St. Louis police defend not telling public about change in crime counts

2010-09-24T00:15:00Z 2011-06-03T15:10:40Z St. Louis police defend not telling public about change in crime countsby CHRISTINE BYERS cbyers@post-dispatch.com > 314-863-2821 AND JEREMY KOHLER jkohler@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8337 stltoday.com

ST. LOUIS  • City police officials told Chief Dan Isom months ago that the department's revamped method of reporting car break-ins could lower crime statistics and lead to criticism of the department, according to memos obtained by the Post-Dispatch through a public-records request.

In an April memo, Lt. Col. Paul Nocchiero told Isom that the "change in methodology" — counting just one crime when several break-ins happen within the same time and place — could make the department appear as if it is hiding crime in a "rising crime category that we, as of yet, cannot get our arms around."

Nocchiero warned that unless the department issued a "heads up" to the change, it could be prone to the same type of criticism it faced after the Post-Dispatch disclosed in 2005 that it was recording some crimes in memos and keeping them off the books.

But Isom did not take Nocchiero's advice, telling Nocchiero that the motives behind the two issues were different.

When it came to counting car break-ins, the department was making an effort to more closely follow FBI guidelines. The memos in lieu of official reports "were totally against any accepted law enforcement practices and completely failed to report crimes."

On Sunday, the Post-Dispatch disclosed that the city had recently begun counting certain property crimes that happen close together as one incident even when there are multiple victims. It's an FBI standard for crime statistics referred to as the "time and place rule." Most police departments, including St. Louis County, use it for car break-ins.

In previous years, city police counted car break-ins by the number of victims involved.

The newspaper reported that the department failed to alert the public about the change while touting a steady decrease in crime rates.

ONGOING EFFORT

After the story was published, Isom told reporters he was not trying to fool the city about crime rates. He insisted the department's crime counting methods have been in flux for years while the department has tried to conform to FBI crime-counting rules.

The only change, he said, has been sending police officers to respond to reports of vehicle break-ins instead of taking reports over the phone — a practice that began in April.

The policy helps officers better determine whether to report one crime or several — as well as gather intelligence on trends, he said.

"Nobody has sent out a message that said, 'OK, let's start doing time and place so we can drive the numbers down,'" Isom said. "Now, has there been clarification? Yes. Have we tried to be more consistent? Yes. That's the story."

The Missouri Highway Patrol in 2009 urged the department to begin using the FBI standards for using a single complaint number for multiple break-ins, according to a report by Ken Hailey, the department's director of planning and research.

In the December 2009 report, which analyzed trends in car break-ins since 2005, Hailey suggested that police allocate more resources to fighting break-ins. And he noted that because of the change in how the crimes are counted, the problem "could be more serious" than department data suggested.

So far this year, car break-ins account for about 15 percent of the crimes the city reports to the FBI.

COMMUNICATION FAILURE

Mayor Francis Slay said during an interview with KMOX on Monday that the Police Department misled him and the citizens of St. Louis by changing its crime counting procedure without telling anyone.

Slay softened his position in a message posted on his blog Wednesday, saying Isom's message to a Post-Dispatch reporter was "garbled."

"It would take a patient accountant to figure out whether some categories of crime are lower over the past four than they were in prior years. ...A double homicide has always been reported as two murders, but five car break-ins on the same block might have been reported as a single incident or as five of them."

Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, said in an interview Thursday that Isom's only mistake has been not communicating well.

He said he thought the story implied that Isom intentionally changed crime numbers to make them "look better under his watch," Rainford said. But he was just doing what the Highway Patrol wanted, Rainford said.

In the interview with the Post-Dispatch, Isom said he did not know how the change in how break-ins are reported affect crime statistics, but he would try to find out. The department will count the number of victims in each larceny to gauge the difference between reporting crimes per incident and per victim.

He said he stands by the numbers.

"All I can do is look at trends," he said. "I will say that over the last three or four years, crime is down. I rarely say year to year, I lump them all together because the only true way to get a picture of it is to look at trends over time."

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