When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found hundreds of examples of misreported
crimes in the Milwaukee Police Department’s data reports to the FBI, the
newspaper went all out on the story.
But it took a nonprofit, shoestring
neighborhood news service to figure out that the department has until recently
been overstating crime reports in
some of the information it releases.
Andrea Waxman was among the writers for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
about Milwaukee’s Borchert Field neighborhood. Researching one of those
stories, Waxman was looking up crime statistics on a two-block segment of North
9th Street, using Excel spreadsheets from the police department’s Compass
The spreadsheets “seemed to contain
a large number of duplicates,” Waxman tells Pressroom Buzz via email.
Intrigued, she asked the District 3 police open records office whether she was
reading the information correctly.
It turned out she was – and that in
a number instances, a single crime was recorded in the spreadsheet several
times. Waxman eliminated the duplicates so that she’d have accurate numbers for
her 9th Street story.
But she didn’t stop there. Having
confirmed the duplicates, She decided to collect the Compass data for 2012 for
the whole city. That took a few days, and resulted in the
NNS story under her byline. Fully 20 percent of the crimes reported in the Compass
database were duplicates.
Neighborhood News Service exists to
give readers an accurate picture of the communities it covers and where many of
those readers live.
“NNS believes that it's critical that
neighborhood residents have access to the same accurate information about crime
as the Milwaukee Police Department does,” Waxman says. “People and
organizations make decisions based on this data.”
This is especially salient
considering that many of the NNS neighborhoods are sometimes stereotyped unfairly
as high-crime communities. But as Waxman pointed out, the COMPASS database
statistics were found to be overstated in every one of the police department’s
districts throughout the city.
By itself, the NNS story is intriguing, but last year’s controversy
over the large number of aggravated assaults MPD reported as simple assaults (the
discrepancy uncovered by the Journal
Sentinel) probably gives it an added jolt.
To be sure, there’s no statistical connection
between the JS story and the NNS one.
“We’ve been told that been told that the numbers in this database (COMPASS) are
not used for the FBI reports,” Waxman notes.
It’s also worth noting, though, the
difference in the response the NNS got from the police department.
As Waxman reported in her story,
after the duplication was brought to the city’s attention, the duplicate
information was summarily deleted from the database, without explanation. But
what happened next?
The city’s chief information
officer, Nancy Olson, called Waxman
and apologized for “the sudden, unannounced disappearance of the duplicates and
said she would make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Waxman says.
And – at the request of the police
department – she apologized, Waxman says.
Perhaps that reflects a change in
style at MPD.
Or maybe it reflects a difference
in style on the part of the NNS approach to the Compass story compared with how
the JS framed the misreported
The NNS story lays out the facts it
found, yet it does so dispassionately. Not boringly – it’s a good read. But it lacks
the insinuation of suspicion that lurks throughout the JS series.
The newspaper’s attitude was
attacked in an
audit (PDF) commissioned by the Police and Fire Commission that confirmed
the existence of the discrepancies but found no evidence that they were
The Journal Sentinel never produced reliable evidence that there was
any conspiracy to cook the numbers that went into the federal crime stats
database. Yet the stories were rife with a tone that seemed to insinuate as
much. Furthermore, the paper didn’t interview Chief Ed Flynn until the day before its first stories ran – which gave the
paper no time to systematically explore and investigate his arguments
explaining the investigation’s findings.
(You can read my earlier reports
and comments about the JS series here and here.
Murphy at Urban Milwaukee has
criticized the paper’s Flynn coverage extensively.)
Kalmbach has unveiled a new look for Discover, about nine months after moving the magazine’s
headquarters from New York to Waukesha and having to replace the publication’s
entire masthead. Along with a new cover logo (“a more serious yet approachable
tone that is more appropriate for our brand and readers,” design director Dan Bishop says in a Kalmbach press
release), the magazine re-brands its front-of-book section (previously “Data”)
as “The Crux” and promises more graphics and a column answering reader
questions. The “Hot Science” section, covering how pop culture and science
interact, is also being expanded.
Readers can see for themselves in a
couple of weeks – the redesign goes public in the September issue, on sale Aug.
Condolences: I never knew Jackie
Loohauis-Bennett well in my days at the Milwaukee
Journal, but I always got a kick out of the light and punchy style she
brought to a wide range of feature stories.
Along with her talent, she had an
aura that paradoxically combined a sort of local celebrity glamour with an everywoman’s
charm, and both helped make her a larger-than-life presence in the newsroom and
in the newspaper itself. After taking a buyout at the Journal Sentinel in May – with plans to continue as a freelance
contributor – she died
It’s a grievous loss for her family, friends and
colleagues at the paper, of course – and for readers, too.
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