A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation found more than 500 serious assault cases that were misreported by Milwaukee police as lesser crimes that weren't counted in the city's violent crime rate.
Milwaukee police have acknowledged misreporting thousands of aggravated assaults as minor crimes - but a Journal Sentinel review found that other serious crimes have gone missing from the city's violent crime rate.
An analysis of the department's audit database, obtained last month through an open records request, found that reporting problems extend to robberies and sexual assaults. The newspaper's review also found that hundreds of the underreported assaults involved shootings, including one in which the victim was shot in the neck and partially paralyzed.
Some of the incidents in the department's database include dates that indicate they had been flagged as misreported before Chief Edward Flynn addressed a Common Council committee June 21 on the audit's findings. But it's impossible to know exactly how many were known at the time - the audit database is incomplete, and police have not provided enough detail to pinpoint each incident.
In the 90-minute presentation to aldermen on the council's Public Safety Committee, Flynn and other officials spoke in broad terms about only one category - aggravated assaults - where misreporting had already been documented by a Journal Sentinel investigation. After the presentation, the committee set aside a request by a group of aldermen for an independent audit by the city comptroller's office.
"I think they have an obligation to be up front, as damaging as the facts may be," said Ald. Bob Donovan who supports a comptroller's audit. "We have a right to hear precisely what's going on. If we aren't given the unvarnished truth, it makes it rather difficult to do what's right for our community."
The internal police audit was prompted by a Journal Sentinel investigation in May that found more than 500 cases of aggravated assault were underreported as lesser crimes from 2009 to early this year. Another 800 incidents followed the same pattern but couldn't be confirmed with available data.
The department's review revealed the problem was even deeper, identifying more than 5,300 aggravated assaults that were underreported from 2006 through last year. The department's audit, which is ongoing, indicated a 20% error rate for the serious assault category, which is 10 times higher than the national standard.
Flynn made a point in his presentation to highlight that the internal audit also determined that about 1,200 minor offenses were overreported during the same period. But a review of the audit database shows some of those cases were not reported as serious crimes to begin with and would not have been included in the crime rate anyway. Rather, they were in one minor category but should have been in another.
Even with those overcounting errors factored in, violent crime was 10% higher overall in the four full years since Flynn took over the department when compared with data previously reported for those years, the department's own audit shows.
Over time, the department's internal audit found that violent crime has still fallen 25% under Flynn's watch because a high error rate also existed in the assault reports filed before he became chief.
The department through mid-July had found an additional 200 serious assaults this year that were misreported as minor offenses. That brings the total since 2006 to more than 5,500 misreported assaults, according to the newspaper's review.
Police officials declined to comment on the Journal Sentinel's findings. In past statements, Flynn stressed the errors were due to lack of training and computer error and not due to manipulation of data to lower crime rates. The mayor's office issued a brief statement of support for actions already taken by the department, including retraining of officers.
The Journal Sentinel review of the police audit database, compared against reports the department filed with the state and FBI, found undisclosed problems in these areas:
Shootings: In more than 240 aggravated-assault cases found to be misclassified since 2006, assailants used firearms to shoot at their victims. Some escaped injury, while others were wounded in the face, chest, groin or legs. Just over 60 of those cases occurred since Flynn took over the department in 2008.
An example: In February 2009, police arrested a 21-year-old Milwaukee man for using a handgun to shoot a male victim in both legs. The victim survived after undergoing surgery at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center, according to court documents.
Police arrested the suspected assailant for first-degree reckless endangerment, but that shooting was initially recorded as "all other offenses," the most minor FBI crime category and one that is not included in the city's reported crime rate. In fact, almost all of the miscoded shootings were originally reported as "all other offenses."
Nonfatal shootings should always be classified as aggravated assaults, according to FBI guidelines.
The incident involving the Milwaukee man has since been correctly reclassified as an aggravated assault, the department's database shows.
FBI officials have said corrections to its uniform crime report, used to compare cities and identify trends, can be made only within two years after an incident occurs.
Sexual assaults: Police have identified three cases of sexual assault that were misclassified as lesser offenses and have corrected those incidents.
An example: Darnell D. Scott became upset with a woman last March for "talking smart" at their home on Milwaukee's north side. According to court documents, Scott, 29, told her: "I need to teach you a lesson."
He removed the woman's shirt and bra, bound her wrists behind her back with duct tape and put three pieces of tape over her mouth. Scott then sexually assaulted her. Afterward, he left her on the bed with arms bound while he played Xbox video games, court records show.
He pleaded guilty last year to a felony charge of false imprisonment and was sentenced to three years of probation, including six months in the House of Correction with work-release privileges.
The crime should have been reported as a "forcible rape," according to FBI guidelines.
Instead, Milwaukee police misreported the case as simple assault, and it wasn't included with the city's rape numbers.
Robberies: Police found and corrected more than 20 robberies that were misreported as minor assaults and thefts, the database shows.
An example: A robber tried to steal merchandise from a Shell gas station in July 2008. When the store clerk attempted to stop the robber, he beat the clerk in the head and escaped, according to a brief description in the database.
It, too, was initially listed as simple assault.
After Flynn spoke to the Common Council committee in June, aldermen said they would wait before asking the comptroller's office to do an independent review. A majority said they wanted to first see the results of an FBI audit, which was done in May at the request of the department.
That audit, released this month, consisted of a random sample of 60 police reports and is too limited to draw conclusions from, criminal justice experts said.
The city's Fire and Police Commission is planning to spend $25,000 to hire PRI Management Group to conduct an outside review of the department's internal audit, its record management system and its business practices. The Journal Sentinel reported last week that the firm has repeatedly praised Flynn and the department publicly since May.
PRI Management Group, founded in 2008 by Edward Claughton, a police lieutenant in Coral Gables, Fla., has supported the department in blogs and Twitter posts and has also been critical of the newspaper's coverage of the issue.
Mike Tobin, Fire and Police Commission executive director, has declined to answer questions about how PRI Management Group was selected to conduct the review.
Mayor Tom Barrett's office noted that Flynn had ordered nearly 70 members of the force to attend two days of basic training on FBI crime-reporting standards.
The training program, Flynn's request for the FBI audit and the PRI Management review all show the city is taking the issue seriously, said Jodie Tabak, spokeswoman for the mayor.
"These proactive steps are essential to successfully addressing the data-entry and crime-coding issues," Tabak said in an email.
In June, the Journal Senti nel found that record clerks routinely changed dangerous-weapon codes to generic ones, which allowed for the underreporting of violent crime. When the department's computer system detects certain errors, it flags them and does not allow the report to be forwarded to the state and FBI until the problem is addressed. So, for example, when a crime is labeled a "simple assault," but the officer reported that a knife was used, the system flags the inconsistency - because any crime including a weapon is considered serious.
Instead of correctly changing the crime code, clerks changed the weapon code to a generic description like "personal" or "other."
A review of the audit database shows that in more than 1,300 of the misreported aggravated assaults, suspects used guns, knives and clubs to threaten or severely injure victims, but they were coded as minor assaults with generic weapon codes.
The database also shows police have since fixed those weapon codes to accurately reflect the weapons used and reclassified them correctly as aggravated assaults.
The Journal Sentinel's original investigation found no cases where simple assaults had been overreported as aggravated assaults.
But at the June presentation, Flynn and Deputy Inspector William Jessup emphasized to council members that crime misclassifications go both ways - that police also make mistakes where they overreport minor crimes as more serious ones.
The Journal Sentinel's review of the internal audit report found that about half of those overreported crimes were misclassified as aggravated assaults, the category Flynn focused on before the council committee. The other half included serious crimes, but also misclassified minor FBI offenses like weapons violations and drug crimes, police told the Journal Sentinel.
The FBI does not count lower-level offenses like those in a city's official crime rate.
Tobin declined to comment on the Journal Sentinel's latest findings. He pointed to the upcoming PRI Management Group review, saying, "I will rely on what their evaluation shows."
Claughton and his company have expressed strong support for Flynn and his explanations of the misreported crimes. For example, Flynn held a news conference June 13 in response to the Journal Sentinel story about police clerks improperly changing weapon codes.
On his blog the next day, Claughton posted a video of the Flynn news conference with the headline "Chief Flynn hits it out of the park."
Claughton told the Journal Sentinel his online comments will not affect his company's ability to conduct an objective audit.
PRI Management Group defended its past remarks last week in an open letter on its website, saying the comments are "in no way indicative of some predisposition on behalf of PRI Management Group regarding this matter."
Barrett chief of staff Patrick Curley said the mayor "has full confidence in the direction the Fire and Police Commission is taking."
"Just because someone levies criticism at the newspaper does not necessarily mean the individual is not objective," Curley said.
But some aldermen, including Donovan and Tony Zielinski, are skeptical of whether the PRI audit will be unbiased.
"It sounds like they are his cheerleaders," said Zielinski. "It doesn't sound like they are going to be objective."
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