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Wednesday, May 30, 2007 | For several years, members of the San Diego City Council have complained that they were misled if not outright lied to by the city’s employees. Several of them have blamed staff members for getting them into so much trouble with agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission. One of them, in fact, Councilman Brian Maienschein, regularly has avoided closed-session meetings of the council because, he says, he simply can’t trust what he is told in them.
Yet only Councilwoman Donna Frye has complained after revelations recently that Police Chief William Lansdowne has regularly made materially misleading statements about crime rates in the city of San Diego. Sometimes to the City Council itself, other times in public forums, the police chief has touted the city’s crime environment with statistics and conclusions that were simply untrue. In a 2006 presentation to the City Council committee that oversees public safety efforts, Lansdowne claimed that the crime rate had gone down but that “it would be a struggle for us to do it again next year.” The crime rate, in fact, had gone up.
In the same forum the next year, the chief would claim that the city’s crime rate was the lowest it had been since 1976. It wasn’t.
At that same presentation, he said that overall crime had been coming down each of the previous three years. It hadn’t.
Lansdowne said on public television that his officers were responding to the most serious of calls from residents in trouble “within the six minutes that we should.” That was not true. Responses to emergency calls were taking an average of seven minutes and were getting slightly worse.
The list goes on. Lansdowne said he is bound to make mistakes — anyone required to recite so many statistics in so many public forums would inevitably get some incorrect. But while the nature of the misstatements vary, there is one unifying theme among them: They consistently portray the city’s crime situation in a better light than the department’s published statistics indicated.
And further, the chief’s misstatements aren’t just transposed numbers and missing decimal points — he made materially misleading conclusions about the statistics he was presenting. Crime rates were the best since 1976. Or crime had dropped each of the last three years. Or response times were improving.
There was no document that presented the public and City Council with more truthful extrapolations. Nothing that said, in a PowerPoint presentation, for example, that “What the chief is currently saying is incorrect.”
No, there is a reason that the police chief and others are asked to publicly speak on issues like this: Speeches have power. A public statement will stick in the minds of the people who hear it. That’s why the mayor has press conferences hoping to attract cameras to record his words. That’s why the City Council meetings are taped.
And because his public presentations carry so much weight, people should be able to believe the police chief when he says that crime is going down. They shouldn’t have to parse through documents to double check his statements and find out that they’re not true.
Mayor Jerry Sanders and his staff have unflinchingly come to the chief’s defense. Nothing to see here, folks, Sanders says. The mayor and his staff point out that a careful study of the jumble of numbers on a screen or in official city document belied the chief’s conclusions. Sanders asserts that the police chief simply made mistakes — as anyone would — and that the true statistics are published for everyone to see. This proves the police chief is not trying to hide or spin the truth, he asserts.
In other words, the mayor’s message is simple: Don’t listen to what the chief says out loud, he might not be telling the truth and you have to double check everything he says. And that’s just normal.
But Sanders ran for mayor based on a simple and important message: He would enforce accountability. He wouldn’t mislead the City Council or the public about the state of the city. You could trust what he and his staff report. If they made a mistake, he claimed, they would make it right and ensure it never happened again.
The city’s true crime rate is, in many ways, comforting and the successes are something for which city leaders can take credit. But a consistently positive series of misleading public pronouncements about the city’s true condition points to an alarming lack of controls and concern over the accuracy of these numbers.
And given City Hall’s recent history, we shouldn’t be surprised that the mayor and City Council would shrug off a potential fault in the city’s controls as no big deal.