Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

“Indignant” Police Chief Defends Department’s Integrity

Chief Flynn provides data that calls into question the Journal Sentinel’s reporting.

By - Jun 21st, 2012 01:22 pm
Police Chief Ed Flynn

Police Chief Ed Flynn

Chief Flynn testified today before the Milwaukee Common Council’s Public Safety Committee, presenting what he called a “thorough audit” of crime data that called into question the reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As Alderman Jim Bohl put it, the newspaper’s story was a “lead balloon that has just dropped to the floor” — its “smoking gun has just turned into a pop gun.” Bohl called on the newspaper to admit the problems with its reporting. “If you are a responsible publication than you report it.”

The JS has run numerous stories hammering the department for allegedly underreporting violent crime by mislabeling aggravated assaults as simple assaults. I wrote a column noting many statistical and evidentiary holes in the reporting.

In response to the JS stories, the police department conducted an audit that reviewed 34,000 “assault-type reports” from 2006 through 2012 which included, for instance, disorderly conduct, simple battery, family offenses and other incidents, some of which might have been more accurately coded as aggravated assaults. The point here is obvious: if computer coding mistakes are being made, it’s quite likely the errors could go both ways, to upgrade non-felonies as violent crimes as well as miscoding aggravated assaults as simple assaults.

Here’s what the department found:

  • While 5,307 crimes were under-reported (for example, calling an aggravated assault a simple assault), 1,176 crimes were over-reported as more serious than they actually were.
  • This had no impact on the reduction in violent crime from 2010 to 2011, which was the basis for the entire Journal Sentinel series. The adjusted totals, the department audit found, showed crime actually declined by 2.4 percent rather than 2.3 percent from 2010 to 2011.
  • Computer coding errors have actually decreased over the last six years. (As my story noted, if you’re going to contend that Flynn is cooking the books, you’d have to show the style of reporting crimes has changed since 2007, when Flynn’s predecessor Nan Haggerty was chief.)

Alderman Joe Davis noted that he has not heard from one member of the police department complaining that he or she was instructed to misclassify data. The Journal Sentinel has not identified any police officer with such a complaint.

The newspaper’s story hammered Flynn for allegedly overstating the decline in crime on his watch and ran quotes from experts calling the mistakes “suspicious,” proof of a “failure of leadership,” a likely sign of deliberate misreporting and “cheating the public.”

Flynn calmly defended the department, pronouncing himself “indignant” at the suggestion “that there’s a vast conspiracy within the upper reaches of the police department.” Any miscodings which occurred, he noted, were human errors “which go all the way back to 2006. These mistakes were not intentional and they were not malicious. They have had no impact on the quality of our policing.”

Categories: Murphy's Law

11 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: “Indignant” Police Chief Defends Department’s Integrity”

  1. NotSurprised says:

    So, much ado about nothing, eh?

    Hope they weren’t banking on a Pulitzer for this one!

  2. Sonja says:

    So much gnashing of teeth at the demise of print journalism… maybe its not such a bad thing after all!

  3. Mickey J says:

    The spin from JS is in major motion. Ben Poston is already tweeting to the tune of “…MPD misreporting ….” as Nicholas says above. What a sham JS and Ben Poston are. You all have been called out. Go crawl back to your editing rooms and lick your wounds. You should be ashamed of your major lack of journalistic integrity. Chief Flynn has been articulate and direct in addressing all the issues raised, and he makes sense and backs it up with all the facts. Poston, you just keep the spin going and leave out critical info. The JS and Poston continue to spin this to fit their agenda, and as it’s suggested in an “Not Surprised”‘s comment above, I hope they’re not counting on that Pulitzer this year. Just BAD reporting. Chief Flynn, if I could be so bold and offer any advice – stay cool, calm, collected and on your game. I’m impressed with the success you’ve had so far, and a manipulative, local media will not take you down. I know you’ll move onto another city after you’ve finished your term here, and wherever that is, they’ll be fortunate to have you as a chief. Whatever you choose to do after this, go for it with your normal determine and resilience. I’m confident you’ll be a driver of success no matter what you put your efforts into.

  4. Ed says:

    Well said Mickey J and what a shining example this has all been of one-sided, non-investigative and sensationalistic journalism. Shame on JS and keep up the good work MPD.

  5. PaulS says:

    This is the decades long JS chant: City bad, ‘burbs good. This is consistent with JS destroying local print media throughout SE WI last decade in order to supplant the risk of local talent pointing out the corporate take-over of MKE media.

    MPD is not perfect nor is Chief Flynn. But when you look at the culture change worked in that agency, the gradual, steady, and accelerating improvement, the trend is good. The Chief has a lot of civil rights work yet to do with his Officers and lots of fence mending with non-white Milwaukeeans, but he’s done far more to positively impact this City than JS’s constant carping.

    As it turn out, since we’ve had to give up on competence in journalism from this corporation, we see that they aren’t even competent propagandists. Maybe its time to fire someone?

  6. Stacy Moss says:

    Geeeez, these guys never learn. There myopia is stunning.

    The 5,000 + mistakes that became the headline of MJS is a credit to the Flynn and another disgrace to MJS.
    Flynn’s investigation goes back to 2006, that is, it includes several times the data than the MJS story. So putting that seemingly big number in the headline out of context is VERY misleading.

    Second, the MJS never addresses the fact that there were errors in BOTH directions, which would expected if someone NOT cooking the books. Regarding margin of error, MJS relies on “experts” who have no first hand knowledge of the situation. Also, NOT NOTED is if there is a random distribution of the errors (as it seems to be), that has little effect on the quality of the data. The MJS should have concluded from there study that there is nothing to write about instead of blowing up.

    Finally, the New York Times publishes more than 5,000 corrections a year. Making mistakes is occupational hazard when searching for the truth. Where are the MJS’s corrections??????????????? Are they therefore NOT SEARCHING FOR THE TRUTH?

  7. Bill Sweeney says:

    There are several areas of concern with this story. There does need to be some type of oversight of the police department, something beyond what the police and fire commission does. Police should be respected, well paid, have good benefits, and they should know and appreciate that there is some independent agency or office that is regularly auditing and reviewing their work. The work they perform for the community is just too important, regardless of how well we may think of how Chief Flynn does his job. For my money, he is far and away the best chief that Milwaukee has had over the last 50 years. What is interesting about this story is that the same thing that I just said about the police could be said about the Journal Sentinel. At the very least they need to have an ombudsman (Mr Murphy might be a good candidate), but even more so, some regular mechanism for reviews of their work from several different viewpoints. Perhaps this could be a regular feature on their editorial page. So for example, they would have printed the recent columns by Mr Murphy, and in addition, from other respected people in the community. Some suggestions off the top of my head might be Judge Geske, Howard Fuller, Hector Colon . . . . It also is of concern that other reporters at MJS formed a chorus singing carols to Chief Flynn. Were there reporters at MJS who had concerns about this story? If there were, do they have any avenue for voicing these concerns that will not jeopardize their jobs? Does the Journal Sentinel have some type of protection for whistle blowers within their midst? Another vaguely related observation is that the mistakes that occur in classifying offenses, regardless of how they occur, can have serious consequences. People who are convicted felons may not obtain a license to own a gun while people with misdemeanors can. There are a lot of people who have poor impulse control, who engage in reckless behavior, but for numerous reasons have never been convicted of a felony. They are still able to legally obtain guns.

  8. Dave Reid says:

    @Bill “Another vaguely related observation is that the mistakes that occur in classifying offenses, regardless of how they occur, can have serious consequences.”

    No I don’t think that is true (at least to my understanding of the issue). The numbers in question are just reporting stats, that’s it. Not how or what someone is actually charged with or investigated. That is different. In fact that is part of the problem.

  9. George Mitchell says:

    The Journal Sentinel should take the new information back to all the experts it quoted and ask if they still think the books were cooked OR, as now appears to be the case, if it is very sloppy records management. Don’t hold your breath.

    The paper had a good story and got caught up in making it more than it was. Had it pursued it more objectively it had a story about crappy records management. But it stopped the research and used selective data (and “expert” opinions) to draw conclusions and make inferences that now are shown to be unwarranted.

    This has been the m.o. of George Stanley.

  10. Jerad says:

    To Bruce and the whole UM team; thank you for being a source of real objective analysis in reporting this story.

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