These are strange days for the state’s largest newspaper. It is desperately trying to justify its coverage of inaccuracies in Milwaukee’s crime data after nine of 15 Milwaukee aldermen charged that the newspaper “went beyond facts… and spent weeks misleading the public.” The newspaper itself has become part of the story, and its latest article on the issue, on Sunday, was once again riddled with logical and factual problems.
Meanwhile, the paper has heaped scorn on the city’s decision to hire the nationally-known consultant PRI Management Group to audit the Milwaukee Police Department. But Michael Tobin, Executive Director of the Fire and Police Commission, intends to defy the newspaper. “We are moving forward with our plans to bring in PRI, despite the best efforts of JS to undermine our strategies to keep MPD on the forefront of modern urban policing,” Tobin tells me. “We will continue striving for improvements in public safety because that is our top priority.”
The firm in question calls itself “law enforcement’s premier source of police records training and consulting services,” and its website lists 52 police departments that have hired it to provide consulting. Tobin says “this was the only firm we located that specializes solely in audits of police records and UCR (Uniform Crime Reports) data.”
The company, in short, would have been a logical expert from which to seek a quote when Journal Sentinel reporter Ben Poston did his first story on errors in Milwaukee Police crime statistics. But, you see, the philosophy of the company and its founder and owner Edward Claughton, would have undercut Poston’s attempt to paint Chief Ed Flynn as the likely villain who was manipulating data.
“While the media is prone to believing that intentional efforts are always underway to manipulate crime data to the benefit of the agency in question,” Claughton’s company has noted, “incorrect data is most often due to problematic report classifications, RMS code table errors, or simple miscalculations. In New York… or any other decent sized agency, any notion that systematic and intentional efforts are underway enterprise wide, or by the bosses, to manipulate crime numbers is ludicrous. These kinds of conspiracy theories make headlines. They don’t represent reality. Thanks to public records laws, today’s era of increased transparency, and our systems of checks and balances, intentionally altering crime data is almost an impossibility.”
That’s quite contrary to the views of the experts cherry-picked by Poston in the original Journal Sentinel story, who called the mistakes by Flynn’s department “suspicious,” proof of a “failure of leadership,” a likely sign of deliberate misreporting, “playing fast and loose” with data and “cheating the public.” If the newspaper was out to write a balanced story, however, it would have sought a statement from Claughton.
Claughton found the stories biased and said so, in some statements on Twitter attacking the newspaper and defending Flynn. That was enough to prompt a story in the Journal Sentinel attacking the proposed hiring of Claughton. As one city official joked to me, a more accurate headline for that story would have been, “Expert in crime statistics calls out biased reporter for slanted story; reporter claims that expert is biased.”
On Sunday, Poston and the JS did yet another story intended to throw dirt on the department and thereby make the newspaper look good. It was an embarrassing effort.
The headline told us that “Underreported crimes include robbery and rape” and thus went beyond assault cases. Sounds alarming. But you had to wade deep into the story, some 20 paragraphs later, to learn that just three rapes and 20 robberies were misreported. Needless to say, the newspaper didn’t calculate the impact on the reported crime rate, because the number of mistakes are too tiny to have any.
The entire story was a weak attempt to re-analyze and undercut the data presented by Flynn to the Common Council. Flynn’s team presented information showing that mistakes in data went both ways, both underreporting assaults and overreporting 1,176 crimes as more serious than they actually were. Poston re-analyzes this data and claims only “about half” of the 1,176 crimes (so about 600?) were over reported as aggravated assaults. Yet Poston also writes that the original investigation by the newspaper found “no cases where simple assaults had been overreported as aggravated assaults.” So which is it, were 600 or zero cases overreported? And why is it that Poston, in his original story, never claims to have analyzed the data to see if there were any cases of overreporting? Which of his stories are we supposed to believe?
Poston’s latest article also tells us the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee set aside a request to have the city comptroller do an audit of the department data, and quickly follows with a quote from Ald. Bob Donovan pushing for a comptroller study. But Poston leaves out the fact that the comptroller’s office told the council it lacked the staff and expertise to do the audit.
In his usual cherry-picking style, Poston runs quotes from Donovan and Ald. Tony Zielinski criticizing the choice of PRI to do the audit, and has no quotes from any of the nine aldermen who defended Flynn and attacked the newspaper. For that matter, Poston has no quotes from the five alderman on the council’s Public Safety Committee.
Poston also repeats his claim that the error rate in the Milwaukee data for assaults is ten times higher than the national standard. But as I noted in my previous column, nowhere in the story does the newspaper tell us how many police departments in the nation actually meet this standard. In fact, its story has quotes from experts saying that computer data problems are widespread in police departments and that they need to do “far better audits” of data.
If this problem is so widespread, it completely undercuts the original watchdog series, which suggested Milwaukee’s department stood out nationally for its sloppy data.
Interestingly, the Journal Sentinel has not done an editorial opposing the hiring of Claughton to do the audit. Is the newspaper getting uncomfortable with its watchdog series on Flynn?
I did email all five members of the council’s Public Safety Committee and heard back only from Ald. Jim Bohl. Said Bohl: “I am not particularly comfortable will the situation of PRI Management performing an audit given some of the comments that have been publicly disseminated by PRI. While the Fire and Police Commission is supposed to provide independent oversight over the Chief of Police, I would personally be more comfortable with the Comptroller’s Office handling such an audit.”
As to whether the comptroller has the staff and expertise, Bohl said the comptroller could hire an outside agency to do the audit. Of course, if it’s true, as Tobin and Claughton claim, that PRI is the foremost expert in the field, will the comptroller end up hiring them anyway? For Bohl, the key is that the comptroller is independently elected, and not appointed by the mayor, and its choice of who and how to do the audit could not by influenced in any way by Mayor Tom Barrett.