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Thursday, May 10, 2007 | On Feb. 28, four City Council members sat down to hear a quarterly crime report delivered by San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne.
The chief’s presentation lasted just under ten minutes. During that time, the committee would hear at least five statements by the chief that were inaccurate and materially misleading.
The statements came in the midst of a flurry of contract negotiations between the police and the city. With the San Diego Police Department hemorrhaging officers to other local agencies, the city’s police union and many rank-and-file officers were busy making the case that the department was desperately understaffed and unable to effectively police the city.
But Lansdowne’s incorrect statements helped paint a picture of a department well in control of crime, a department that was, in his words “doing something very right in the city of San Diego in our effort to protect each and every person.”
Lansdowne told the council the crime rate was at its lowest since 1976: It wasn’t. Overall crime has been coming down for three years, he said: It hadn’t. Police are nearly meeting their response time goals, he said: They weren’t.
Questioned about the statements, Lansdowne wrote in an e-mail to voiceofsandiego.org that he presents crime statistics to a number of different audiences, and that “there will inevitably be times when mistakes are made with respect to a particular crime statistic or public safety issue.”
Further, Assistant Police Chief Bill Maheu, who fact-checked voiceofsandiego.org‘s findings, confirmed in an e-mail that the mistakes had been made. He wrote that Lansdowne had not had a chance to review his PowerPoint presentation prior to the committee meeting.
“During the presentation the chief did in fact misstate the statistics pointed out in your e-mail,” Maheu wrote. He stressed that the written report the police department sent to the City Council is accurate.
That wasn’t the case for Lansdowne’s presentation to the committee, which opened with two strong statements: “This is the third year that crime has come down in the city of San Diego — overall crime,” he said. Then, he stated that 2006’s crime rate was “lower than we’ve seen since 1976.”
Both statements are untrue, according to the police department’s own statistics.
Overall crime has not been coming down for the last three years. The total number of crimes committed actually rose from 2004 to 2005, before dropping between 2005 and 2006. The crime rate, though low in 2006, was actually significantly lower in 2000.
Later in his presentation, Lansdowne said that property crime in San Diego has also “come down each year for the last three years.” Again, property crime has only been falling for one year. The property crime rate rose between 2004 and 2005, before falling from 2005 to 2006.
Members of the committee before which Lansdowne presented raised questions about voiceofsandiego.org’s findings.
“I rely on the information presented to us to make policy decisions,” said Councilman Tony Young, who sits on the committee. “We need to make sure that information is accurate and clear.”
Similarly, representatives of the police officers union voiced their disappointment at Lansdowne’s lack of accuracy in what they considered a crucial meeting, at a crucial juncture in their negotiations.
“The thing that bothers me is playing fast and loose with the statistics,” said Bill Nemec, president of the Police Officers Association. “Especially with what was and continues to be at stake here.”
Councilman Brian Maienschein, who chairs the committee, stressed that he regards Lansdowne’s mistakes as simple errors — not purposeful misrepresentations of the facts.
“He’s somebody who I have faith in his honesty, in his integrity,” Maienschein said. “I know he would never intentionally lie.”
The police often tout crime statistics as evidence that the police department has a handle on the city’s crime. Earlier this week, Lansdowne and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders stood in front of two police helicopters to announce dropping crime rates. Those rates illustrated the dedication of police officers and the spirit of cooperation between the police department and city residents, Lansdowne said.
Crime statistics are thus an important measure for assessing the performance of a police department. In San Diego, one of the groups tasked with assessing police performance is the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services committee, a group one former police chief takes very seriously.
“There’s no doubt that’s a very, very important forum,” said Rulette Armstead, a retired San Diego assistant police chief who now teaches law enforcement administration at San Diego State University. “If I ever presented before that committee, I always tried to make sure my information was up-to-date and accurate.”
Nemec said that the need to present accurate information was heightened by the contract negotiations, which were ongoing at the time of the meeting.
“Everybody knew what was at stake,” Nemec said. “Sure we wanted to ensure to the community that we are doing a good job, but we shouldn’t run from the facts.”
“I would have hoped there would have been more fact-checking before the statements were made,” he added.
Mistating the Numbers
Apart from the misstatements on crime statistics, Lansdowne also erred when he presented the police department’s response times to the committee.
Response times refer to the time it takes the police department to get officers to the scene of a crime. They are a key measure of effective policing. Concern over the department’s inability to hit its target response times played front-and-center in Lansdowne’s Five Year Plan for the police department, released in December 2005.
In the committee meeting, Lansdowne misspoke on a vital figure relating to response times. He said that the department’s goal for response times for priority one calls, such as a disturbance with a weapon or reported child abuse, is 14 minutes.
“Our goal has always been, in the San Diego Police Department, for the last 10 years, to get down to 14 minutes,” he said.
That target is actually 12 minutes, as clarified in a later interview with Assistant Police Chief Bill Maheu.
Twelve minutes is also the goal listed in the chief’s own Five-Year Plan, but Lansdowne used the 14-minute figure as evidence that the department is nearly hitting its goals.
“We’re getting close to that number — we’re not there yet,” he said.
The SDPD’s average response time for priority one calls in 2006 was 14.6 minutes. Since 2004, response times have been getting steadily longer, according to times provided by the police department.
Some SDPD officers said the 2.6 minutes between the SDPD’s goal and actual response time could mean the difference between life and death. Misstating this crucial measurement of police service suggested to the committee, and thus the public, that service levels are much better that they actually are.
“We’re short staffed and we’re taking an inordinate amount of time to get to calls,” said Jeff Jordon, an officer with the SDPD’s western division who sits on the police union’s board. “That’s why it’s important for the chief to put out accurate information, so that the community can be aware of the issues we face.”
In his e-mail, Lansdowne wrote that he always tries to be as accurate as possible in his presentations, and that he is always happy to correct the record when he has made a mistake.
Maheu stressed that despite the verbal misstatements made in the committee meeting, Lansdowne’s written report and PowerPoint presentation were entirely accurate and gave support to the chief’s overall message that dropping crime levels in San Diego “are a tribute to the men and women in our local law enforcement and the community we have the privilege to work with and serve.”