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Deficiencies in police data skew results: Numerous cities miss deadline for crime reports
Source: Charleston Daily Mail Publication date: 2000-06-16
DAILY MAIL STAFF
The newest statewide crime statistics, scheduled to be released today, don't reveal much about the true rate of murders, rapes and robberies in West Virginia. Despite showing precipitous drops in every major crime category for the first six months of 1999, compared to the same time in 1998, the numbers have little meaning.
The problem is only 80 percent of the police agencies in the state contributed data to the latest report. Also, a new method for counting crime has made comparisons with past years all but impossible.
The goal was to use the 1999 crime stats to gather a more accurate and detailed picture of state crime trends. What has emerged instead is the story of how, despite a decade of planning, plans to make a smooth transition in data collection methods fell victim to computer glitches, a lack of funds and a general reluctance from police agencies.
The result is a rift between the State Police and their counterparts in city and county law enforcement. Several agencies, from small towns to larger cities like Huntington, are plainly upset with the State Police.
"It was not a well-liked transition to say the least," State Police First Sgt. Gayle Midkiff said.
At a minimum, West Virginia has now missed the FBI's deadline for supplying complete 1999 statistics. And it's likely that the continued defiance by a handful of police departments will turn statistics from both halves of 1999 into permanent black holes in the record books.
"The best thing to do is ignore it," Midkiff said of the very statistics she helped collect.
The agencies that still have not submitted 1999 crime data in the proper format include sheriff's departments in Cabell, Jefferson, Lincoln and Logan counties and city police departments in Charles Town, Fayetteville and Shepherdstown, according to the State Police. Both Charleston police and the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department have submitted timely data.
One of the most defiant agencies is the Huntington Police Department.
Lt. Mike Wilson, administrative bureau commander, says he doesn't expect the department will ever turn in the proper numbers for 1999. He called the new State Police guidelines for data "very cumbersome, very tedious."
"It does nothing for us but add a huge workload," Wilson said.
Law enforcement agencies are required by state code to periodically submit crime data to the State Police, which in turn produces semi-annual snapshots of statewide crime trends.
For years, the information was collected on a summary-based reporting system. This gave only the barest details about each crime. But in 1990, State Police announced a plan to switch to an incident- based reporting system beginning with 1999. The new method meant including suspect and victim information. It also showed various shades of crimes rather than lumping them together in one category.
For agencies like the Huntington police, it meant going from a one- page to an eight-page incident report. New and expensive computer software was needed. Police staff had to be retrained. The strain on resources was enormous.
Huntington police "opposed (the switch) adamantly," Wilson said.
But the State Police kept after them. And with such a long lead time before implementing the change, the State Police felt it was an achievable goal.
"They just kept hoping we'd go away," the State Police's Midkiff said. "and we didn't."
Those who tried early on to the make the switch to incident-based reporting were successful in meeting the 1999 deadline. Charleston police came in well ahead of schedule in 1992. Capt. Rita Wilson said that while her department was lucky in how smoothly the transition went, it shouldn't be too surprising.
"Everyone has known it was coming," Wilson said.
Charleston police reported earlier this year that the city's crime rate dropped 14.1 percent between 1998 and 1999.
Other departments have struggled despite their intentions. The Cabell County Sheriff's Department, which supports the data changes, is one of the agencies that still hasn't sent in its 1999 crime data. It hopes to in the coming months, sheriff's Detective Mike McCallister said.
"We're not giving up," McCallister said.
Cabell County's problem was shopping around for the right software vendor to replace the old IBM 3600 summary-based reporting system. Also, there were no additional funds to pay for the new computer equipment.
McCallister said the new crime data has exciting possibilities for police. For example, a detailed list of items stolen during a robbery are entered in the incident-based reporting system. So, months later, when pawn shops submit a list of items recently dropped off for sale, police could make a match.
But the change has not been easy.
"I'm not happy about it," McCallister said. "It's something we're going to do. That's the way we do things in Cabell County."
Writer Todd C. Frankel can be reached at 348-4886 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), June 18, 2000