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Monday, May 14, 2007 | Last Thursday, voiceofsandiego.org reported on some misstatements made by San Diego Police Department Chief William Lansdowne before a February committee meeting of the City Council. The controversy, to the extent there ever was one, has faded. So, why am I resurfacing the issue? Because I think that it raises a number of important issues, for public officials and the media alike, on which we should reflect.
First, let me just re-state the subject of this dust-up: As part of a presentation that involved hundreds of facts and figures, Chief Lansdowne made five misstatements, one of which was transposing two numbers. It can hardly be argued that he was misleading anyone because a Power Point presentation on a big screen at the front of the committee room and a printed report distributed in advance to all contained the correct numbers. The same documents were also posted on the city’s website back in February.
Should the Chief have been more careful and cited the statistics accurately? Absolutely. Will he be even more attentive than he already is in the future? I have no doubt. Like all of us though, Bill Lansdowne is human and that means we all make mistakes. While clearly a mistake of the mind and not the heart, there’s a valuable lesson here for public officials: Our words matter and they should not be delivered without thoughtful deliberation.
There are also some valuable lessons in this tale for the media. Your medium is a powerful one. With that power comes a responsibility to accurately portray a situation in its entirety so that readers can appreciate the full context of an event. In my opinion, this particular story did not achieve that standard. It allowed the forest to be mistaken for one small sapling, the result being an unfortunate mischaracterization of the state of public safety in San Diego today.
While statistics reflect trends, to the victim of a crime the only important statistic is their own. Each crime tears at the fabric of our community and as such is considered a crime against all of us.
My fear is that the casual reader could very well have walked away with the impression that crime is rampant on the streets of our city and that Bill Lansdowne regularly and recklessly lies about crime statistics to trick more money out of the City Council. Clearly, neither is the case.
What the story didn’t mention is that San Diego is one of the safest large cities in America according to the FBI and that our residents are less likely to be victims of crimes today than they were years ago.
What the story didn’t mention is that San Diego had fewer crimes in 2006 than in 27 of the preceding 31 years and fewer violent crimes in 2006 than in any of the preceding 20 years. It would have been more interesting to report that in 2006, San Diego had fewer than half the number of violent crimes the city experienced just 15 years ago.
What the story didn’t mention is that since Bill Lansdowne has been the chief, crime has decreased by 4 percent overall. And lastly, what the story didn’t mention is that during his 40-year career, Bill Lansdowne has honestly and repeatedly distinguished himself as a thoughtful and caring leader widely respected by all facets of the communities he has served. These details matter and I think would have given the reader a very different impression of the situation.
So as we move on to the next public policy discussion, my hope is that we will all take something meaningful with us.