At a D.C. Council hearing April 17, Ellerbe was asked how his investigators had been able to solve arson cases 72.7 percent of the time — more than three times the national average.
“What accounts for the improvement?” council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) asked. “Has there been any change of what you’ve been measuring?”
Ellerbe said there had “not been much of a change” in measurement.
“I think that as employees gain more and more experience, they become more and more successful at what they do,” Ellerbe said. “In addition to that, I believe the rate of arson cases went down.”
But the department had changed the way it counted arsons.
At the hearing, Fire Marshal Bruce D. Faust alluded to the change, telling Wells that he had compiled a “very different” arson closure rate. Under Faust’s calculations, contained in a recent report to the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer, the department recorded a 9.6 percent closure rate for fiscal 2012.
Previously, in keeping with general practice across the nation, a fire was considered an arson when investigators determined that it had been deliberately set. But sometime in recent years, the department narrowed its definition of arson cases to those in which there was evidence of willful or malicious intent sufficient to support an arrest, according to interviews with department officials.
The change had a dramatic effect: The number of reported arsons dropped by nearly 80 percent, from 154 in fiscal 2009 to 32 in fiscal 2012, according to data from the Office of the City Administrator. As that number fell, the department reported that its success in closing arson cases had surged to 72.7 percent.
Department officials later explained that the 72.7 percent figure was based on partial data: eight arrests out of 11 arsons through May 2012. The full-year rate was 34 percent, they said. Still, the higher figure was presented to the council in February and included in the department’s 2014 budget proposal.
Fire marshal’s dissent
The District’s arson numbers and arson closure rate were called into question as early as last summer by Faust, a deputy chief who works for Ellerbe and oversees inspections and investigations.
Faust calculated the 9.6 percent closure rate for 2012 using an older, more universally accepted method: He divided the number of arson arrests, 11, by the number of “incendiary” fires, 114. (He did not count incendiary vehicle fires, because under D.C. law those fires are not subject to arson charges.)