Lies, damned lies and statistics E-mail
Written by Mark Nichols   

In the old days before scary terrorism plots and threats and almost daily school shootings, people used to be very concerned about local crime rates. In the 1970’s everyone agreed that based on the data, crime was unacceptably high. When the crack market stabilized in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s everyone agreed that crime had dropped. Now no one knows what to think- even the law enforcement officials that people assume would know about these things. How else can you explain a situation where police chiefs and DAs can’t get on the same page?

According to a recent article in the Denver Post, Denver’s top two law enforcement officials disagree on whether or not crime is up or down.

In days gone by there were similar disputes between cops and state attorneys. But this is different.

Police Chief Robert White and District Attorney Mitch Morrissey aren't disagreeing about perception or statistical minutia. White and Morrisey are 18 percentage-points away from each other as to crime rates.

"One of the things you can glean from it is that the crime rate is going up. It has to be. (The police) are presenting more cases to us," Morrissey told The Denver Post. "The trend is that our caseloads are getting bigger and bigger. How is that possible with the crime rate going down? I don't know."

Chief White says the city has seen an 8.6 percent decline that he’s frequently mentioned during public gatherings and in police stations.

He says better police work, despite less manpower is bringing crime rates down in Denver.

"How about the fact that maybe the police department is doing a better job of arresting the right people?" White told reporters from the Post.

"His (DA Morrisey) cases are going up because the police are out there working their butt off and doing a better job. That's not rocket science."

It’s definitely not rocket science. If you're off by close to 20 points in rocket science the astronauts get incinerated. But what about the scientific means used to measure local crime rates?

"It's a hard, hard thing to measure, which of course makes it hard to say, 'Well is it really going up or really going down?' " Callie Rennison, an associate professor in the University of Colorado Denver's School of Public Affairs told the Post.

"Anyone who tells you, 'Here's my stat, it's a perfect one,' immediately don't trust them. No stat is perfect, but some are less perfect than others."

Chief White said his numbers are based on data the department presented to the FBI for its annual Uniform Crime Report. He said the numbers from the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics are more accurate than even the numbers posted on his agency’s website.

So according to the Post article crime is either down about 8 percent or up 13.9 percent according to Denver Police.

The 13.9 percent increase is the result of the department’s crime data classified under the National Incident Based Reporting System. That system measures the individual crimes contained within a single incident.

For instance, if someone is killed during a robbery, the NIBRS numbers will include both a homicide and a robbery.
In contrast the Uniform Crime Report that White cites when talking about the decrease in crimes includes only the most serious offense so that incident would be classified only as a homicide.

At the end of the day the stats are only as accurate as the data that police departments submit to obtain them.

White said the Uniform Crime Report is the national standard for crime reporting and generally the tool urban agencies use to gauge success and failure.

But serious doubts were raised recently when some questioned the accuracy of the figures that Denver police were submitting to the FBI. Those doubts were a function of the fact that police officials acknowledged that hundreds of crimes were not included because of officer error and computer glitches.

These are not minor discrepancies. Some 25 percent of 2012's homicides in Denver were not reflected in that year's preliminary Uniform Crime Report.

White said he is confident that the reporting problem is "98 percent fixed,” according to the Post.

At any rate, this argument about whether crime is up, down or unchanged isn’t likely to do any wonders for the working relationship between the police chief and the DA

DA Morrisey says Denver officers submitted 22 percent more cases last year than they did in 2011.

"There's an increase in gang crimes. There's an increase in violent crimes. It's a disturbing trend," Morrissey told the Post.

He says the number of drug cases submitted rose 22 percent, from 1,870 in 2012 to 2,283 last year and that across the board police were submitting more cases for prosecution.

Like most DAs and police officials, Morrisey said he believes the “soft-on-crime” criminal justice system was putting offenders back on the street in record numbers.

"They've been letting people out of the penitentiary at a pace I have not seen in a long time," he told reporters. It could also be a result of fewer officers on the street.

"What we are seeing coincides with the change in the administration of the police department, and maybe that's just coincidence. I don't know," Morrissey said. "There are a whole lot of things."

White colorfully described Morrissey's comments as "unsubstantiated opinion that one might say is logical," but "what I am telling you is supported by facts. ... I'm not making up the numbers."

But for all intents and purposes it appears that it would matter if he, or the District Attorney were doing just that.

The public affairs professor Rennison said that’s just the nature of the beast.

She says the number of prosecutions and a police department's crime statistics won't necessarily line up any better than the Uniform Crime Report and NIBRS numbers.

"I don't see that they have to be aligned," she said.

While it’s certainly true that the numbers don’t have to be an exact match, it’s a hell of a challenge trying to figure out what’s going on with local crime rates when the police chief and the district attorney are passionately separated by almost 20 percentage points.

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