Monday, February 27, 2012

Don't Accuse An Agency Of Fudging Their Stats If You Don't Know The Rules

Last week, The Washington Post did a story where they accused Washington DC Police with fudging their crime stats by claiming clearances for homicides in the current year when the actual murder happened in a prior year. This weekend they issued what amounts to a mea culpa.

The article characterized the department’s reporting of homicide-closure rates as a “statistical mishmash that makes things seem much better than they are.” It also suggested that the department’s methodology produced a number that was not “a true closure rate.” As a result, the article, as well as elements of the headline and an accompanying graphic, implied that the department artificially inflated public data on the number of cases that are closed each year.

In fact, as the article reported, the department has followed practices consistent with federal crime-data guidelines and relied upon the same methodology used by other major municipal police agencies. The department hasn’t altered the ways it calculates homicide-closure rates since Cathy L. Lanier became chief in 2007, and it discloses its methodology in its annual report.

This isn't the first time and likely won't be the last where a media outlet got a story on a police agency's crime stats wrong. What Washington DC Police did was to show a murder as "cleared" or solved the year that the crime was solved and not in necessarily in the year that the homicide actually happened. Given the length of time it sometimes takes to clear a homicide case this isn't all that unusual.

The Washington Post tried to characterize this as DC Police trying to manipulate their stats to make them look better. However, this practice is consistent with the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports guidelines. At least the Post later issued a mea culpa for their goof.

Of course, these rules lead to some weird numbers. At my agency we ended up with a -1 Rape statistic one month when we had one more Rape cases Unfounded than we had reported. While that was weird, it wasn't chicanery.

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