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Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday, November 15, 1998

Pressure builds on city police for accuracy

The Justice Department will conduct an inquiry into the force's allegedly unreliable crime statistics.


By Michael Matza, Craig R. McCoy and Mark Fazlollah,
INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS

For the first time, the City Controller's Office is auditing police crime figures.

Soon, the Police Department will begin using sting tactics on its own officers, having undercover investigators pose as crime victims to see whether police report the incidents properly.

Now, the Justice Department is starting an inquiry into the fudging of crime statistics in the nation's fifth-largest city.

Rarely if ever has there been so much pressure on Philadelphia police to present an accurate picture of crime.

``Going down with crime'' - downgrading major offenses to minor ones to polish the image of commanders and police commissioners and make the city look safer - has been a reflex in police station houses for decades.

The methods and motives varied, but the result was almost always the same - to shift offenses out of the ``Part I'' group of major crimes tallied nationally by the FBI and watched closely by the media, the public, politicians and the headquarters brass.

The practice endured, top commanders now say, because favorable statistics made higher-ups happy and helped careers. It endured also because the department's leaders rarely put teeth into their rhetoric about accuracy - never insisted that the numbers be right as well as rosy.

``Every commissioner told the troops that they wanted accurate coding - and none of them meant it,'' said Chief Inspector Vincent R. DeBlasis, 60, a 39-year police veteran and a former chief of detectives. ``It was all window dressing.''

``No one ever really got in trouble for going down with crime,'' said Charles J. Brennan, 48, a 25-year police veteran and statistical specialist who is now deputy commissioner for science and technology.

In recent years, the culture of creative crime accounting collided with a new insistence on accurate, timely data to guide police deployment and tactics.

Eight months ago, John F. Timoney, a career New York policeman known as an apostle of numbers-driven policing, took over the department, and the tradition of ``going down with crime'' came under intense assault.

One of the new commissioner's first acts was to establish an internal auditing arm to review incident reports and crime figures.

In July, Timoney refused to submit crime data for the first six months of 1998 to the FBI for inclusion in a city-by-city survey. After his new auditing team uncovered hundreds of downgrades, Timoney said he had no faith in his own department's statistics.

Over the summer, Timoney stripped two captains of their district commands after questions were raised about statistics prepared under their supervision. For the first time, someone did get into trouble over the numbers.

Last week, the department overhauled its incident reporting system so that there will be a paper trail every time police respond to a 911 call - even when officers say the report of crime was ``unfounded.''

``Accountability is the priority!'' said a memo from the commander of the department's 4,000 patrol officers.

On Friday, Attorney General Janet Reno said she had ordered an inquiry into the manipulation of statistics by Philadelphia police.

Reno, at a Washington news conference, said she had asked for ``a review'' of what she called ``the Philadelphia situation.''

Reno did not say what branch of the department would handle the review or whether it would involve a criminal investigation. Those decisions are apparently yet to be made.

Reno said she also wanted to know how widespread was fudging of statistics. She mentioned problems with crime data in Philadelphia and Boca Raton, Fla., where the police chief quit under pressure last spring after several hundred crimes were downgraded.

``Is that an isolated situation?'' Reno asked. ``Because frankly, what I keep hearing is Philadelphia and Boca Raton, nothing more.''

Many law-enforcement experts think the problem is indeed widespread - though perhaps most severe in Philadelphia.

They say fudging has compromised the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program for decades and is a greater source of concern now than ever. That's because crime numbers have assumed a key role in shaping policing, as commanders use them to map crime and spot trends. When the numbers are bad, those efforts suffer.

The focus on data also turns up the heat on commanders, who are expected to drive down crime and whose performance can be judged with greater precision than ever before.

Jack Levin, director of the Program for Study of Violence at Northeastern University in Boston, said the recent dramatic reductions in crime in some cities, such as New York, had raised the stakes for those not doing so well, such as Philadelphia.

``In many major cities, they're receiving credit for rosy crime data. That puts a lot of pressure on cities where the crime numbers are still up,'' Levin said. ``Under those conditions, there is pressure on police departments to underreport serious crimes.''

Nicholas Pastore, former chief of police in Hartford, Conn., said that law-enforcement careers increasingly are made or broken by the numbers.

``That creates an inherent reason for corruption,'' said Pastore, now with the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Critics of the FBI crime-reporting program - which annually publishes a nationwide survey of crime - urge independent audits of city crime figures.

Philadelphia's problems are not isolated, Lawrence W. Sherman, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland, wrote last summer in a law enforcement journal.

``Since the FBI lacks resources to do on-site audits in each police agency every year, these examples are just the tip of a very big iceberg,'' he wrote. ``There are already rising suspicions of police manipulation of crime data as crime rates fall in many cities.''

In the last year, scandals over police figures have flared in Atlanta, Baltimore and New York as well as in Philadelphia.

In Boca Raton, a city of 68,000, the police chief and a top commander left the department in May after authorities learned that officers had downgraded 400 serious crimes last year.

Philadelphia annually reports about 95,000 major crimes - murders, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts. Internal auditors estimate that as many as one in 10 get downgraded.

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