer in Park Heights a few years ago.

Police talk about a decrease, but residents say crime is out of control, a feeling so pervasive that Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III had to address it earlier this month when he trotted out to the Inner Harbor to play down a rash of random assaults and proclaim that the waterfront is safer now than it was years ago.

The commissioner acknowledged that when he says that crime is down, "it might not gain much traction. But when I say larcenies from autos are up, it's instantly believable. ... The fact is, just in a one-month period, May of 2008 compared to May of 2009, the crime is down. Larcenies are up, other crime is down. And that's a fact. I know we'll get the skepticism about fuzzy math and whether we're accurately reporting crime. I know we're going to get all that. It comes with the territory."

A week later, Bealefeld ousted the commander of the Central District, which includes the Inner Harbor, after one of his officers wrote up an attack on a nanny as a "police information" instead of an assault and robbery.

An old-time cop told me that officers used to write up reports and stick them in their lockers, taking them out only if questions arose. That's hard to do today, when computers start tracking as soon as 911 is dialed. Dots on a computer screen have replaced pins stuck in a map, but a human being still has to make a subjective call about how to classify each crime. A cut screen door can be destruction of property or an attempted burglary. A missing license plate can be a lost tag or a theft.

Jerry Busnuk, a retired Baltimore police major who now runs a security consulting company and blogs about city crime, said that during his rookie year in 1971, a Western District sergeant ordered him to reinterview a victim who claimed a stolen item was worth $75, making the theft a reportable "Part 1" felony.

"He told me, 'When did he buy that? You better find out. It ain't worth $75 no more if he bought it 13 years ago. There's depreciation,' " Busnuk recalled. "I didn't remember that being taught in the academy." The threshold between a felony and a misdemeanor was then $50, and the retired major said he finally wrote under value: $49.99.

"I would suspect this goes on in most police departments," Busnuk told me. "Others don't have the crime problem that we do and don't have the political pressure. But this kind of reporting is built into the DNA of the police system."

When Busnuk worked security for the Charles Village Community Benefits District, he said, he often heard the liaison officer read from reports that omitted crimes he knew had occurred.

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