Note: This is the first in a series of posts on this topic, with more coming next week.  If you’re an MPD employee, council staffer, or other person with information that you’d like to share, you can use our anonymous tip form.

MPD Chief Cathy Lanier

MPD Chief Cathy Lanier

Last week, we reported on the violent assault on the Metropolitan Branch Trail, in which a mob of 15 persons attacked a bicyclist without provocation, beating him so severely that his eye was swollen shut.   Over the next two days, we also noticed this crime went unmentioned in MPD’s public crime reports and online crime map, and wondered why.  After all, MPD stated the attack was an aggravated assault (a Part 1 offense by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting standard), and the daily crime reports assure citizens that such reports contain “Part 1 serious” offenses.

Sadly, as with most assaults, citizens would have no idea that the incident took place if they were to examine public crime stats.  As we tried to research this issue, we discovered other alarming findings: 1) MPD only reports crime data on 9 specific offenses out of approximately 150 or so offense types, all others are intentionally hidden from the public, and 2) MPD may be under or misreporting the crimes to the public, and possibly in its annual FBI crime statistics.

Shockingly, not only does the DC Metropolitan Police freely admit hiding a significant number of crime statistics from the public, but double-down on that position by saying they do so for our own own good.

The story begins last week, when we asked MPD for clarification on why the 15-person mob assault was missing from publicly-reported crime stats, and also tipped off DC Councilmember Tommy Wells, who has oversight of the police and took some interest and promised to get to the bottom of it:

 

 

Following Wells’ response, MPD got back to us the same day (they usually ignore such requests for information). However, the explanation from MPD does not add up, and hints at something amiss with the public crime report data. We checked with both a local law enforcement officer as well as a local attorney familiar with DC’s criminal laws for their view on MPD’s response, and both agreed that something’s fishy; this post is based on information compiled from those two persons, public MPD information, and public MPD statements.

In response to the violent aggravated assault not showing up in the daily crime report, MPD’s public information officer Gwendolyn Crump responded, in part:

The daily crime report that is posted on the MPD community listservs is an automated report that includes nine offense categories of crime for the previous 24 hour period. The nine offenses are defined according to the DC Code definitions (and not the FBI-UCR definitions as the Titan of Trinidad blogged yesterday).

MPD admits they report only nine cherry-picked offenses to the public, but sees it as a benefit rather than a problem. There are three big problems with this:

  1. The daily crime reports explicitly state that they list “Part 1 serious offenses”, an FBI-defined list of reportable crimes that specifically includes aggravated assault
  2. There is no definition of “part 1 offense” in DC code as alleged by Crump, and
  3. Cherry-picking only nine crimes for public reporting is misleading at best.

MPD states that the “part 1 serious offenses” listed in the crime report are not based on the FBI’s “part 1″ definitions, but rather an unspecified definition for such offenses in DC code.  However, both the attorney and officer we spoke with said this is hogwash; no such definition exists in DC code and “part 1 offense” is a term used solely by police agencies when reporting crime stats to the FBI (which includes “aggravated assault,” an offense omitted by MPD in public reports).

Perhaps, then, MPD interprets the FBI definition of aggravated assault to not include crime matching DC’s definition aggravated assaults?  We tried to get clarification on this, but received no reply in the week since we inquired.  For the sake of argument, let’s compare the FBI’s definition of aggravated assault with DC’s definition:

DC: § 22-404.01. Aggravated assault (a) A person commits the offense of aggravated assault if. (1) By any means, that person knowingly or purposely causes serious bodily injury to another person; or (2) Under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life, that person intentionally or knowingly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of serious bodily injury to another person, and thereby causes serious bodily injury.

FBI: “unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury…[with] means likely to produce death or great bodily harm.

With definitions of the same crime so close (both an assault that causes serious injury), it’s hard to imagine why MPD would exclude aggravated assaults in the list of FBI “part 1 offenses” reported publicly.  Even the FBI’s guidance to police departments says that an assault with serious injuries requiring treatment beyond just first aid would be an “part 1″-reportable aggravated assault (see pg 25 of the handbook) rather than simple assault.  Therefore, it’s puzzling how MPD could justify excluding aggravated assaults from their public crime reports of “part 1″ offenses.  If that’s truly their position, we may need to double-check what DC has been reporting to the FBI.  Again, we asked MPD about this, but received no reply to our inquiry.

Despite how MPD interprets definitions, censoring public crime stat data is a horrible practice.  By giving citizens information on only nine crimes out of 150 or so crimes, this small cherry-picked view into DC’s crime can mislead the public into thinking crime is down or allow police to manipulate public perception by re-classifying crimes to a lower, non-publicly-reported classification.  If you rely on DC’s public crime map, chances are it will indicate crime is down, but it may only be down for those nine, cherry-picked crimes.  When 15 assailants kick and punch a lone victim, the public stats won’t show that; he’d have to get shot or stabbed to make the cut.

Take, for example, the crime stats around the area where last week’s violent mob assault took place. If you view the online crime map or review the daily crime reports, you’ll notice that there is actually little crime reported. The devil, as they say, is in the details.  In fact, according to public crime stats released by MPD, the area around last week’s assault falsely appears to have less crime than last year:

crime stats

With all those green down arrows, most people would assume that means crime is down for this month compared over the same period last year. If you’ve ever attended a public meeting in DC, that’s a popular refrain touted by MPD.   However, the above stats completely omit the large majority of crime classifications.  Despite the phrases “total violent crime” and “total property crime,” these stats are far from a total of any kind of crime except the nine cherry-picked offenses.   If a violent 15-person mob assault with serious injuries doesn’t make the cut for violent crime, we can only wonder how many other assaults and other crimes are simply omitted in the public crime stats.

With regard to that, MPD says simply that the public doesn’t want the full crime data, and that MPD knows best.  On this, here’s the justification provided by MPD’s press representative Gwendolyn Crump, in part:

For the most part, by utilizing this approach, we have been able to strike a delicate balance between providing crime reports that the community finds most informative and insightful versus flooding them with information on every minor offense.

Regarding last week’s violent 15-person mob assault not making the cut, Crump continued:

The particular incident was unfortunately not captured in any of the nine offense categories of the daily crime report on the listserv. But by no means, however, does it diminish our belief that it was an extremely serious offense, and we will continue to vigorously investigate the matter.

MPD says it has so much hidden crime information that it would “flood” us; more specifically, the police won’t provide that information to the public out of fear of “flooding them with information.”  The end result is that we see stats on only nine crimes out of potential hundreds (by the officer’s count, or about 150 by our informal but conservative count), giving the public and city leaders a false perception of crime and allowing the police an opportunity to fudge the perception further by reclassifying crimes to lower offenses.

Anecdotally, we know that misclassification of crimes occur, but it’s tough to know whether it’s a widespread, concerted effort or simple mistake (especially without any data). In addition, we don’t know whether such misclassification takes place at the officer/street level, or higher up the chain days later. But, officers do make mistakes and those do affect stats. Take, for example, this incident reported by a Capitol Hill resident just this morning in which MPD misclassified a burglary of a garage to a simple theft:

 

 

Credibility, accountability, and integrity start with transparency.  MPD should, as a default, place ALL crime report data online, to include the applicable report number, date/time, address (or street block), current classification, original classification, and other related information.  In addition, the Office of Unified Communications (DC’s 911/311 center) should release data on incoming 911 calls (as they do with 311 calls) to include the street block/location, call date/time, dispatched date/time, officer arrival date/time, call type/classification, disposition, and other information so that the public has a full view of the process. For example, if a 911 call for a robbery results in no police report, we should be able to know.

We followed up with MPD’s public information officer with further questions seeking additional information and clarification last Thursday on the following issues:

  • Why are only those 9 types of crime reported publicly?
  • Presumably, MPD has the report data for all types of crime reports, so why not just publish all the data instead of a small subset?
  • Where in DC Code are “part 1 offenses” defined (as MPD alleged)?  (note: a consult with a local attorney and a police officer revealed there is no such definition in DC code)

As is typical when we seek out MPD information, we’ve received no response. Since it’s been a week, we’ll assume there’s no further comment from MPD nor any plan to change the public availability of data.

If you’d like to change this, we recommend e-mailing your councilmember as well as Councilmember Tommy Wells (twells@dccouncil.us), who has oversight of MPD.

Note: This is the first in a series of posts on this topic, with more coming next week.  If you’re an MPD employee, council staffer, or other person with information that you’d like to share, you can use our anonymous tip form.