Police Chief says crime is truly down in Newport News
Police Chief James Fox said he’s working to fix discrepancies between state, city crime statistics.

By Peter Dujardin, pdujardin@dailypress.com 247-474910:51 p.m. EDT, June 19, 2011

Police Chief James Fox vowed last week to make sure his department provides more accurate crime figures to the state — in light of recent discrepancies between city and state crime numbers for Newport News.

A May report from the Virginia State Police showed that serious criminal incidents were up by 9 percent in Newport News in 2010. That contrasts with numbers released by the city’s police department earlier this year that show violent crime and serious property crime down sharply.

The city-released figures were the correct ones, Fox said.

But his “biggest fear,” the police chief said, is that the disparity could make people doubt the police department’s crime trend pronouncements in the future. He’s proud of the fact that crime is down, he said, but would never fudge the numbers.

“My biggest fear is that there will be some doubt in our numbers when we say that we’re down,” Fox said. “You can put this in the bank with me: I teach trust, and I hold our people accountable to trust. We don’t play numbers. If they go up, they go up. If they go down, they go down.”

Fox traced the discrepancy between the state and city crime figures to the police department’s shift to a new computer system in late 2009.

The numbers in the state crime report come from local police agencies. But the reporting is far more complicated than simply sending the state a list of up-to-date numbers. Instead, it involves linking computer databases and reporting the crimes in an automated way.

“We’re not pointing fingers at the state, because they’re reporting what we give them,” Fox said. “We are working hard to get the bugs out … Our goal is to have everything as perfect as we can get it.”

The police department, Fox said, is working to rectify the issues through police officer training, and conversations with both the State Police and the maker of the department’s computer software.

The May 24 report from the State Police, “Crime in Virginia,” shows that “Group A” offenses, which include serious offenses against people and property, were up 9 percent in Newport News in 2010, compared with the 2009 report.

That contrasted with police department’s figures showing reduced crime.

For example, the police reported earlier this year that violent crime — defined as homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults — fell by 10 percent in 2010. The state report, however, shows the same crimes being down only 1.4 percent.

Likewise, the police department said that burglary, larceny and vehicle theft were down by 2 percent in 2010. The state report, meantime, shows them up 7.8 percent.

The state said Newport News has a crime rate of 9,427 incidents per 100,000 people in 2010. That’s up 10.2 percent from the 2009 figure of 8,551 crimes per 100,000 people.

The police department’s shift to a new computer system in late 2009 — from an old mainframe system — limits an accurate comparison between those two years for all such incidents, police officials say.

It’s the state figures, not the city ones, that will become the official stats included in the FBI’s crime report. That’s a key reason the state figures must be accurate, Fox said.

Lynn Brewer, the supervisor of the police department’s Crime Analysis Unit, said the changeover to the new computer system led to some incidents in late 2009 not being fully captured by the state database. That made the 2009 figures too low, throwing off year-over-year comparisons.

The shift to the new system, she said, also led to an over count of crime in 2010, with some unfounded incidents ending up in the state numbers. That’s caused in part by errors as simple as an officer not properly filling out a form or hitting an incorrect button.

There was even a discrepancy over homicides. The city reported 23 homicides in 2010, while the state report lists 20.

Two child death cases initially came in as child neglect cases. And though they later were shifted to homicides, Brewer said, the change wasn’t made to the state data.

In another case, Brewer said, the state system failed to recognize a homicide because data about the person arrested for the crime was incorrectly entered into the system.

“The new system is going to make us a better police department,” Fox said. “But I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t realize we were going to have as many little things to work out as we’re having. But we’re going to get through it.”

Copyright © 2011, Newport News, Va., Daily Press