Armed with a page full of crime statistics, Detroit Police Chief James Craig tried to explain to a group of reporters why his city is not the most violent, crime-ridden municipality in America — despite what people are making of the latest FBI data.
The FBI just released its annual compendium of crime statistics. Violent crime in the nation was up slightly, the report said, though still near historically low levels. The report was bad news for Detroit, which had the worst violent-crime rate of the nation’s largest cities.
Every year, the FBI warns in bold writing people shouldn’t use the crime statistics to compare one city and another. Routinely, people and news organizations ignore the admonition and home in on the places with the worst numbers, writing headlines like “The most dangerous cities in America.”
The analysis by the Detroit Free Press, for example, said the city had more killings than Los Angeles, which has four times as many people.
The news sparked Craig’s defense of his city, which occurred during a news conference about a police standoff with a knife-wielding man, according to the Free Press.
“I reject it,” he said of the FBI’s reported numbers, adding people shouldn’t believe them “just because it’s coming out of the FBI.”
He told The Washington Post he took particular issue with the FBI’s numbers on aggravated assault, which he said were off by more than 1,000. He faulted aging and “garbage” software for feeding inaccurate data to state police and the FBI. Craig said the FBI was unwilling to fix the error because of a deadline.
“The crime data is the crime data, but if we’re telling you it’s wrong, at least have the professional courtesy to make some sort of adjustment,” he said.
It was the latest negative headline for Detroit, which entered bankruptcy protection in 2013 after decades of economic decline.
The epicenter of the nation’s auto industry had the highest per capita income in the 1950s and was once known as the “Paris of the West.”
Six decades later, it emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Through decades of decline, Detroit has been at the receiving end of jokes and criticism. The New York Post opined the real Detroit wasn’t too far off from its dystopian depiction in the “RoboCop” movies. Late-night talk-show host Conan O’Brien listed Detroit at No. 4 on a mocking list of 20 “Worst Summer Vacation Destinations.”
The city’s problems — quality-of-life issues, abandoned homes as people flee the city and troubles with police — were laid bare when Detroit filed for bankruptcy.
According to a Washington Post report in 2013: “Average police response time is almost an hour. Nearly 80,000 buildings are abandoned or seriously blighted, and 40 percent of the city’s streetlights do not work. The jobless rate is above 18 percent, more than twice the national rate.”
Craig was hired as police chief around that time, tasked with rebuilding a department with a shoestring budget and declining morale. The new chief, a Detroit native and a street cop in his home town, had been a victim of the city’s economic decline: He was laid off the police force in 1981.
On Monday, he detailed why he thinks the latest insult to his city is unwarranted.
It was an acronym- and statistics-filled news conference. The crux of Craig’s argument is Detroit’s old system of analyzing crime data was error-filled. It was one of many problems he said he encountered when he took over, but the department had more serious issues to contend with as the city entered bankruptcy.
To get a better gauge of the crime numbers, the police department hired a Wayne State University professor to help weed out what Craig called typical human errors in the data. Craig said he is more confident in the latest numbers.
“We’re confident that when we ended 2016, we had a 5 percent reduction in violent crime,” he said during Monday’s impromptu news conference, which was live-streamed, then posted on the Detroit Police Department’s Facebook page. “And a 5 percent reduction in overall crime.”
Still, the argument about the crime numbers reflects some of the criticisms levied against police departments that use statistics to convince the public that they are doing a good job, said John Eterno, a Molloy College criminal justice professor who has analyzed similar data-based systems in U.S. police departments.
“Official reports have always had problems,” he told The Post. “But in the performance-management era, the problems have skyrocketed. … Since [police are] the ones that are taking the reports in, they have every opportunity to play with those numbers. We’ve seen problems in Milwaukee. We’ve seen problems in New York, New Orleans. We’ve seen problems throughout the United States.”
Eterno, a former New York City police captain, said police statistics should, at best, “be taken with a grain of salt.”
“This is not something that you should be looking at and saying my police department is doing a good job,” he said. “That’s not the metric that you should be using.”
The FBI’s admonishment includes similar warnings about ranking cities.
“These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, tribal area, or region,” it said. “Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents.”
For Detroit, Craig said the problems he outlined should be fixed next year because the city has purchased a new program to crunch crime statistics.
“All we want to do is report accurate data,” he said. “We were transparent and honest that they were underreported, and we’ll be the same when they’re overreported. … We take crime seriously, how we analyze it, and how we calculate it.”