'Wrong' crime data highlights inconsistent statistics

ANNAPOLIS — The number of rapes in Maryland increased last year by 15% over the previous year, according to an annual FBI Uniform Crime Report released Sept. 30.

This was significant — the largest year-over-year increase for the state since the FBI’s definition of rape was revised in 2013.

It’s also wrong.

In fact, many of Maryland’s crime statistics reported by government agencies are unusually inconsistent — even “astounding” and “bizarre” — according to a national crime statistics expert.

Numbers for the same crimes over the same time period in the same jurisdiction are different — sometimes markedly different — depending on which agency is reporting them: the FBI, state police or local law enforcement.

In one county, for example, the FBI reported 13 people murdered; the state police listed 23 and the county, 26.

What happened to the other 10 or 13 people not included in the FBI’s report? No officials fully explained.

In fact, none of the agencies was able to fully explain how the same type of crime appeared to happen more or less often depending solely on which one reported it.

One of the largest disparities came from Prince George’s County, where a difference of more than 100 incidents of sexual assault between the FBI and the local police department’s reports dramatically affect the overall 2018 numbers for the state.

The federal report showed that statewide there were 200 more incidents of rape in 2018 than in 2017 — and more than 100 of those came from Prince George’s County alone.

According to the FBI, the Prince George’s County Police Department reported to them that rapes in the county had more than doubled — from 97 in 2017 to 214 last year.

But when Capital News Service contacted the county police department for a comment on the sharp increase, a spokeswoman revealed that the numbers in the FBI report are simply “wrong.”

In reality, police spokeswoman Jennifer Donelan said, the department reported 215 rapes in 2017, not 97. And there were 200 reported rapes last year in Prince George’s, not 214. Donelan said she is not sure why the FBI reported significantly different numbers at least twice.

An FBI representative told Capital News Service that the bureau “questioned” the 2017 number and “a response was received stating the questioned figures were correct.”

“The FBI works with the state (Uniform Crime Reporting) Program and does not contact the submitting agency directly,” the FBI representative said, adding that agencies submit data monthly to a “centralized repository” and bureau staff “review the information for accuracy and reasonableness.”

Greg Shipley, a Maryland State Police spokesman, told Capital News Service that local agencies report their crime data to state police, which then reports the statistics to the FBI.

The FBI representative noted that the deadline for agencies to be included in the 2017 Uniform Crime Report was April 2018.

“Agencies can send missing or corrected data after the deadline; however, (Crime in the United States) will not be updated to include the new information,” the representative added, noting that any updated data will reside on the bureau’s Crime Data Explorer website.

The Prince George’s County rape data had not been publicly updated as of Monday.

This reporting inaccuracy for Prince George’s County is indicative of broader examples of inconsistent crime data in the state, from the FBI to the Maryland State Police to local jurisdictions.

Just as the FBI releases a Uniform Crime Report every year, the Maryland State Police releases its own annual report.

The reports are released at different times. The FBI released its 2017 report in September 2018. The Maryland State Police, however, didn’t release its 2017 Uniform Crime Report until March of this year, said spokesman Ron Snyder.

Snyder said in October that there was no timeline yet for release of the state police’s 2018 report.

With 2018 crime data from the Maryland State Police unavailable, Capital News Service reviewed the FBI, state and local police reports on violent crime from 2017 and 2016.

The numbers were anything but uniform.

The FBI reported that there were 1,691 incidents of rape in Maryland in 2017. The Maryland State Police report lists 1,773. Similarly, the FBI report shows 16,836 incidents of aggravated assault in Maryland in 2017. The number in the state police report, however, is 17,049.

The FBI also reported 23 fewer murders statewide in 2017 than the Maryland State Police did. In the 2016 reports, the FBI listed two more murders than the state police did.

The FBI representative said that with regard to the 2016 difference in murder numbers, “Because not all law enforcement agencies provide data for complete reporting periods, the FBI includes estimates for participating agencies that do not provide 12 months of complete data.”

Capital News Service was unable to discern which Maryland crime data sets the FBI had done “estimates” for and which were complete annual numbers provided by the state.

“In my opinion, estimating data or extrapolating a partial data set into a full year’s data could lead to very bad data,” said Michael Walker, an FBI advisor and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York as well as Passaic County Community College in New Jersey.

The inconsistencies are more evident at the county level. While the Prince George’s County Police Department says that it reported 215 rapes in 2017 and the FBI lists its number for the county at 97, the Maryland State Police 2017 report says that 130 rapes were reported in that county.

These disparities among law enforcement agencies continue for other counties in the state.

The FBI’s 2017 report lists 13 murders for Montgomery County, attributed to the Montgomery County Police Department. But in the county police’s own 2017 crime report, there are 23 listed. The state police reported 26.

Shipley, with the state police, deferred questions about the FBI’s much lower numbers to the bureau itself. The FBI maintains it gets the numbers from the state police.

The numbers for murder also don’t line up for Prince George’s County. The FBI’s number in its 2017 report is 54 — attributed to the county police department — while the Maryland State Police’s number for the county in that same year is 81. This difference could be due to the FBI number not including data from other jurisdictions within the county, but Capital News Service was unable to determine why the numbers were so far apart. Crime statistics from the Prince George’s County Police itself are not immediately available — the most recent crime statistics listed on its website are from 2015.

Capital News Service requested more recent crime data from the Prince George’s department but did not receive it.

The numbers aren’t inconsistent in all places. Despite its high crime rate, figures about the city of Baltimore are relatively consistent.

The number of murders in Baltimore in 2017 and 2016 — 342 and 318, respectively — match what is reported in both the FBI and Maryland State Police data.

The number of rapes in the city in 2016 also matches up between the two reports. In 2017, the FBI lists 382 rapes in Baltimore, compared to 385 in the state police’s report.

But in Carroll County the FBI lists 81 aggravated assaults from 2017, while the Maryland State Police lists 263 for the county in the same year. Shipley maintained that the difference is “likely due to the timing difference in publication.”

While some county data in the FBI’s report might contain statistics from all police jurisdictions within a given county, this is not always the case. The FBI representative told Capital News Service that the report’s county data tables do not “reflect county totals but are the number of offenses reported by the sheriff’s office or county police department.”

However, in the case of Montgomery County, the police department there reports all crime statistics from the county — including those from city police departments within its boundaries — to the Uniform Crime Reporting program, according to Shipley.

Maryland crime numbers: ‘all hell broke loose’

Walker, a statistical adviser to the FBI, said Maryland’s numbers defy nationwide norms.

“I … was somewhat startled by the differences,” he said.

Walker is a member of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting subcommittee on its Advisory Process Board, which reviews policies in the bureau’s Criminal Justice Information Services. He is also a former police commissioner and has worked with the FBI’s crime data for approximately 12 years.

Provided with the FBI and Maryland State Police reports from 2017, Walker said he reviewed the data for days.

While he said there were some matches between the two reports — such as murders in Baltimore in 2017 — “all hell broke loose” in other areas.

“I’ve been running this data any which way and I can’t figure out what the differences are,” Walker told Capital News Service.

He said the differences could not be due to definitions, as the crime definitions in the state police and FBI reports are “word for word” the same.

Shipley confirmed that the agency follows “the FBI’s reporting procedure” and said he didn’t believe there is a difference in methodology.

Shipley said the differences could be tied to when the FBI releases its annual report. He said law enforcement agencies are asked to provide crime data monthly, but this “does not always occur,” which means the Maryland State Police’s annual report can be “significantly delayed” while waiting for submissions. The FBI, however, “could publish while we are still awaiting data,” Shipley noted.

“Our goal is to publish as complete and accurate a report as possible,” he added, referring to the state police’s own report.

Shipley said that 156 public safety agencies in the state submit Uniform Crime Reporting data to the Maryland State Police. The agencies are provided with spreadsheets from the FBI to fill out and submit on a monthly basis, which he said is a “fluid and ongoing process.”

“The FBI has their own schedule for publication and will publish the data they have been provided, which may not include all data ultimately received by the Maryland State Police from our state’s contributing agencies,” he said.

Shipley added that another possible reason for “number fluctuations” is a crime originally reported as an assault later being changed to a murder, which “could come months later.”

Shipley said his team is “certain of the numbers reported to and by” the Maryland State Police in its annual Uniform Crime Report.

An FBI representative said the Crime in the United States publications provide a “snapshot” of crime.

“For example, the deadline for agencies to provide data to be included in the 2018 publication was in April of 2019,” the representative added. “Agencies have until December of 2019 to report missing or corrected data.”

Walker said timing could be the reason for the inconsistent statistics. But in his experience working with Uniform Crime Reporting data, he said, “occasionally you’ll see a minimum number of differences” in states’ numbers, but Maryland’s are “astounding” to him.

“It’s absolutely bizarre,” Walker added.

Nick Pepersack, deputy chief of staff for the Maryland Department of Budget and Management, said that funding for policing can be affected by data points in the state’s Uniform Crime Report, referring to the State Aid for Police Protection Fund formula. The fund supplements resources for police protection in Maryland communities, according to the website for the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

Pepersack clarified, however, that a department analyst was “not aware of any specific instances where such data points had any significant impact on a jurisdiction’s funding amount.”

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