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Analysis: Last month, San Diego police asked a City Council committee for $66 million over the next five years to hire more cops, buy new equipment and repair facilities.
And to bolster their request, police listed numerous trends and performance measures. They cited rising response times, a decline in proactive policing, officer retention concerns, recent staffing losses and an unreliable dispatch system.
Since we had already reported most of those issues, our coverage instead focused on a new trend highlighted by Police Chief Bill Lansdowne. He warned the council committee that crime was starting to get out of control and would keep rising without additional funding.
Lansdowne’s warning marked a substantial shift in his public statements about crime trends. For years, he has told residents that their neighborhoods were getting safer and safer. Now, Lansdowne says the city is becoming a more dangerous place to live.
Upon closer inspection, however, we found the crime warning had relied on a flawed statistical comparison. Police cited violent crime levels in recent months and compared them to an isolated period of unusually low crime last year. When compared to other years or a broader timeframe, the warning evaporated.
I appeared on a couple KPBS programs and our weekly show on AM 600 KOGO to talk about violent crime trends. Then, U-T San Diego’s Matt Hall wrote a column similarly questioning the Police Department’s statistical comparison.
In response to this scrutiny, police argued the media’s focus on crime trends was overblown. Lansdowne appeared on KPBS and urged people to consider all of the reasons that police had cited — not just crime. In a letter published by VOSD, Marvel and Jordon also called the media coverage misleading and again listed numerous arguments for additional funding.
But among their list, Marvel and Jordon made a new claim about rising crime. They wrote:
Crime was up again in June, meaning it has been up for six straight months. With crime rising to levels typically seen in previous years, combined with an inability to quickly shift officers due to reduced staffing, it is easy to understand why Chief Lansdowne told the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, “It’s starting to get away from us a little bit.”
When I read Marvel and Jordon’s letter, I figured they were describing the same types of crimes that Lansdowne had cited when he made the “starting to get away from us” comment. Lansdowne had cited increasing levels of violent crime over the first five months of the year. Now, it appeared, Marvel and Jordon were claiming the crime spike had continued through June, too.
In an email, Tony Manolatos, a consultant who helped write the letter, confirmed that “crime” specifically referred to violent crime, which includes murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults. Manolatos said they had received information from police to back up the claim.
But after checking the Police Department’s own crime statistics, we found the letter misrepresented how violent crime has changed in recent months.
Marvel and Jordon suggested violent crime had risen in six straight months, but the statistics show the monthly total went down in both February and June. The drop in June was actually big enough to offset smaller increases in each of the previous three months, as illustrated below.
Marvel and Jordon wrote that crime had gone up in June and each of the preceding five months. Since crime actually went down in two of the six months — including June — we’ve rated the statement False. Marvel and Jordon didn’t dispute our findings.
From talking with Asst. Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who provided crime information to Marvel and Jordon for the letter, it appears the error was caused by some confusion. Zimmerman said she had described a broader timeframe than what the letter cited. She said police have reported more violent crime during the entire first half of the year than the same period last year, which is true.
Since Marvel and Jordon didn’t explicitly describe violent crime in the letter, we also checked numerous other ways that law enforcement officials and researchers track crime. We looked at how property crime, overall crime and individual crime categories changed during the first six months of the year. Like violent crime, both property crime and overall crime levels dropped in February and June. No individual category, such as murder or burglary, increased for six consecutive months.
If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.
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