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Some Metro Council Members Call Foul On Police Crime Data

Louisville City Hall
J. Tyler Franklin
Louisville City Hall

Some local legislators believe police officials and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer are manipulating crime data to present a rosier picture than reality.

The accusations were made during a meeting of the council's public safety committee Wednesday where members voted to approve a non-binding resolution which “urges Mayor Greg Fisher [sic] to ask for Chief Conrad’s resignation and open the selection process for a new LMPD Chief.”

The measure requires no formal action from Fischer. It stems from several grievances some council members have with Chief Steve Conrad — including a surging murder tally — and continuing struggles to reduce violent crime.

Violent crime in Louisville, specifically murder, has surged in recent years, according to police data. The city’s homicide tally through the end of June was the highest it’s been since 2013, per the data.

Yet one day prior to the council committee's no-confidence vote, Fischer and Conrad presented crime data to reporters that showed an overall decrease in crime this year compared with last. Fischer said the data is proof that crime reduction efforts are working.

But on Wednesday, during the discussion among committee members regarding their confidence in Conrad, Councilwoman Julie Denton, a District 19 Republican, said bluntly, "they manipulate this data."

"They want things to look better," she said. "They want it to look like they're doing a good job."

Chris Poynter, a spokesman for Fischer, called the accusations "utterly ridiculous."

"The allegation is so far from reality and outlandish it doesn't even deserve an honorable response," he said.

Proof of Manipulation?

Denton said she came to her conclusion after reviewing internal police data and the data police report to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"It's smoke and mirrors," she said.

She also said she's heard from officers that police administrators manipulate data — though she declined to provide contact information for those officers.

"People don't want to get in trouble," she said.

Councilman David James, a Democrat and chair of the public safety committee, echoed Denton's claims.

He said the manipulation is done, in part, by lumping similar crimes into one report, failing to take reports for specific crimes or only reporting certain instances of crime to the FBI.

He put the onus for the manipulation not on the officers, but on police administration.

As for proof of the manipulation, like Denton, he said he's heard from officers complaining of such practices. But James also declined to provide contact information for those officers.

James is a former police officer and one-time president of the police union. He said data manipulation within the department has been going on for a "long time," but "not in such a way" during his tenure on the police force.

Asked if he's concerned making such accusations could deepen the divide between citizens and police, and cut at police legitimacy, James said he has no such concerns.

"The officers are doing their job," he said. "The issue, again, is leadership."

Councilman Brent Ackerson, a Democrat from District 26, said any effort to send a message that crime in Louisville is declining is "a farce."

He likened such a tactic as "political patty-cake of trying to make people feel good when, really, they shouldn't."

"Let's tell them the truth — things are bad," he said.

And Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith, a Democrat from District 4, told committee members that when she inquired about the discrepancies between internal police data and data that's submitted to the FBI, she was informed data points can be "reclassified or recoded."

James, the chair, responded that "sometimes is called manipulated."

A police spokesperson did not return multiple requests to comment on the accusations from council members.

The head of the River City Fraternal Order of Police, the local police union, also did not return a request for comment.

'Part of the culture'

Police departments across the country have been found to skew and manipulate data, reports show.

For instance, in New York City, a study found that manipulation of crime reports "has long been part of the culture" within the department, according to a reportfrom the New York Times.

And in Los Angeles, that city's police department was found to have misclassified some 14,000 serious assaults as minor offenses, according to a reportfrom the Los Angeles Times.

Sam Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, said it's unclear just how prevalent the manipulation of crime data is across the country.

He compared it to white collar crime in that it often goes unknown until it's reported by someone involved.

The appropriate response to such allegations, Walker said, would be to initiate an independent investigation.

"If you've got some really systematic misconduct and misrepresenting the crime situation and public safety in the city, that's an important issue," he said. "You want to clear the air."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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