LAPD misclassified more than 25,000 serious crimes as minor, audit finds

Poor training, an error-prone records system and widespread confusion among Los Angeles police led to thousands of serious crimes being omitted from the city's tally of violence over the past seven years, an audit by the department's independent watchdog found.

In the report, which was released Friday, Inspector General Alex Bustamante estimated the LAPD misclassified more than 25,000 aggravated assaults as minor incidents from 2008 to 2014.

The errors meant the number of serious attacks would have been 36% higher than what the LAPD reported during that time, the audit found. Aggravated assaults are included in the department's official count of crime, while the less-serious incidents are not counted.

The number of misclassified crimes was not large enough to alter the overall crime trends reported by the department from one year to the next, which included a steady drop in violence until 2014, when the crime rate began to climb. Bustamante's report echoes the findings of a Times analysis in October that also concluded the department misclassified thousands of crimes during an eight-year period ending in 2012.

However, the inspector general, who had far greater access than The Times to crime reports and other internal LAPD documents, found considerably more errors.

The inaccurate statistics "were due to a combination of systemic issues, procedural deficiencies, department-wide misconceptions about what constitutes an aggravated assault, and, in a small number of cases, individual officer error," the audit found.

In one startling finding, Bustamante wrote that a survey conducted by department officials in recent years found roughly 70% of LAPD personnel had received "little or no training" on standardized rules for reporting crime that are set out by the FBI.

The internal survey also found there was "some confusion" within department ranks about who was responsible for entering the information about incidents into the agency's crime database. And watch commanders, who serve as station supervisors, often wrongly refer to the state's criminal penal code when making decisions about how to classify crimes instead of FBI guidelines.

The widespread shortcomings gave rise to a host of problems.

When completing reports on domestic violence cases, for example, officers and supervisors often failed to specify if the attack was a serious or minor offense under the FBI rules, Bustamante wrote. Without knowing which to choose, station clerks "defaulted to the code indicating simple assault," when documenting incidents into the department's crime database, Bustamante found. One-fifth of the misclassified incidents identified by the inspector general fit this pattern, the report said.

More than a quarter of the errors were due to the LAPD failing to count cases in which suspects brandished weapons as aggravated assaults.

The police commission, a civilian board that oversees the LAPD, instructed Bustamante to conduct the audit after a 2014 Times investigation that examined 12 months of LAPD crime data and found widespread errors in how assaults — including hundreds of stabbings and beatings — were classified.

In response to that report, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck publicly acknowledged problems with the department's process for recording crimes. He launched a series of changes aimed at improving internal accountability and the training officers receive on how to classify crimes.

The reforms implemented last year center around a newly formed team of detectives responsible for improving the quality of the department's crime reporting. Known as the Data Integrity Unit, the team has retrained hundreds of officers who have a role in classifying crimes. The unit also now conducts spot checks on crime reports from across the department's regional divisions in search of mistakes.

Bustamante concluded the reforms appear to be showing results as the LAPD committed errors at about half the rate of previous years in the first quarter of 2015, the audit found.

Saying the department had worked closely with the inspector general as he conducted the audit, Assistant Chief Michel Moore acknowledged that the department had made crime reporting errors. He said the reforms and increased oversight the department implemented following the Times investigation have begun to take root and are meant to improve the accuracy of crime classifications.

The audit, based on a random sample of 3,856 minor crime reports, did not address the issue of "reclassifications," which happen when a case is initially documented as serious but later downgraded to a minor offense. Last year, The Times obtained records on 53 incident reports and found that one-third were improperly changed.

"Numbers matter, especially when they are reported to the public," said Matt Johnson, president of the police commission. "The increase in aggravated assaults is very troubling and I wish it was identified sooner, but I'm pleased that we have fully diagnosed the problem and that the actions from the department appear to be addressing those shortcomings. "

ben.poston@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 06, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "LAPD audit finds data errors - More than 25,000 serious crimes were misclassified as minor incidents from 2008 to 2014, report says." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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