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LAPD Gave Misleading Crime Data

Times Staff Writer

A change in the way Los Angeles police count domestic violence incidents has allowed the department to substantially exaggerate how much crime has dropped citywide this year.

LAPD officials say they have issued disclaimers about the shift in its statistics on domestic violence, which was made to bring the Los Angeles Police Department into accord with federal guidelines.

But the department has continued to distribute figures suggesting that overall violent crime has declined by 28% this year compared with last year. If the reporting change is taken into account, the actual year-to-year decline is probably only about one-third as large.

The statistical reporting problem emerged when the department narrowed its definition of aggravated assaults at the beginning of 2005 to exclude the least serious domestic violence assaults known as “simple” child/spousal assaults.

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Police Chief William J. Bratton announced the change in accounting practices earlier this year. In addition, the department indicates in its crime statistics reports that it cannot compare this year’s domestic violence statistics to last year’s because simple assaults have been subtracted from the new numbers.

But the department went ahead and made the year-to-year comparison in another key area: Aggravated assaults.

The LAPD has been reporting a drop in aggravated assaults based on a comparison of this year’s numbers -- which do not include simple domestic violence cases -- to last year’s numbers, which do.

The apples to oranges comparison produced the appearance of the largest year-to-year decrease in any crime category -- a 40% decrease in aggravated assaults.

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That decrease, in turn, has been a significant contributor to the department’s overall calculation of a 28% decrease in violent crime reported for the city.

Bratton deferred questions on the issue to Assistant Chief George Gascon, director of the office of operations, who agreed Monday that the reported 40% decrease in aggravated assaults is an inflated figure. But Gascon said that Bratton and the department had effectively issued disclaimers about the numbers by explaining publicly earlier this year that the reporting standards had changed.

“At the beginning of 2005, the chief of police made it public that we have been over-reporting aggravated assaults. We then proceeded to report crime according to [the federal guidelines],” he said.

Asked about the overall decrease in violent crimes, Gascon said, “Deductively, we can say the number is going to be skewed by the over-reporting that took place before.”

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But he said there was nothing deceptive in the department’s actions, since “we came out very openly at the very beginning of the year, and announced,” that the LAPD was now using new standards to categorize domestic violence assaults.

Besides, Gascon said, footnotes were placed in LAPD crime statistics reports to indicate the problem.

Indeed, the LAPD’s reports on crime statistics prominently display footnotes saying, “prior to 2005, the aggravated assaults included child/spousal simple assaults,” and elsewhere note that the number of child/spousal cases this year cannot be compared to the number last year because of the change.

But the same notation is not made for aggravated assaults, where a straight comparison with last year is recorded. Nor is the notation present in the overall calculations of the drop in violent crime.

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Police officials and other public figures have touted the dramatic 28% decline in violent crime this year as a sign of successful crime suppression.

The figure has been prominently displayed on the department’s website.

In a Police Commission meeting earlier this month Bratton singled out the 28% decrease as a highlight: “The good news continues in terms of the high rate of decline in violent crime,” he said.

In a meeting shortly after, Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell repeated the figure, and gave credit to police officers. “They are working very hard. The numbers are indicative of that.”

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In those appearances, neither official made mention that the 28% is based on an inflated calculation of the drop in aggravated assaults.

Police officials say they can’t come up with a more accurate comparison because it would be too time-consuming to go over thousands of domestic violence reports last year to determine which would have been categorized differently according to the new standards.

The LAPD has reported more than 30,000 aggravated assaults yearly to the federal government in recent years. In the past, domestic violence cases typically constituted about 42% of those assaults.

But this year, because simple assaults are being omitted, domestic violence cases constitute only about 13% of all aggravated assaults.

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Extrapolating from these figures, it is possible to estimate that several thousand simple assaults that would have been included last year are missing from this year’s domestic violence report -- about 5,000, if the ratio between aggravated assaults and domestic violence assaults reported in past years has remained consistent.

Adjusting for those missing simple assaults would produce an overall decrease in violent crime of about 9.5% rather than the 28.1% the LAPD reported this week, according to a Times analysis.

Gascon declined to comment directly on the analysis, saying, “We don’t want to get into a guessing game.”

However, Gascon said there was no reason to believe basic patterns of domestic violence have changed, and that most domestic violence assaults remain simple assaults.

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Gascon emphasized that crime continues a downward trend in Los Angeles, even taking into account the reporting shift. Homicides, for example, are down 7.5% compared with this time last year.

Moreover, the change in reporting domestic violence has affected only the crime decreases calculated in 2005.

The problem was not present in crime statistics reporting from previous years.

Ironically, the issue of reporting a drop in crime has come as a result of the LAPD’s efforts to correct an earlier error.

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Contrary to federal guidelines, the LAPD had been reporting simple assault cases to the federal government as aggravated assault cases, making Los Angeles appear more violent than it really was in the federal uniform crime reports.

The department made the changes to correct that error, and is working to provide better statistics to the federal government, said Linda Nance, a research analyst with the state attorney general’s criminal justice statistics center, which gathers crime data from local agencies.

“Apparently the LAPD has been reporting it wrong for a number of years,” Nance said. “They were including domestic violence regardless of whether it was aggravated or simple. With 2005 there should be a fairly good decrease, based simply on following on the FBI guidelines.”

The state and federal government will be footnoting its data this year to reflect the problem, she said.

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