Are police recording crime stats correctly?

April 25, 2008 6:32:13 AM PDT
How safe is your neighborhood? You might not be getting the whole story from police, when it comes to certain types of crimes that are going on. Eyewitness News has spent five months looking into the way the Houston Police Department codes and reports crimes. We asked for an explanation to what we found a week ago, and sent the department copies of what we found. As of tonight we've not gotten any explanation, though the chief did talk about the issue in general.

On a stretch of road a year ago, Houston Police Officer Eric Dargin is accused of stopping a woman and then sexually assaulting her. He's charged with the crime. Prosecutors say they have DNA evidence. His next court date is in June.

But if you check HPD's crime statistics, you won't find his case listed at all. You also won't find at least six other sexual assault cases in which the suspect was charged. And there are another eight listed as less violent crimes, calling into question the legitimacy of HPD's reported crime statistics.

This is all important because the city hangs its hat and reputation on lowering crime from year to year. And each year it reports these numbers to the FBI, which in turn ranks cities based on the most serious -- murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault -- omitting or changing the codes can alter the results for all reported crime.

HPD Chief Harold Hurtt said, "(They're) as reliable as human beings are, I guess."

There are also the cases where the coding of the crimes itself is questionable. Including one case in which a suspect was charged with sexual assault, but HPD coded it as robbery because the suspect took the woman's cell phone.

Marinelle Timmons runs the victims' assistance center, and she wonders how many more miscoded cases there are we just don't know about.

"You wonder if there wasn't a thorough enough investigation on their part, to where they felt they could back a more serious charge or if there's some other reason," she mused.

Chief Hurtt admitted, "That's always a possibility (that some of the crimes that are reported aren't coded correctly.) We deal with thousands and thousands of cases each year."

Eyewitness News also found 20 charged aggravated assaults that HPD coded as lesser crimes. While coding a crime is not a science, there are the Uniform Crime Reporting guidelines, called UCR, which tell officers to code the most serious crime if more than one is committed.

Are they always doing that? Is the reporting consistent? Without HPD statisticians answering our questions about specific cases, it's hard to know. Chief Hurtt says he's already talked about that with the FBI director regarding all police departments.

"We need to look at the process of UCR to make sure that the facts we are giving out are as accurate as possible," Chief Hurtt said.

We also asked HPD for the public information portion of the police report on Officer Dargin. The department wouldn't give it to us, claiming it's part of an internal affairs investigation. It's now up to the attorney general to decide.

Chief Hurtt says he supports changing the crime reporting method for police departments across the country. The current system accounts for only the most serious crimes if more than one is committed. The nation incident based reporting system accounts for each of the crimes -- and makes the stats more accurate.

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