Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Even If Audits Are Rare, Departments Need Accuracy On Crime Stats

A week or so ago the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had a story on how infrequent the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports program audited departments' crime numbers.The story was a follow up on one that they did that looked into crime stats discrepancies at the Milwaukee Police Department. 
In each of the past five years, FBI auditors have reviewed crime statistics at less than 1% of the roughly 17,000 departments that report data, a Journal Sentinel examination of FBI records has found. In all, they've audited as many as 652 police agencies during that time, or less than 4% of the total.
I can't exactly say that I am surprised that the FBI's audits are infrequent.

Here at the sleepy little burg where I work, our crime stats are first submitted to the Texas Department of Public Safety. This UCR submission occurs monthly. While I don't ever recall an instance where my agency has been formally audited by Texas DPS, we have had our Texas DPS UCR rep contact us on months where we've submitted weird crime numbers. (To set the record straight, it was just one of those months that we had an unusual number of a category of crimes reported. Our DPS rep noticed this was outside our norm and contacted us for an explanation of the anomaly.)

Is it possible for an agency to fudge their crime numbers, submit them and get away with it? Yes, it's possible. Of course the agency that does this is not helping themselves. While they might save themselves a little pain at first for poor crime numbers, they do so at the risk of their credibility as well as blinding themselves to what is actually going on in their community. A short term benefit that will create huge problems for the agency in the long run.

I've written a number of posts before on why accurate crime stats are important to a police agency. In this post, I've explained it this way:
One illustration I frequently use when I speak to the public about crime analysis and the importance of accuracy is comparing crime statistics to dead reckoning navigation. Back in the days before modern navigation devices, sailing ships used this method of navigation to get where they were going.

The way it worked was ships would start from a known position, then carefully chart their direction, speed and time traveled to determine where they were at all times so they could get to where they were headed.

In applying this analogy to crime analysis, in order to know where you are going, you have to know as accurately as possible where you have been. If you are going to know if your crime reduction efforts are effective, you need to maintain accurate crime statistics at all times.
Accurate crime statistics matter. Even if you aren't likely to get audited, record them correctly. Make sure your people are properly trained to capture and categorize the data correctly. Make sure your records management system counts the numbers correctly and submit accurate numbers to UCR. The citizens you serve (and also pays your salary) deserve accurate numbers.

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