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Double Jeopardy
How a nonprofit news service made a startling discovery about crime reporting – and why the findings might have gotten a better reception from the police department.

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 database.


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 assaults story


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 willful.


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. Additionally, Bruce 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. 6.


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 unexpectedly recently.

It’s a grievous loss for her family, friends and colleagues at the paper, of course – and for readers, too.




Comment below, or write Pressroom at pressroom@milwaukeemagazine.com.

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