Friday, May 25, 2007 | In February 2006, San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne opened his annual report on crime statistics to a City Council committee with a glowing assessment.
“I’m very happy to report that it’s good news for the city of San Diego,” he said. “The crime rate in our city of San Diego, which we all dearly love, had its largest drop, I think, in the city of San Diego for 10 years.”
There was one problem with the chief’s statement: It wasn’t true. Total crime had actually increased, by 1.1 percent, from the year before.
Lansdowne’s misstatement wasn’t an isolated incident.
A voiceofsandiego.org review of four years’ worth of archived television interviews and committee meetings found that Lansdowne has a history of making inaccurate statements that began a year after assuming the job in August 2003 and climaxed in a City Council hearing earlier this year, when the chief made a series of misleading statements over the course of a nine-and-a-half minute presentation.
In nearly every one of the misstatements discovered, Lansdowne offered assessments that were rosier than the numbers supported. When taken together, the inaccuracies gave residents and the city’s policy makers a distorted impression of such crucial yardsticks as overall crime rates in San Diego, the police response to emergency calls and its ability to staff a new station.
Several times, Lansdowne said emergency response times were within their goals when in fact they were off target. He claimed that 50 percent of the city’s violent crime was gang-related when gangs accounted for less than 10 percent. And on the charged issue of staffing, Lansdowne claimed that the patrol officers for a new substation were all already working in that area, when in fact they were being culled from across the city.
Councilwoman Donna Frye, who served on the city’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee during Lansdowne’s first few months in office, said the chief’s misstatements constitute a pattern of misrepresentation and inaccuracy that is endemic in City Hall.
A History of Misstatements
“It’s patently untrue, it’s false and it’s bad for the city of San Diego,” Frye said of Lansdowne’s comments. “It creates an impression — a sense that things are better than they really are.”
Lansdowne declined to be interviewed for this story. voiceofsandiego.org sent him an e-mail that detailed 11 of the most serious inaccuracies from four videos and one interview. In a written response to that e-mail, the chief said crime statistics are a “living, breathing animal that constantly changes month-to-month and differs greatly on how you apply and interpret it.”
“I always try and be as accurate as possible, but am certainly human and make mistakes,” he wrote. “When I make a mistake, I am always happy to correct the record.”
On Public Television
On Aug. 16, 2004, a year after he became San Diego’s chief of police, Lansdowne appeared on “Full Focus,” a KPBS television show. He was invited to discuss the dropping number of police officers on the street and rising response times within his department.
Questioned about the department’s response times, Lansdowne reassured viewers that the police were doing fine in responding to emergency calls.
“For emergency calls, where someone’s been hurt, we’re still within our six-minute window,” he said.
According to police statistics, the department hadn’t responded to emergency calls in less than seven minutes for the previous three years. Officers say an extra minute could mean life or death in emergency calls, and response times, particularly for emergency calls, are a tried-and-tested performance measure for police departments.
In his response, Lansdowne wrote that his “intentionally broad statement” that the police were responding within a “six-minute window” was considered to mean “within six or seven minutes.”
But the chief would repeat his six-minute claim almost two years later on another “Full Focus” show in February 2006. This time he would be less ambiguous.
Asked by the host what the average response time is for serious calls, Lansdowne said: “For the very serious calls — priority emergency, priority E calls — we’re getting to them within the six minutes that we should.”
By that time, the department’s emergency response times had continued to hover above seven minutes for the two years Lansdowne had been in office. In 2004, the average response time for emergency calls had been 7.3 minutes and in 2005 it had been 7.2 minutes.
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, a former San Diego police chief, said emergency response times are important figures. “I don’t know why Bill said six minutes, I have no clue,” Sanders said.
Sanders said he can understand that Lansdowne makes errors, and that he would prefer the chief didn’t make the same errors over and over again. He said Lansdowne tries to be accurate and always hands out written information that is correct.
“I’m not sure that he’s attempting to deceive or anything else,” he said. “He has absolutely no reason to.”
Sister Margaret Castro, a community activist who appeared on the television show with Lansdowne, said she felt uneasy about the facts and figures she was being told by the chief.
“I knew the things he was saying were untrue,” she said. “I wanted to be a little bit harder on him.”
In the 2006 show, Lansdowne made another claim about response times. He was asked for the department’s average response time for priority one calls, such as a disturbance with a weapon or reported child abuse. He replied: “It’s running around 12 minutes for the city of San Diego.”
According to police statistics, the SDPD hadn’t, at that point, been able to get its response time for priority one calls below 13 minutes since 2001. In 2005, the average response time for those calls had been 14.4 minutes.
Kevin LaChapelle, a former El Cajon police officer who monitors crime statistics and runs a nonprofit police watchdog, said he believed the chief had every chance to get the statistics right.
“He has all the crime analysis in the world,” LaChapelle said. “I don’t buy that he doesn’t know it.”
In his written response, Lansdowne wrote that he takes “extreme exception” to any implication that his misstatements were intentional rather than simply human error.
“I care deeply about this city and this police department and to suggest that I have any malicious intent when I error in reporting crimes statistics and other public safety information is reckless reporting,” he wrote.
Briefing the City Council
Earlier this month, voiceofsandiego.org reported that the chief’s annual presentation to the City Council in February, made in the midst of contract negotiations with the police union, contained a number of inaccuracies. Among the misstatements: He incorrectly claimed that crime was at its lowest since 1976 and that police were nearly meeting their response-time goals.
At the time, the chief said he is bound to make mistakes due to the volume of presentations he makes. But a subsequent review of several past meetings of the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, a body tasked with overseeing public safety on behalf of the City Council, found a pattern of inaccuracies stretching beyond this year’s hearing.
In the February 2006 meeting, where Lansdowne opened with the statement that crime was dropping in San Diego, the chief also closed his presentation with a statement that backed up his overall assessment of the city’s crime rates.
“The good news is, the crime rate’s going down,” he said. “The difficult thing is it’s going to be a struggle for us to do it again next year.”
The overall crime rate had actually increased in 2005 from the year before. In his written response this week, Lansdowne admitted that his statement that the crime rate had seen its largest drop in 10 years “could have been more artfully crafted.” However, he pointed out that the crime rate in 2005 was significantly lower than it had been 10 years earlier.
In an April 2006 committee meeting, Lansdowne reported his concern over a skyrocketing homicide rate. Homicides had increased by 75 percent from the year before.
Though he described the spike in homicides as disturbing, Lansdowne quickly pointed out, correctly, that homicides had dropped the year before. The drop was due to the department’s focus on violence, he said.
“Last year, as we looked at the numbers, and the year before, roughly 50 percent of all violent crimes — shootings, attempted murder, drive-by shootings — are caused and involving gang members,” he said.
The actual percentage of violent crimes that can be attributed to gangs was much lower, according to the chief’s own report to the City Council, issued two months before the meeting.
According to that report, fewer than 10 percent of violent crimes were related to gangs. The same was true for 2004. A recent agenda of the city’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention puts the percentage of violent crime that is gang-related at just 6 percent.
The chief’s statement placed a disproportionate amount of the blame for the rising homicide rate on gang violence.
Lansdowne’s response did not address his statements on gang-related crime.
Councilman Brian Maienschein, chairman of the council committee, said he was concerned about Lansdowne’s record of misstatements.
“On the one hand the chief of police makes hundreds of appearances and is occasionally going to make mistakes,” Maienschein said. “However, if the mistakes are really material, then the chief needs to retract them.”
Last year, Maeinschein boycotted some of the city’s closed-session meetings citing the inaccurate information he said he was receiving from city staff. He said Lansdowne has a responsibility to provide accurate information to his committee.
“My biggest frustration has been that I feel so many times that I have been given inaccurate information over and over and over again,” Maienschein said.
In the Northwestern Division
On March 22 of this year, Lansdowne attended the grand opening of the Police Department’s new substation in Carmel Valley. The impressive substation was to be the headquarters for the department’s new northwestern division.
Members of the officers union had raised concern about the opening of the new substation. They contended that, in the midst of the city’s recruitment and retention crisis, the department was redirecting its valuable personnel to a part of the city with a historically low crime rate.
During a tour of the new facility, Lansdowne was asked why he was redirecting police officers to such a low-crime area of the city.
“The officers that are currently assigned here today are the officers that work in the area,” Lansdowne said. “We’ve taken no one from any other station.”
But an internal police memo showed that officers were being transferred from several other divisions in San Diego. The captain of the new division, David Rohowitz, was transferred from central division, historically one of the department’s highest crime areas. Other officers came from as far afield as the department’s southern division, which covers San Ysidro and Otay Mesa.
“Although I don’t generally get involved in the day-to-day staffing decisions, my intent was to convey to you that overall patrol staffing in the City of San Diego was not impacted by the creation and staffing of this new division, and that fact is true,” Lansdowne wrote in his response to voiceofsandiego.org.
As of press time, at least one of the divisions had not yet received new officers to replace the patrol officers transferred to the Carmel Valley station.
Bill Nemec, president of the Police Officers Association, said Lansdowne inherited a Police Department with a multitude of staffing problems. The exodus of sworn officers from San Diego may have had some influence over the chief’s misstatements over the past four years, Nemec said.
“He’s trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear here,” Nemec said. “By cherry picking the better statistics he’s letting people know: Let’s try and get through this and, in spite of what you hear, still things are progressing relatively well.”