Commentary: Crime Fighting Shortcuts Degrade the Nobility of the
Policing Profession

Portrait of Rana SampsonHaving spent more than two and a half decades working on different and successful aspects of crime reduction, including time as a cop, a college safety director, a researcher, a consultant to police agencies, and a founding member of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, I remain surprised by the willingness of some police agencies—perhaps it is only a few—to jeopardize their position of trust in the community by misclassifying crimes so that it appears that crime is lower than it truly is.

Even though there are many different ways to measure a city’s crime reduction success, the up or down trends of Uniform Crime Report (UCR) Part 1 crime numbers and rates has the firmest grip on how cities are viewed, even though these numbers/rates are widely considered to be insufficient and potentially inaccurate gauges of police competency.1 That said, I do believe we can reduce crime—and have done so in many places—but the important point here, is that there is no need to exaggerate gains since it masks patterns that allow us to reduce crime further. Currently, most police agencies selectively report crime in their jurisdiction, typically reporting on only a handful of crimes, predominantly murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and vehicle theft, whether or not these are indicative of all the other crimes or crime trends occurring in the jurisdiction. Also, police rarely report crime clearance rates to the public and do not discuss how these rates relate to reductions or changes in crime.

Crime has decreased around the country. There are differences in some places, but overall crime has declined significantly. Victimization surveys attest to this. However, in some places the quality of the policing had less to do with it than in others. It seems in some cities, the reductions were the result of a combination of the tactics police used and the national downward trend in crime that paralleled, but was independent, of it. Even in cities that are rightly unheralded for the quality of their policing, crime declined. In a few cities, redevelopment of a downtown or other formerly crime-ridden area also had a significant crime reducing effect, not just displacing it but reducing it. As well, in some cities improved data analysis boosted police ability to reduce crime. The question then is why are police in some cities resorting to crime reclassification tricks when they have already made honest inroads in reducing crime?

One explanation is that the UCR guidelines for reporting crime are not as clear as they could be. This is true, and they should be clearer. Another reason is that police departments are trying to improve their crime classification precision. For instance, staff in one department told me in the past, when a person in their city lent a car to a friend who the person owed money to and the car was not returned the police would write an ‘auto theft’ report, but now the police, rightly or wrongly, write an ‘unauthorized use of a vehicle’ report (which is not a Part 1 crime) because the car was lent initially. Another explanation for police reclassifying crimes is that the pressure to reduce crime has side effects, one of which is the temptation to show reductions, regardless of the method. In policing, what remains unclear is the extent of the crime reclassification problem, and unfortunately more than a few prominent police agencies have been marred by allegations. The same question has been asked in sports. Why do some talented athletes cheat with performance enhancing drugs? And, just as Congress looked into this kind of cheating with hearings on steroid use in baseball, last year allegations that police agencies cheated on crime reporting by reclassifying or downgrading rape complaints prompted a U.S. senate subcommittee to convene a hearing entitled, “Rape in the United States: The Chronic Failure to Report and Investigate Sex Crimes.”

Across the nation over the last 15 years there have been reports of crime reclassifications—a form of cheating—although this is not new. The history books tell us there was little confidence in police crime reporting for decades prior to that. The current crop of stories one hears about or reads in newspapers from different parts of the country include reclassifications, such as aggravated assaults becoming non-Part 1 simple assaults or being reclassified as harassment or menacing; burglaries and attempted burglaries becoming criminal trespass or vandalism; larcenies becoming ‘lost property’; forcible rape becoming ‘unwanted touching’ or unlawful imprisonment; and other Part 1 crimes being categorized as simply ‘under investigation’ or ‘unfounded’ if the victim doesn’t present absolute proof or return a detective’s phone call. This may be a relatively small problem and if so, the police profession should be able to turn it around quickly. There may even be good reason to classify some of these crimes as other crimes, but under no circumstances should police agencies count these readjustments in crime reporting language as crime declines. The shifting of one crime into a different category may or may not be warranted but in no way should it be reported as a crime reduction; it is simply a change in how police document the event. Police departments should clearly state in writing, in all of their crime reporting, that their internal reporting guidelines have changed, so there is transparency in their dealings with the public, victims, the media, and the FBI, which just happens to compile the statistics from police agencies across the country.

There is great nobility to the police profession. In a democracy, police must maintain a position of public trust. Crime fighting shortcuts, such as crime reclassification or ignoring or discouraging victims, degrades the nobility of the profession. In many police departments, lying is even considered a dismissible offense—an officer can be fired for it. So why might some otherwise honest chiefs of police willfully or knowingly ignore what may be happening in their departments (or even subtly encourage it in some departments), and what should be done about it?

There are different ways to tackle this problem but probably the first thing that is needed is to greatly increase crime reporting transparency. What if police departments were required to report by category the number of all crimes annually, even if there are more than several hundred categories? At least this would begin to open up the books so additional questions could be asked and so that a new baseline would be established. Standardization between federal and state reporting requirements makes things difficult but at least community members and others may begin to see what is going on in their own police agency. Many police agencies now have websites where this information can be shared with the public. Clearly, reporting out on only UCR Part 1 or even UCR Part 2 does not tell us enough about crime reduction and it certainly does not tell us anything about the fairness of a city’s crime reduction practices. For example, by using discouraging words such as “will you really go to court?” or by offering to handle the matter unofficially with words such as “do you want us to just talk to the guy who did this to you” or by suggesting that a report will be filed when it won’t with words, such as “the dispatcher has all the information and we’ll keep it on file,” police can make it look like no crime was committed. Without a strong system of 911 complainant call-backs by an audit team (who do not work for the police department), a city cannot see if a pattern, even if relatively small, of discouraging, dissuading, or dissembling victims is even occurring. Crime victimization surveys help out in this regard, depending on how they are constructed, and how and by whom they are administered. They clearly can provide a fuller picture.

Another way police chiefs can be more transparent about their department’s crime reduction skills is by annually reporting its crime clearance rates. For purposes here, you will find crime clearance rates for three different years in the United States–1990, 1995, and 2009–based on the FBI’s reports of seven of the eight UCR Part 1 crimes.

Crime Clearances Rates in U.S. 1990 to 2009 Cleared by Arrest or Exceptional Means

1990

1995

2009

Murder/ Non-Negligent Manslaughter

67%

65%

67%

Forcible Rape

53%

51%

41%

Robbery

25%

25%

28%

Aggravated Assault

57%

56%

57%

Burglary

14%

13%

13%

Larceny-theft

20%

20%

22%

Motor Vehicle Theft

15%

14%

12%

 

Police clearance rates for Part 1 crime have barely moved despite the fact that there has been more than a 40 percent overall reduction2 in the Part 1 crime rate from 1990 to 2009. Rape is the exception—the clearance rate dropped significantly. The type of forcible rape that is more difficult to solve are those involving a stranger. Acquaintance rape involves an assailant who the victim knows, even if only for a brief time prior to the rape. Why, with improved technology and advanced detection techniques in the last two decades, would rape clearances decline so much rather than improve, even if only slightly? There may be many explanations, but one that should be explored is whether some police agencies are removing acquaintance rapes from the forcible rape category, even if force is used (a different type of force than in some stranger rapes), leaving mostly stranger rapes in the forcible rape category, which results in the reporting of such significantly lower clearance rates. But does only the forcible rape category raise questions? When the policing profession touts its crime reduction prowess, how then do we account for the stubborn stability of most of these clearance rates? While some police chiefs will say that the new ‘no snitching’ culture on the street hampers crime detection, one would think that with a 40 percent lower Part 1 crime rate overall (and only very recent reductions in police staffing), police crime reduction advances would translate into increased detection rates. The hidden category within clearance rates, ‘exceptional clearance’ (not cleared by arrest), which is supposed to be a minor sub-category, must be carefully examined as well and reported publicly to make sure that clearance rates accurately reflect the different categories within crime clearance.

In this short article, I am just highlighting a few things on a complicated subject. There are nuances to it, and the answers are not easy. As well, most police departments—if they have changed the way they document and report out crime—have hopefully acknowledged this in writing to the community and the media. As well, it is important for police agencies to provide more context on crime, as too many rely too substantially on Part 1 crimes or just a handful of other crimes, which does not give the community enough information about crime. In any case, what seems clear is that it is important for police agencies to honestly and more thoroughly describe crime and crime trends to the public to preserve their position of public trust.

-Rana Sampson

Rana Sampson is a national problem-oriented policing consultant and the former director of public safety for the University of San Diego. She was previously a White House Fellow; National Institute of Justice Fellow; senior researcher and trainer at the Police Executive Research Forum; attorney; and patrol officer, undercover narcotics officer and patrol sergeant with the New York City Police Department, where she was awarded several commendations of merit and won the National Improvement of Justice Award.

 

Footnotes:

1Part 1 crimes are murder/non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, auto theft, and arson.

2FBI statistics for Part 1 crimes 1990 through 2009, available at http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/data/table_01.html.

 

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