Crime is down—dramatically—in Chicago, a city notorious for violence. Or maybe it isn’t. Recently Chicago Magazine charged the Chicago Police Department with manipulating statistics, and an audit done by Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General found some significant problems in CPD’s crime data. Many Chicago residents say the city still isn’t safe, and more than a third of Chicago’s aldermen are supporting a resolution calling for hearings about CPD’s crime reporting practices.

But some experts are saying that CPD statistics are generally accurate, and most discrepancies can be explained by differences in UCR (“Uniform Crime Reporting,” used by the FBI) and CompStat (an alternative statistical system developed in New York in 1994). So the question remains: How effectively is the CPD fighting crime in Chicago?

The answer varies depending on how you define success, what sources you’re listening to, and how you crunch the numbers. At a police media event in January, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the murder rate in 2013—down 18% from 2012—was the lowest in decades. Chicago Magazine disputes those figures, saying that it knows of ten people who were “beaten, burned, suffocated or shot to death in 2013” who were not included in the official count for “at best, unclear reasons.”

And some observers say that Chicago’s murder figures are irrelevant: Because homicides account for less than 1% of the crime, changes in the murder rate probably make little difference to most Chicagoans. Others say that even one murder per year is too many. When Alderman Carrie Austin heard about the declining murder rate, she said, “That means crap to me when I know that someone else has been shot.”

Experts agree that property crimes, rather than homicides, are what matter to most people, and that is where most of the controversy lies. The CPD says that crime rates have decreased dramatically and its records are accurate. According to a CPD press release, “‘In 2013, the city totaled the fewest robberies, burglaries, motor vehicle thefts, and arsons in recorded history.” In 2013 alone, motor vehicle thefts dropped by an astonishing 23 percent. According to the CPD, crimes have been dropping dramatically in all categories for the past three years: Motor vehicle thefts dropped by 35 percent, burglaries fell 33 percent, aggravated batteries fell 20 percent, and robberies fell 16 percent.

But some observers are challenging Chicago’s crime data. According to Chicago Magazine, superiors often pressure officers to under-report crime. An unnamed source quoted in the magazine says there are “a million tiny ways to do it,” such as misclassifying and downgrading offenses, counting multiple incidents as single events, and discouraging residents from reporting crime.

But the magazine also says that the CPD has been manipulating data for years, without the startling drops seen in 2013, suggesting that something else has been happening to crime data in Chicago. There are also some disgruntled Chicagoans who say that statistics are meaningless. “You can say your statistics are down,” says Chicago resident Sarah Gottesman. “But that doesn’t mean the crime didn’t happen.”

How true are the allegations about fudged numbers? No one knows. The Economist, which also published a lengthy article about Chicago’s crime data, disputes Chicago’s data—but, confusingly, the article focuses largely on allegations about New York practices. Claims in the Chicago Magazine about underreported crime have been difficult to document and prove. For example, last winter an elderly woman reported that three men broke down her door and entered her apartment. They left before police arrived and didn’t take anything. Chicago Magazine says that incident, which the CPD classified as “criminal mischief,” should have been listed as a burglary.

Burglaries are felonies that have to be included in the FBI’s UCR data. Criminal mischief is a less serious, non-UCR offense. But some observers say that if intent to steal can’t be proven, the CPD is justified in classifying an incident as criminal mischief.

The CPD admits that there are problems with some of its data. Last year’s audit by the Chicago Inspector General uncovered several problems. First, CPD counted each multiple victim crime as a single offense, contrary to UCR requirements for reporting “index crimes” counted in annual FBI reports. According to the Inspector General, this practice caused a “24% undercount in victim offenses and 21% error rate in the reporting sample.” Second, the CPD “erroneously excluded some crimes,” reducing UCR statistics for aggravated assaults by 5.7% and batteries by 3.2%. The audit added, “CPD acknowledged these omissions and has initiated efforts to correct them.”

The third problem uncovered by the Inspector General concerned thefts, another confusing crime category. Until recently, “theft” included items ranging from a dollar in value up to millions. According to UCR guidelines, “Agencies must report all larceny offenses regardless of the value of the property stolen.” But the CompStat accounting system records only felony thefts valuing more than $500.

According to Chicago Magazine, Chief McCarthy’s decision to switch to CompStat has worked to CPD’s advantage: “The difference between the number of felony and non-felony thefts is huge. In 2010, the last full year before McCarthy took over, the department reported 74,764 thefts for the UCR. In 2011, under the CompStat system, the department’s year-end report listed just 15,665 thefts. That same year, the department gave the FBI a theft number of 72,373. That works out to a theft reduction of a little over 3 percent from 2010 to 2011, right around the long-term annual average reduction before McCarthy arrived. But look at the CompStat numbers and you’d see almost 60,000 crimes effectively subtracted….This accounting change helped drive the total number of index crimes from 152,031 in 2010 (according to the department’s annual report) to 86,174 in 2011 (according to CompStat).”

But experts disagree about whether the problems listed in the audit prove that CPD was manipulating crime data. CompStat accounting is used in many cities. And even the stricter UCR data coming out of Chicago shows a decline in crime rates—as Chicago Magazine admits: “None of this is to say that crime in Chicago hasn’t gone down since Emanuel and McCarthy arrived. It almost certainly has. After all, the city saw a steady drop in index crimes [those included in stricter FBI data] over the preceding 17 years.”

The only certainty is that journalists and criminal justice experts will continue to scrutinize Chicago’s UCR and CompStat findings. Chicago Magazine has collected numerous anecdotes that raise questions about how CPD classifies crimes. Other factors also contribute to uncertainty about actual crime rates in Chicago.

For example, experts agree that Chicago’s police force is too small to provide effective services to the entire city. FBI director James Comey is planning to direct more federal resources to Chicago because of its serious problems with gun violence. The USAttorney’s Office recently announced that it would create a specialized unit in the city to deal with violent crime. This additional help is both overdue and urgently needed—but it also raises an important question: How many crimes go unrecorded because no officer is available to take a report?

Another hint of unresolved problems can be seen in a new documentary called Chicagoland, which filmed Rahm Emanuel putting pressure on the chief of police to reduce crime numbers. And one important step has yet to be considered at all.  John Eterno is a professor of criminal justice at Molloy College and a former NYPD captain. He believes that US police departments need to stop compiling their own crime data. “What you really need,” Eterno says, “is some sort of outside auditing and some transparency in government. Just as we have with our corporations.”

To learn more:

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2014/05/crime-statistics-chicago

http://chicagoinspectorgeneral.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/OIG-Crime-Stats-Audit.pdf

http://goo.gl/h103ND

http://goo.gl/vZGKC5

http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2014/04/cpd-v-chi-mag.html

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of ten books, including Police Talk (Pearson), and she publishes a Police Writer Newsletter. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book Criminal Justice Report Writing. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.