Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

City Defies Journal Sentinel

Fire & Police Commission will hire consultant the newspaper repeatedly claims is biased.

By - Aug 27th, 2012 05:00 pm
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These are strange days for the state’s largest newspaper. It is desperately trying to justify its coverage of inaccuracies in Milwaukee’s crime data after nine of 15 Milwaukee aldermen charged that the newspaper “went beyond facts… and spent weeks misleading the public.” The newspaper itself has become part of the story, and its latest article on the issue, on Sunday, was once again riddled with logical and factual problems.

Meanwhile, the paper has heaped scorn on the city’s decision to hire the nationally-known consultant PRI Management Group to audit the Milwaukee Police Department. But Michael Tobin, Executive Director of the Fire and Police Commission, intends to defy the newspaper. “We are moving forward with our plans to bring in PRI, despite the best efforts of JS to undermine our strategies to keep MPD on the forefront of modern urban policing,” Tobin tells me. “We will continue striving for improvements in public safety because that is our top priority.”

The firm in question calls itself “law enforcement’s premier source of police records training and consulting services,” and its website lists 52 police departments that have hired it to provide consulting. Tobin says “this was the only firm we located that specializes solely in audits of police records and UCR (Uniform Crime Reports) data.”

The company, in short, would have been a logical expert from which to seek a quote when Journal Sentinel reporter Ben Poston did his first story on errors in Milwaukee Police crime statistics. But, you see, the philosophy of the company and its founder and owner Michael Claughton, would have undercut Poston’s attempt to paint Chief Ed Flynn as the likely villain who was manipulating data.

“While the media is prone to believing that intentional efforts are always underway to manipulate crime data to the benefit of the agency in question,” Claughton’s company has noted, “incorrect data is most often due to problematic report classifications, RMS code table errors, or simple miscalculations. In New York… or any other decent sized agency, any notion that systematic and intentional efforts are underway enterprise wide, or by the bosses, to manipulate crime numbers is ludicrous. These kinds of conspiracy theories make headlines. They don’t represent reality. Thanks to public records laws, today’s era of increased transparency, and our systems of checks and balances, intentionally altering crime data is almost an impossibility.”

That’s quite contrary to the views of the experts cherry-picked by Poston in the original Journal Sentinel story, who called the mistakes by Flynn’s department “suspicious,” proof of a “failure of leadership,” a likely sign of deliberate misreporting, “playing fast and loose” with data and “cheating the public.” If the newspaper was out to write a balanced story, however, it would have sought a statement from Cloughton.

Cloughton found the stories biased and said so, in some statements on Twitter attacking the newspaper and defending Flynn. That was enough to prompt a story in the Journal Sentinel attacking the proposed hiring of Claughton. As one city official joked to me, a more accurate headline for that story would have been, “Expert in crime statistics calls out biased reporter for slanted story; reporter claims that expert is biased.”

On Sunday, Poston and the JS did yet another story intended to throw dirt on the department and thereby make the newspaper look good. It was an embarrassing effort.

The headline told us that “Underreported crimes include robbery and rape” and thus went beyond assault cases. Sounds alarming. But you had to wade deep into the story, some 20 paragraphs later, to learn that just three rapes and 20 robberies were misreported. Needless to say, the newspaper didn’t calculate the impact on the reported crime rate, because the number of mistakes are too tiny to have any.

The entire story was a weak attempt to re-analyze and undercut the data presented by Flynn to the Common Council. Flynn’s team presented information showing that mistakes in data went both ways, both underreporting assaults and overreporting 1,176 crimes as more serious than they actually were. Poston re-analyzes this data and claims only “about half” of the 1,176 crimes (so about 600?) were over reported as aggravated assaults. Yet Poston also writes that the original investigation by the newspaper found “no cases where simple assaults had been overreported as aggravated assaults.” So which is it, were 600 or zero cases overreported? And why is it that Poston, in his original story, never claims to have analyzed the data to see if there were any cases of overreporting? Which of his stories are we supposed to believe?

Poston’s latest article also tells us the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee set aside a request to have the city comptroller do an audit of the department data, and quickly follows with a quote from Ald. Bob Donovan pushing for a comptroller study. But Poston leaves out the fact that the comptroller’s office told the council it lacked the staff and expertise to do the audit.

In his usual cherry-picking style, Poston runs quotes from Donovan and Ald. Tony Zielinski criticizing the choice of PRI to do the audit, and has no quotes from any of the nine aldermen who defended Flynn and attacked the newspaper. For that matter, Poston has no quotes from the five alderman on the council’s Public Safety Committee.

Poston also repeats his claim that the error rate in the Milwaukee data for assaults is ten times higher than the national standard. But as I noted in my previous column, nowhere in the story does the newspaper tell us how many police departments in the nation actually meet this standard. In fact, its story has quotes from experts saying that computer data problems are widespread in police departments and that they need to do “far better audits” of data.

If this problem is so widespread, it completely undercuts the original watchdog series, which suggested Milwaukee’s department stood out nationally for its sloppy data.

Interestingly, the Journal Sentinel has not done an editorial opposing the hiring of Claughton to do the audit. Is the newspaper getting uncomfortable with its watchdog series on Flynn?

I did email all five members of the council’s Public Safety Committee and heard back only from Ald. Jim Bohl. Said Bohl: “I am not particularly comfortable will the situation of PRI Management performing an audit given some of the comments that have been publicly disseminated by PRI.  While the Fire and Police Commission is supposed to provide independent oversight over the Chief of Police, I would personally be more comfortable with the Comptroller’s Office handling such an audit.”

As to whether the comptroller has the staff and expertise, Bohl said the comptroller could hire an outside agency to do the audit. Of course, if it’s true, as Tobin and Claughton claim, that PRI is the foremost expert in the field, will the comptroller end up hiring them anyway? For Bohl, the key is that the comptroller is independently elected, and not appointed by the mayor, and its choice of who and how to do the audit could not by influenced in any way by Mayor Tom Barrett.

Short Take

On Monday, 11 days after Parks Director Sue Black was fired by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, the Journal Sentinel finally reported to its readers that Black had previously been dismissed from her job as state parks director, and had been dumped because she did end runs around her bosses to get cuts in her budget restored. Needless to say, the story didn’t credit Urban Milwaukee for being first to report this story. Nor did the story note that Black did the same thing as county parks director, doing end runs around Abele and successfully lobbying board members to restore $1 million in cuts for the parks department included in Abele’s budget.

Categories: Politics

8 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: City Defies Journal Sentinel”

  1. bruceben9 says:

    gosh. the idea that an organization or a governmental agency would falsefy or at least ‘tweek’ numbers is just so totally rediculous . i mean where did anyone ever get such a feeling. i mean, no way. these places are strictly on the up and up always. baaa baaa baaa. where is the line i am supposed to get in with all the other sheeple. in other words, do not just belive anything from anyone anywhere.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “Poston also repeats his claim that the error rate in the Milwaukee Police Department’s data is ten times higher than the national standard. But as I noted in my previous column, nowhere in the story does the newspaper tell us how many police departments in the nation actually meet this standard. In fact, its story has quotes from experts saying that computer data problems are widespread in police departments and that they need to do “far better audits” of data.”

    Let me make sure I have this right. Thanks to the JS reporting, we discover that MPD’s error rate, of around 20%, is an amazing 10 times the national standard. Put another way, ONE OF EVERY FIVE! of these crimes is underreported. But since the JS didn’t manage to get its hands on data from other big cities, we’re supposed to be indignant and treat this as something that’s not a big deal? That’s what you’re going with? And what if other cities have remarkably awful error rates as well? Does that make it okay? If Chicago jumped off a bridge, does that mean Milwaukee can do the same?

    Let’s be real. An error rate of 20% is a prima facie case of intentional manipulation. In this day in age, given the obvious importance that crime rates have in the public eye and the clear political benefits of showing crime drops, it’s extremely hard to believe that a 20% difference in favor of the politicians is just some coincidence or accident. Not that I’m a big supporter of the JS, but everyone else wants to pretend that there’s nothing to see here. That’s disconcerting, and not a good sign for the future of journalism around here.

  3. jimspice says:

    Bottom line: PRI’s public statements do not speak well for its neutrality. If they do the audit, questions will remain.

  4. Bruce Murphy says:

    Note to anonymous: the error rate in question is for assaults only, not for all crimes. (The original version of this story didn’t make that clear.) I’m also not arguing it’s okay to have bad data; from the beginning I’ve suggested its a valid story. I’m merely arguing that it doesn’t prove any deliberate manipulation by Chief Flynn, which the original JS story suggested but the newspaper has now moved away from.

  5. Stacy Moss says:

    “JS didn’t manage to get its hands on data from other big cities”..”And what if other cities have remarkably awful error rates as well? Does that make it okay? If Chicago jumped off a bridge, does that mean Milwaukee can do the same?”

    There is no story unless you figure in the margin of error. Without comparing Milwaukee with other cities we have no way of knowing if anyone really “jumped off the bridge.” Take weather reporting, for example. A TV station consistently exaggerates severe weather conditions by 2% because it increases ratings. It’s possible but that fact alone does rule out an number of more compelling theories.

    This smells like a witch hunt. After all of the ink that the paper threw at this story they don’t present any narrative of human corruption. We are talking about a rather large system with lots of players. Where is the memo incriminating memo? Or the off-record quote, a deep-throat. I doubt this is a case of a kid hacking the school computer to change their grades from a B – to a B. If Flynn cooked the books, how did he do it?

  6. Anonymous says:

    That puts the burden on the wrong party. I guess we’ll have to disagree, no one defending the MPD and the mayor can tell me that an error rate of 20% is some accident without a full independent audit – and it looks like we won’t be getting one of those.

    Can a witch hunt that discovers that the suspect is a witch still be considered a witch hunt? Because the JS looked into this, MPD itself admitted that thousands of crimes were underreported (far more than the amount underreported – if it was some accident I’d expect those numbers to be similar). The fact that everybody wants to look the other way, and shoot the messenger, is completely mind boggling to me. What is wrong with you people?

  7. Anonymous says:

    *second underreported changed to overreported

  8. Stacy Moss says:

    Dear Anonymous,

    I feel your pain. The world is a very confusing. So much ambiguity and doubt is attached to all knowledge. Think about all the things you have been wrong about in your life. That’s sometimes called learning. In the meantime we fill in the blanks, jump to conclusions, hold all kinds of unwarranted opinions that keep us going.

    This girl knows very little about the police department (thank god). But the JS still has to make their case — their conclusions do not follow from the data. I wish Ben Posten had taken a course or so in statistics. His errors are really basic.

    I am not siding with the MPD. I am still confused.

    Your certainty on this issue is very satisfy, I imagine. What are some of the other things you believe?

    Stacy.

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