Philadelphia takes lead in cleaning up crime statistics
Policing the record books
PHILADELPHIA — When John Timoney was appointed Philadelphia police chief, one of his first orders of business had nothing to do with fighting the war on drugs or combating street violence. It had to do with cleaning up the police department itself.
For years, the Philadelphia police had been falsifying crime data in its yearly reports to the FBI. Through either carelessness or a desire to make the City of Brotherly Love seem more fraternal, assaults became "hospital cases," robberies were listed as "missing property," among other examples.
No longer, said Chief Timoney. During his 10 months on the job, he has earned praise from many crime experts for his hard line on an insidious problem that has crept into precincts nationwide.
Crime data have been questioned from Baltimore to Boca Raton, Fla., but Philadelphia is seen as a pioneer in its effort to ensure that America's falling crime rate is not simply a faade.
"Police departments are under tremendous, almost unprecedented pressure to come up with rosy crime data," says Jack Levin, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston.
"Cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston have reversed a long-term trend in the crime rate and have actually seen vast improvement," says Professor Levin. But, he adds, "In cities where the crime rate continues to escalate or refuses to drop, police feel under the gun. It's very difficult - almost impossible - to tamper with the homicide rate, but it's not so hard to make those aggravated assaults simple assaults."
Explaining his department's errors, Timoney says most of them were not intentional. Rather, he says, they were the product of an "I-don't-care" attitude.
"I'm sure there may have been individual commanders who were not paying attention to the numbers, but the majority of the mistakes were just stupid and sloppy," Timoney says.
Besides, he and others say, the incentives to keep accurate records are greater than the benefits of falsifying data.
"If you have accurate data, you can make better decisions about police and community strategies to combat crime," says Michael Buckley, executive director of the Crime Prevention Effectiveness Program at the University of Maryland in College Park. Those calculations also influence police department expenditures.
Nor is altering of crime data solely a police problem. When crimes are diminished in severity or left off the logbooks altogether, victims can suffer when trying to gain monetary or insurance compensation.
"It's a classic second injury," says Carol Lavery, director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Victims' Services.
Still, many cities are induced to bend the rules. Indeed, lower crime rates can be an enormous boost for public officials.
"It creates the appearance that the police department is doing a good job," says Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington. Plus, the comparison of one city to another can impact such sectors as "tourism, housing construction, and the location of industry."
An added factor is that if a city does have an increase in crime, it can be hard to ever shake that reputation. For instance, Mr. Sterling says, many people still think of Washington as the murder capital of the United States, despite the fact that the city held that dubious distinction only during the late 1980s.
"Even though that hasn't been true for most of this decade, it has lingered in the popular mind," Sterling says. "For cities like Washington, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, which are heavily dependent on tourist trade, that unsafe perception translates into hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs."
Virtually all experts agree that outside auditors may be the only way to ensure crime-data accuracy. Timoney has not gone that far, setting up an internal auditing system, but many experts think this is a worthwhile step forward.
Says Mr. Buckley: "Commissioner Timoney has been both courageous and innovative in recognizing the importance of accurate crime data and taking steps to improve the accuracy of his police department reports."