Cop Watch

Thursday, September 01, 2005

LAPD Gave Misleading Crime Data

CALIFORNIA - A change in the way Los Angeles police count domestic violence incidents has allowed the department to substantially exaggerate how much crime has dropped citywide this year.

LAPD officials say they have issued disclaimers about the shift in its statistics on domestic violence, which was made to bring the Los Angeles Police Department into accord with federal guidelines.

But the department has continued to distribute figures suggesting that overall violent crime has declined by 28% this year compared with last year. If the reporting change is taken into account, the actual year-to-year decline is probably only about one-third as large.

The statistical reporting problem emerged when the department narrowed its definition of aggravated assaults at the beginning of 2005 to exclude the least serious domestic violence assaults known as "simple" child/spousal assaults.

Police Chief William J. Bratton announced the change in accounting practices earlier this year. In addition, the department indicates in its crime statistics reports that it cannot compare this year's domestic violence statistics to last year's because simple assaults have been subtracted from the new numbers.

But the department went ahead and made the year-to-year comparison in another key area: Aggravated assaults.

The LAPD has been reporting a drop in aggravated assaults based on a comparison of this year's numbers — which do not include simple domestic violence cases — to last year's numbers, which do.

The apples to oranges comparison produced the appearance of the largest year-to-year decrease in any crime category — a 40% decrease in aggravated assaults.

That decrease, in turn, has been a significant contributor to the department's overall calculation of a 28% decrease in violent crime reported for the city.

Bratton deferred questions on the issue to Assistant Chief George Gascon, director of the office of operations, who agreed Monday that the reported 40% decrease in aggravated assaults is an inflated figure. But Gascon said that Bratton and the department had effectively issued disclaimers about the numbers by explaining publicly earlier this year that the reporting standards had changed.

"At the beginning of 2005, the chief of police made it public that we have been over-reporting aggravated assaults. We then proceeded to report crime according to [the federal guidelines]," he said.

Asked about the overall decrease in violent crimes, Gascon said, "Deductively, we can say the number is going to be skewed by the over-reporting that took place before."

But he said there was nothing deceptive in the department's actions, since "we came out very openly at the very beginning of the year, and announced," that the LAPD was now using new standards to categorize domestic violence assaults.

Besides, Gascon said, footnotes were placed in LAPD crime statistics reports to indicate the problem.

Indeed, the LAPD's reports on crime statistics prominently display footnotes saying, "prior to 2005, the aggravated assaults included child/spousal simple assaults," and elsewhere note that the number of child/spousal cases this year cannot be compared to the number last year because of the change.

But the same notation is not made for aggravated assaults, where a straight comparison with last year is recorded. Nor is the notation present in the overall calculations of the drop in violent crime.

Police officials and other public figures have touted the dramatic 28% decline in violent crime this year as a sign of successful crime suppression.

The figure has been prominently displayed on the department's website.

In a Police Commission meeting earlier this month Bratton singled out the 28% decrease as a highlight: "The good news continues in terms of the high rate of decline in violent crime," he said.

In a meeting shortly after, Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell repeated the figure, and gave credit to police officers. "They are working very hard. The numbers are indicative of that."