Paper Chase

Editorial Notebook

July 11, 2009|By Glenn McNatt

When the Baltimore City Police Department invited me to spend a day with its officers recently, I had visions of myself in a bulletproof vest tearing though the streets in hot pursuit of bad guys, or swooping down in a chopper on the trail of a burglary in progress.

Alas, that's not quite what my hosts had in mind.

Instead, they wanted me to appreciate the heroic - or at least extremely extensive - efforts the department is making to ensure that the crime reports its officers submit are timely, accurate and complete.

So instead of chasing bad guys, I ended up on a paper chase - a case, as it turned out, of digital hot pursuit.

I suspect my invitation grew out of Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III's worry that his department has a perception problem: City residents don't believe the police are reporting all the crimes that occur on their streets.

The issue came up most recently last month, when a nanny pushing a stroller in Bolton Hill was mugged by two men and the initial police report classified the incident as a simple theft rather than a robbery involving the use or threat of force. It also got the date and time of the incident wrong.

That led some to wonder whether the error was a deliberate effort to cover up the seriousness of the crime - a suspicion fueled by the fact that the city was scrambling at the time to tamp down fears of crime downtown after several violent incidents around the Inner Harbor. Critics asked why, if crime was really down - as Mr. Bealefeld insisted - didn't people feel safer?

Thus, when I arrived at police headquarters Wednesday, my hosts were eager to demonstrate the integrity of their reporting system and the crime statistics it produced.

Our first stop was the Northern District police station, which covers the area roughly from 28th Street to the county line and Greenmount to Liberty Heights avenues.

True, there aren't many homicides or robberies in that district. But I was shown a handwritten report of two stolen bicycles filed by an officer the night before.

Glancing over the items, I immediately noticed an error: the officer obviously had misstated the time he submitted his report, since it was earlier than the time the incident was supposed to have occurred.

My hosts were of course chagrined by this discovery. But they quickly recovered and assured me the system had safeguards against glitches of this sort.

They explained that although the mistake hadn't been caught before it entered the station house computers, what they called a CAD, or "computer aided dispatch," that recorded the officer's arrival on the scene would surely alert headquarters to the error when a copy of the report got there later that morning.

So we jumped in the car and raced back downtown, hoping to beat the report there. It was sitting in a queue on the desk of a data entry clerk when we arrived, waiting to be typed into the headquarters RMS, or computerized record management system.

The data entry clerk seemed a bit disconcerted to see the deputy commissioner for administration, the chief of the records division and two public information officers with a reporter in tow suddenly converge on her desk to ask about a report of two stolen bicycles.

After some initial fumbling, however, she managed to begin typing the report into the RMS - and sure enough, when she entered the mistake we had caught, the computer threw up a big red flag. Bingo! The safeguards worked. There were smiles all around.

Then, inexplicably, the computer ate the report. And no matter what the clerk did, she couldn't get it back.

The records chief looked stunned. The deputy commish frowned. The two PIOs looked at me and shrugged. I felt bad for the clerk, who was clearly mortified.

To make a long story short, after about five minutes of frantic searching, during which the report was for all intents and purposes lost in cyberspace amid several hundred thousand other documents stored in the computer's files, it finally surfaced again. Turned out the clerk, in her anxiety, had made a finger slip that changed the report's case number (or some such).

Afterward, we met with the department's director of statistics, who explained how the city's method of recording crime statistics differs from that of the FBI, which publishes the annual Uniform Crime Reports that allow officials to compare crime rates across the nation.

She told us that Baltimore police submit some 12,000 to 15,000 handwritten crime reports each month - the city can't afford laptops that would allow officers to file electronically - and the department is the only one in the country with a system in place to check each and every one of them. Neither the patrol officer's mistaken entry nor the data clerk's nervous finger slip had defeated it. So all's well that ends well.

When I finally got to talk to Mr. Bealefeld later that day, he reiterated how important it is for police to work with good numbers. His commanders, he said, rely on them to make decisions about how best to deploy their forces, and they can't do that unless officers file accurate reports. He dismissed the notion that police deliberately cook the books in order to make themselves look good.

I believed him. From what I could see, the department really is making an effort to improve crime-scene reporting in order to get a better handle on what the bad guys are up to. But even the commissioner acknowledges that statistics only get you so far. If the public's perception of crime doesn't match what the numbers say, you've still got a problem. And that, as much as anything, seems to be the situation Mr. Bealefeld and his officers find themselves in today.

-Glenn McNatt

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.