All Crime Counts on Metro

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

LIES, DAMNED LIES and statistics might have made an apt motto for the crime data that Metro police have presented to the public over the years. As it turns out, the transit agency's figures, as published on its Web site and in news releases, should have come tagged with a large asterisk to indicate that the information was -- and we are being polite here -- incomplete, since it failed to include crimes handled by other police departments in or adjacent to Metro stations. Only after Post reporters Lena H. Sun and Lyndsey Layton challenged transit police officials on their long-standing reporting practices did the agency's Web site add a disclaimer pointing out that its crime figures are partial and, therefore, next to meaningless.

It's not that crime is rampant in Metro trains and parking lots. Commuters don't run the same risk of getting shot as they do of being delayed by breakdowns and malfunctions. In fact, the level of crime on Metro compares poorly to some other big-city transit systems and well to others. Rather, the problem is that Metro misled the public, as well as its own board of directors, by underreporting crime levels. Moreover, the underreporting was significant; in the 18 months ending in June, figures compiled by Ms. Sun and Ms. Layton show that the incidence of serious crime ran at least 20 percent higher than the rate reported by Metro.

What's more, Metro police had access, or could have had access, to better and more complete data. The agency has long-standing memorandums of understanding with other area police departments governing the crime data they are required to share. Agency officials now suggest, without naming names, that some local police departments were not always diligent in producing timely and full information. But that lame excuse obscures two key points: First, it was Metro's responsibility -- not other police agencies' -- to seek, collect and release accurate statistics. Second, Metro's own policy was to publish only the statistics supplied to the FBI, which, to avoid double-counting, excluded crimes handled by other police forces. A more honest policy would have furnished the FBI with what it required, and would have presented a full picture of all Metro crime to the riding public.

That, apparently, is what Transit Police Chief Polly L. Hanson has decided on. A day after being questioned by Post reporters about her department's crime-reporting policy, she asked other jurisdictional police chiefs to produce statistics on crimes they handled on Metro property -- in other words, to fulfill past agreements. She said the figures would be made public. While Chief Hanson is at it, she might also try to present crime statistics in a way they'd be most useful to riders -- sorted by Metro station. That would be a valuable step toward accountability and a good-faith effort to inform the public honestly and fully.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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