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Watchdog to Launch Inquiry Into Los Angeles Police Crime Stats

The Los Angeles Police Department's civilian watchdog said Monday he would launch a broad inquiry into the accuracy of the agency's crime statistics after a Times investigation revealed that the LAPD understated violent crime in the city.

Inspector General Alex Bustamante said he planned to expand on The Times' review, which focused on a recent one-year period, and that he would conduct an examination of multiple years of data to determine whether declines in crime in Los Angeles were as dramatic as reported by the department.

The Times reported Sunday that the LAPD had misclassified nearly 1,200 violent crimes as minor offenses during the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2013. Nearly all were aggravated assaults. Had the crimes been recorded correctly, the official figure for aggravated assaults would have been almost 14% higher than the LAPD reported. The tally for violent crime overall would have been nearly 7% higher.

The misclassified crimes included hundreds of stabbings, beatings and robberies. In one case, two men choked and beat a neighbor with a metal bar until he lost consciousness. In another, a man stabbed his wife in the face with a screwdriver and threw her down a flight of stairs. Both cases were recorded as minor assaults.

In recent years, the LAPD has followed a data-driven approach to policing, relying on computerized mapping of crime to identify trouble spots and deploy officers where they could have the greatest effect.

Some city officials expressed concern Monday that inaccurate statistics undermine that system and leave officers and the public with an incomplete picture of crime.

"It is critically important that we receive accurate data from our Police Department," said Councilman Mitchell Englander, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee.

City Controller Ron Galperin said he was "deeply concerned about the questions The Times has raised.... Good decision-making requires quality, accurate data. We must make sure that LAPD commanders have precise facts at their disposal so they can allocate resources to keep our communities safe."

The civilian Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD, is scheduled to vote Tuesday whether to reappoint Chief Charlie Beck to a second five-year term. Although Beck generally has earned praise for his performance, some commissioners have sharply criticized the chief in recent months for inconsistency in meting out discipline and for what they called a lack of transparency.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has staunchly defended Beck. And since the mayor appoints all five members of the Police Commission, the panel is expected to reappoint Beck as chief.

After The Times story, the mayor requested that Beck improve training on crime reporting and conduct an additional audit of serious assaults this year, Garcetti's spokesman, Yusef Robb, said in a statement.

"We will make sure LAPD is appropriately verifying its data and that when problems are found, changes are made to fix them without delay," Robb said.

Garcetti has repeatedly promised to emulate the LAPD's data-driven approach to improve the efficiency of other city agencies. During his first year in office, the mayor had other city department heads attend a demonstration of LAPD's crime-tracking system.

In interviews, more than two dozen current and retired LAPD officers told The Times that crimes are sometimes misclassified deliberately because of a relentless pressure to produce ever-lower crime statistics.

Commissioner Robert Saltzman said he worried that the problems with crime reporting were a further indication that a permissive culture has taken root in the LAPD, one in which "inappropriate behavior is acceptable as long as it is not discovered or reported."

"In my view, the LAPD is better than this," Saltzman said. "The department is filled with men and women who work hard every day to protect and serve the city. The chief and his command officers need to make sure that the everyday hard work of the officers stops being overshadowed by controversies such as this one."

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who served as police chief from 1997 to 2002, said he had harbored doubts about the accuracy of LAPD statistics for a decade, saying officers who think their careers could be derailed by rising crime might be tempted to manipulate statistics.

"People will give you what you ask for," he said. "They will find a way to make crime go away."

Department officials have said that they do not encourage deliberate misreporting of crimes. In a statement released Monday, Beck acknowledged the classification errors identified by The Times and said the department had taken steps to improve how it records crime.

"I want to thank the L.A. Times for its analysis of our processes, which identified a similar error rate for aggravated assaults as our previously released audits," Beck said in a prepared statement. "This most recent review has enabled us to identify and implement additional methods to reduce the error rate" in classifying assaults.

The misclassifications should not cast doubt on the significant declines in crime over the last decade, he said. Record-low homicide totals and other indicators show the city is less violent today than in the past.

Bustamante will have unrestricted access to the department's crime databases. He said his investigation would include "obtaining all documents, identifying and investigating all involved parties and critiquing measures used by the department. To the extent our investigation uncovers issues, they will be reported immediately to the Police Commission."

The LAPD has reported declines in crime for 11 consecutive years. In conducting its analysis, The Times requested crime data for that entire period. The LAPD rejected the request, instead providing information for a single year only.

Commission President Steve Soboroff said he wanted department officials to address whether the way a crime is classified affects how it is investigated and prosecuted. LAPD officials indicated in a 2010 internal report that classification errors can mean that crimes are not investigated with the proper urgency.

"I need to know there is no nexus between the two," Soboroff said. "The public needs to know that."

Copyright 2014 - Los Angeles Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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