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L.A. County Sheriff’s Department overstated violent crimes, audit finds

Then-prosecutor Max Huntsman delivers his opening statement in the trial of the city of Bell's former assistant city manager last October. He now serves as inspector general of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and performed an audit of the agency's crime reporting system.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

An initial review of crime statistics at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department released Thursday found that the agency tends to overstate violent crime.

An audit of 240 assaults from six sheriff’s stations found that department personnel misclassified more than 31% of minor assaults as serious offenses, while incorrectly filing about 3% of serious attacks as minor ones.

The report was issued by Inspector General Max Huntsman, the newly installed Sheriff’s Department watchdog.

Following a Los Angeles Times investigation last month that revealed problems with the Los Angeles Police Department’s reporting of violent crimes, Los Angeles County supervisors ordered an independent review of the Sheriff’s Department’s crime statistics.

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Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who asked for the review by Huntsman, said the report “reinforces the integrity of the crime reports by the Sheriff’s Department and I applaud the department for their cooperation and transparency with the inspector general and the public on this issue.”

Sheriff’s officials have identified the overreporting problem in the past and have put out bulletins to help deputies better understand the rules, Huntsman said.

The inspector general said he aims to conduct a more thorough review of different crime types next year, when his audit team is fully staffed.

“To really figure out why exactly is this happening, you’d have to look at this more deeply and that wasn’t the purpose of this initial audit,” Huntsman said.

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The Times reported last month that the LAPD had misclassified nearly 1,200 violent crimes as minor offenses during a recent 12-month period. Had the crimes been recorded correctly, the official figure for violent crime overall would have been nearly 7% higher. Almost all of the misclassified crimes were aggravated assaults, which would have been almost 14% higher.

After the report was published, LAPD Inspector General Alex Bustamante said he would launch an audit of multiple years of crime data to evaluate whether declines in crime in the city were as dramatic as reported by the department.

The overreporting errors at the Sheriff’s Department occurred primarily at the initial crime classification stage when deputies make a decision on how to title a crime report, according to the audit. Deputies commonly classify an assault case as a felony when the crime could be charged by prosecutors as either a felony or a misdemeanor, the inspector general’s report states.

In one example, Huntsman said, a deputy initially classified a domestic violence incident as an aggravated assault because the victim was struck repeatedly and sustained a bump and cut on the head. The case should have been filed as a minor assault. To meet the FBI’s definition of aggravated assault, a victim must suffer serious injury, such as a broken nose or a cut that requires stitches.

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Of the six sheriff’s stations analyzed, Marina del Rey was the only one with zero errors. The other stations -- Century, Compton, East L.A., Lancaster and South L.A. -- overreported between 25% and 50% of aggravated assaults during the one-year period reviewed. Meanwhile, the Century station underreported 15% of its serious assaults as minor offenses.

Huntsman’s report also included a separate review of 62 aggravated assaults that were changed to other offenses at the six sheriff’s stations during a 10-month period ending in April 2014. The audit found nearly 5% of those reports were incorrectly downgraded to minor assaults. The report also noted that reclassification occurred in 1.4% of the 5,000 cases from which the sample was drawn.

Like the LAPD, the Sheriff’s Department uses data to track trends and hold commanders accountable for rising crime in their areas, Assistant Sheriff Michael Rothans said. The department holds meetings each Monday to measure activity in patrol divisions, devise strategies to fight crime and deploy resources.

The Sheriff’s Department conducts yearly audits at each of its stations to judge the accuracy of data on issues such as crime classification and clearance rates, Rothans said.

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Follow @bposton on Twitter for more news about crime statistics.


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