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Missing Data
MPD may be dragging its feet on crime stats, but a blockbuster Journal Sentinel story misses some information, too.

So just how bad are the Milwaukee police crime-report records?

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 categories.

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 their numbers.

(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.

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George Mitchell Posted: 5/25/2012 11:26:38 AM
 2   1    

Erik Gunn is correct that the failure to report or estimate an error rate is a serious omission. Not clear why the paper would not have done that.
Jay_Warner Posted: 5/24/2012 2:51:59 PM
 3   8    

Excellent digging, Erik! How bad is it? We don't know,a nd th public data doesn't show us. Is 6% error 'bad'? Certainly not good, and if we intend to reduce violent crime in Milwaukee, we need all the sound information possible. Sixteen percent error? No way. I think the MPD needs to deeply review (and tighten up) the protocols they use to categorize cases, and then internally audit to assure that the protocols are being followed. I suspect they would be happy to show off that system/procedure to an outside auditor.
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