So just how bad are the Milwaukee police crime-report
So far, we don’t really know. Not even after a three-page Milwaukee Journal Sentinel spread that
ran to thousands of words and, we’re told, took three months to report.*
The JS story by Ben Poston recounted a review of 60,000
crime records. It said that of those, 500 cases reported to the FBI were
classified as “simple assault” when records, as they were provided to
prosecutors, showed they should have been called “aggravated assault.” The
newspaper found that another 800 appeared to fit the same pattern as the 500,
but whether they were misclassified could not be determined.
Sounds pretty bad, right? Bad enough that on the same day
the story was published, two aldermen and a state senator called for independent audits of the city’s crime records. Gov. Scott Walker, 12
days from a recall election, joined the chorus on Thursday.
Yet key information is missing that would shed some much
needed light on the scope of these discrepancies.
For starters, what was the total number of simple assaults reported, including the
500 (or 1,300, if you include the 800 “possibles”) that were improperly
categorized? We don’t know – and without that number, we don’t really know
whether the cited errors are frequent or rare in the larger picture.
The Journal Sentinel
story also never compares the 500 – or 1,300 if you wish – against the total
number of aggravated assaults
reported for the period it studied.
To get these numbers, Milwaukee
Magazine accessed a FBI Uniform Crime Reporting database available online. The available
numbers for Milwaukee in 2009, 2010,
and the first half of 2011
show 7,689 crimes classified as “aggravated assault” during that period. The
500 under-classified “simple assault” reports would amount to 6.5 percent of the
number of aggravated assaults that were (presumably) correctly reported. Add
the 800 additional reports, and the total rises to 16.9 percent.
If you assume that all the under-classified simple assaults
should have been classified as aggravated assaults, that would bring the total
number of aggravated assaults to 8,189 for the period, for an error rate of 6.1
percent. With the 800 additional reports added in, the total is 8,989, and the
error rate is 14.5 percent.
These error numbers
certainly aren’t good news – but how out of line are they?
The JS never deals
with this question of proportion directly. It’s a maddening omission, and one
that JS editors declined to clear up
directly for Milwaukee Magazine on
Thursday despite three requests. And it’s an omission that isn’t excused by the
police department’s stonewalling of the newspaper on data.
“There is no magic threshold point upon which you conclude
there is gross negligence or even worse, an attempt to deliberately mislead the
public,” says Stan Stojkovic, dean
of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at UW-Milwaukee and a professor of
criminal justice. “I would have to say that the 6.5 percent error rate should
raise flags regarding their reporting accuracy, and the 16.9 percent suggests
something more serious. How could you have 1 in 6 reports being misclassified?
This makes no sense.”
At a minimum, he says, that suggests “gross incompetence or negligence,”
and at worst, “outright manipulation of the data.”
But Stojkovic cautions against jumping to that conclusion.
“You would need other independent evidence that supports such an assertion,” he
says – an audit and a whistleblower admitting to fudging the reports.
The FBI is already conducting an audit, as Police Chief Ed
Flynn noted Wednesday at a news conference in which he hit back hard at the newspaper’s story.
Meanwhile, there is yet no report of any whistleblowers, and
Flynn, in all of the MPD pushbacks, has categorically denied any implication
that crime reports were deliberately falsified to massage crime numbers and
The department is, to
no one’s surprise, aggressively using its new news website, “The Source,”
as it shapes its response to the JS story. Even before the press conference,
the MPD posted the unedited, one-hour interview that Flynn gave Poston and Senior Editor Greg Borowski the day before the story ran (video embedded below).
In a blog post accompanying the video, MPD states:
Mr. Poston came not
with sincere questions to be answered, but with a premise to be proven: the
Milwaukee Police Department is lying about its crime numbers. . . . We are not making excuses. We are not
suggesting that errors don’t occur. We are, however, asserting that there is a
substantial difference between bureaucratic mistakes and purposeful
misrepresentations. It is an awful big leap to suggest bad intention. We are
also suggesting that the worst kind of exploitative journalism would be that which
uses injured children to persuade the public to draw false conclusions.
On Thursday, the JS Editor Martin Kaiser responded with a
statement of its own. It reads:
Our stories on the misreporting of serious crimes as
lesser offenses are the result of a thorough and meticulous investigation. The
FBI agreed that the incidents we wrote about were misreported, as did outside
criminal justice experts – and Milwaukee Police officials. Presenting a
distorted view of crime in the city does not serve the public. We will continue
to seek access to additional records to provide a complete view of crime
patterns, and to sort out why these errors occurred. So far, we have only had
access to about 20% of total reported incidents – the ones reviewed by
prosecutors. We cannot compare the data
to a previous period in Milwaukee in part because the department has resisted
our efforts to obtain public documents. Police and city officials should
expedite full release of the information so the public knows the truth behind
(MPD squad and Bell Ambulance photo by Adrian Palomo)
*Editor's Note: A previous version of the column stated that the JS story took a year to report. According to the story itself, research on the project began in 2010, and at a news conference Flynn said the department understood that the project had taken a year. But when the newspaper responded to a request for comment, reporter Ben Poston said he worked on it for three months.