Another front-page story last week in The Dallas Morning News criticizing the Dallas Police Department's crime-reporting methods had the paper in a self-congratulatory mood, with the editorial board demanding "an independent external audit or a formal FBI review of Dallas' crime-reporting procedures" and Steve Blow applauding his colleagues for revealing that "Dallas is clearly cheating in the way it counts assaults." D Magazine also jumped on the praise train, and even Schutze referred to it as "a journalistic triumph for reporters Steve Thompson and Tanya Eiserer."
The story accused Chief David Kunkle of deviating from FBI guidelines when he implemented a new reporting policy in 2007 related to assaults aimed at reducing the city's violent crime rate. If the paper's allegation is true, Kunkle's claim of reducing the violent crime rate 32 percent from 2004 to 2008 could be a lie -- it may have dropped only 19 percent. And, most important, Kunkle may be a numbers-fudger.
Assaults are reported into two categories -- simple and aggravated -- with only aggravated counting against the crime rate. Reporting simple assaults as aggravated assaults incorrectly inflated an already sky-high crime rate -- the highest in the country among large cities for a decade -- and Kunkle hoped the new reporting changes would at least put Dallas on a level playing field with other cities so perhaps it could slide out of the top spot, which it did this year, finishing second to San Antonio.
In July 2007, Eiserer penned a piece about the changes, which stemmed from the realization that the DPD hadn't been following some of the guidelines included in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program. She quoted Dr. Bob Taylor of the University of North Texas as saying the UCR "has a lot of problems," and she wrote if the UCR guidelines seem confusing, "that's because they are."
"It's unfortunate," James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston, told the News. "We would like to get a uniform, uniform reporting system. Without jurisdictions following the rules, obviously, the crime statistics aren't uniform nor comparable."
Yet two years later, the UCR guidelines suddenly had no more problems. They were no longer confusing. Totally uniform. At least, that's what the story would have you believe.
As Jim explained, Kunkle refused to do a sit-down interview with the News, instead agreeing to answer questions via e-mail, claiming he believed that "the story had already been written." He was right.
Thompson (recently promoted to the City Hall beat) and Eiserer had a plethora of quotes from experts damning the DPD's crime reporting, and they submitted a one-week sample of cases from this summer to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which administers the UCR program for the state and collects crime stats for the feds. The state folks agreed that all of the approximately 40 incidents sent for review by the News should have been reported as aggravated instead of simple assaults, and the DPD agreed that some should have been reported differently.
The News summarized the UCR thusly:
If someone attacks or threatens another with any object that could serve as a dangerous weapon, the assault is considered aggravated regardless of injury -- just as if that object were a gun or a knife.
"The weapons in this category include, but are not limited to, Mace, pepper spray, clubs, bricks, jack handles, tire irons, bottles, or other blunt instruments used to club or beat victims," say the UCR Program's instructions.
To back this up, Rosemary Webb with TxDPS e-mailed the paper: "The extent of the injury is not a factor if a weapon is used."
Yup, the story was written. But, c'mon. Open-and-shut case, right?
Not so fast.
To buy into the premise of the story is to acknowledge that the DPD is in fact ignoring or disobeying the FBI guidelines as it relates to reporting assaults, but a read through the UCR handbook proves Eiserer's point from '07: If the Uniform Crime Reporting guidelines seem confusing, that's because they are.
Right there. Plain as day. Page 27. They even pulled it out in a green blurb to emphasize it: "Often, the weapon used or the extent of the injury sustained will be the deciding factor in distinguishing aggravated from simple assault."
While the UCR does say, "It is not necessary that injury result from an aggravated assault when a gun, knife, or other weapon that could cause serious personal injury is used," it doesn't say that all cases involving anything that could be construed as a weapon should be classified as aggravated regardless of the outcome.
The UCR also describes aggravated assault as "a troublesome crime to classify," which is noted in the DMN story, and it provides three aids to classifying assaults: the type of weapon employed or the use of an object as a weapon, the seriousness of the injury and the intent of the assailant to cause serious injury.
I made several calls late last week to all of the experts quoted in the News story, along with a couple others. Thus far, I've only heard back from Paul Landfair, who has been involved in the Woodbriar Crime Watch in North Dallas for six years and told Eiserer that it looks like the DPD is "trying to cook the books."
Landfair tells me, "It's kind of interesting. That issue that the Morning News brought up, I don't think it's resolved yet."
He says he's read UCR handbook, noting that Eiserer showed him a copy to refresh his memory when she interviewed him. "Dallas doesn't seem to adhere to the UCR definition [of reporting assaults]."
Then I read him the highlighted passage from the UCR handbook, and he quickly spins 180 degrees. "Exactly. It's not black and white," he says. "It's up to the officer to interpret, and that's life in the big city I guess. There's nothing we can do about that. It is a vague area."
I remind Landfair, who's been collecting crime data for more than 60 neighborhoods for three years, that he's contradicted his comments to the News.
"You've taken me to task," he says. "It's really complicated. ... I'm not exactly sure what I think."
Landfair discusses a hypothetical: someone threatens him with a baseball bat. That should be aggravated assault, he says, and the FBI agrees with him. I tell him that Kunkle is simply advocating for officers to use their best judgment when classifying crimes.
"The jury's still out, and I don't know if it's ever coming in," he says. "If it's up to the officer filing out the report -- my son's a cop, so I'm biased -- so I would trust the cop at the scene to make the decision."
Now he seems firmly in Kunkle's camp, but not before tossing up one final Hail Mary. Landfair says there's a correlation: Kunkle changed the stats, and now they're going down. But I remind him that Kunkle was very public about doing so, and that was the intent -- to lower the stats. In fact, Eiserer's '07 story had Kunkle saying the change would be so significant that he might ask the FBI to put an asterisk by the '07 data.
"So I guess I'll take Kunkle's side," he says.
Kunkle admits that if the UCR guidelines are looked at as strict rules to be followed, then the DPD is not following the rules in every case. However, he stresses that they are merely guidelines that can be contradictory in some cases with no sanctions for noncompliance.
"Sometimes we disagree with them," Kunkle tells Unfair Park. "Sometimes it's not very clear."
The FBI last audited the DPD's crime stats in 2007 (evaluating the '06 stats), and Kunkle expects another one soon. Although The News cited several other cities claiming to adhere to the paper's definition of the UCR guidelines, Kunkle says he talked with several other departments when making his decision two years ago and found that cities use widely differing ways to report and categorize crimes across the country.
"In fact, I think that every large city, if you looked at all the choices that could be made from the time somebody tries reporting an incident or crime to police and how that's handled from whether a patrol officer responds or whether you have to go to a precinct house from beginning to end, you're not going to find any two that are comparable to each other."
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After sitting for hours answering questions about the first and second stories from Eiserer and Thompson, Kunkle says he didn't see the point in going through the motions again. "Anything we said seemed to be rejected on its face, and I just didn't see any reason to do it this time."
Kunkle says he'll brief the city council's Public Safety Committee on why the DPD has chosen to report assaults the way it does and the ramifications of choosing an alternative. "I think what we've done makes sense. It's rational. It's based on good judgment and experience."
If the reporting is changed again, Kunkle says while Dallas might be able to tout its adherence to these supposed guidelines, it will result in a crime rate out of proportion to other major U.S. cities.
"Our position has been if they want to hold us to an absolute strict adherence to the guidelines, we expect they will do that to every city in the county because that's not happening now."