How police ‘cook the books’ on crime rates

Richard Bain // Special to Western News

As an expert on violent sex crimes and serial offending, I was recently invited to speak to what was supposed to be a cadre of seasoned investigators in the Toronto region.

I found myself confronted, however, by an inexperienced bureaucrat who questioned my unvarnished, albeit accurate, depiction of the current practice in Canada of statistically connecting incarcerated offenders to similar crimes they may or may not have committed.

It’s a practice known as administratively clearing an offender, and it’s one of many euphemisms used to describe the widespread and often dubious practices used by police forces in response to increasing demands that they statistically quantify, justify and forecast everything they do.

To borrow from a similar trend and expectation in baseball, it might be called the sabermetrics of law and order. Let me explain.

In many criminal investigations, when a case is “cleared,” which essentially means a box being ticked by police in order to report the final status of that case to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS), it is done so by what’s known as clearing by charge.

Often, however, a suspect in one or more crimes can be “cleared otherwise,” which really means that while there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a charge, some extenuating circumstance – the death of the suspect, lack of cooperation by a victim or even police discretion – has “otherwise” led to the suspect being spared charges.

Clearance rates used to police advantage

The case nonetheless shows up at the CCJS as solved and with a suspect identified, boosting a police force’s clearance rate – the gold standard of organizational performance and the most compelling tool used to subsequently request everything from an increased budget to the renewal of a chief or commissioner’s term.

In most cases, a suspect is cleared at the time of the original investigation and receives some type of warning rather than being processed by the court system. But many suspects are also retroactively cleared, often without ever even being spoken to.

This is called an administrative clearance, or selectively changing the clearance status of a case by linking the suspect, whether alive or dead, to an open investigation and then clearing them “otherwise” and citing “police discretion” as the reason.

Some offenders know this happens and wilfully play along, while others have no idea, since the clearance never leads to any direct implications for them; it’s strictly a numbers game whereby a case goes into the void of the CCJS and the reporting police force has one less file to manage or take to court.

This occurs principally with property crimes – typically break-ins, auto thefts or acts of petty mischief – that are still wrongly relegated by police and government functionaries as being “victimless” crimes.

There are some notable exceptions, mind you.

American serial killers

In the United States between 1983 and 1984, for instance, nomadic American serial killer Henry Lee Lucas allowed police from several states to administratively clear more than 3,000 cold case murders to him, mostly through his false confessions to any slayings they asked him about and desperately wanted to close.

This was done with the inducement that he would not be charged with the crimes and that they simply wanted to close the books.

In the end, Lucas was convicted of 11 murders, and the vast majority of these clearances were later reversed. Most of the unsolved crimes blighted by the fake clearances were never reopened and remain lost to history.

Soon afterward, police in Atlanta, following the arrest of suspected serial strangler Carlton Gary in May of 1984 for three murders, administratively cleared another four cases to him that were thought to match his modus operandi and victim demographic. He was executed in March 2018 after spending 30 years on Georgia’s death row.

Questions remain about the cases Gary was charged and convicted of, never mind the additional four tacked on following his death sentence.

Since the late 1980s, however, administrative clearances for murder have became largely unheard of, particularly with the increased reliance on DNA and the risks of arbitrarily linking a suspect to a homicide that scientific testing may later negate or reverse.

This may, at least in part, also help explain why the clearance rate for homicides in the United States is at an all-time low, with fewer murders cleared in 2017 then there were in 1965. See below:

But with the phasing out of bulk clearances for homicide into the 1990s, a new trend of administratively clearing convicted offenders for property crimes soon became de rigeur.

This has especially been the case in Canada where, with a generally lower violent crime rate, offences like breaking-and-entering, auto thefts and graffiti were the leading areas through which police could shore up their overall clearance rate.

Undone by DNA matches

But later on, into the 2000s, the National DNA Data Bank went live and break-and-enter became the leading source of crime scene samples being processed by affiliated labs across the country.

And so a similar problem faced previously in the U.S. presented itself in Canada regarding the integrity of questionable clearances potentially later undone by DNA matches.

Consequently, instead of administratively clearing known offenders and essentially cooking the books regarding existing property crimes, two new solutions to the numbers game presented themselves: Unfounding and recoding.

As revealed in a Globe and Mail series of investigative reports, the popular police practice of coding cases as “unfounded” is not limited to property crimes, but also to violent crime.

While it’s largely impossible to entirely unfound a murder, the statistics indicate that, as of 2017, approximately 20 per cent of sexual assault complaints across Canada were reported to the CCJS as unfounded.

This means that while the occurrence itself cannot be made to disappear from record, it is considered a non-event; it is baseless and thus requires no clearance status as it does not count toward a given agency’s annual tally of “actual” crime.

And then there’s recoding, a process that allows a police investigator to manually override the initially assigned offence category using the fixed-choice Uniform Crime Report menu and change, at his or her discretion, what classification best suits the circumstances of the case.

Chicago’s mythical crime drop

South of the border, what was cited as the city of Chicago’s “miraculous” drop in violent crime in 2014 was, according to a detailed exposé by Chicago Magazine , similarly the result of a very shrewd recoding campaign.

Incredibly, even obvious cases of murder were recoded as either accidental or undetermined deaths in circumstances when there were no viable leads, the victim had no known next of kin and authorities were satisfied that they could reclassify the case without being questioned.

On paper, the city appeared to be undergoing a renaissance; in reality, violent crimes up to and including murder were being erased from the record. Worse yet, the problem was not limited to Chicago.

A 2017 audit by the Murder Accountability Project confirmed that between 2000 and 2015, more than 1,900 homicides per year on average went “missing” from police records across the United States.

Nearly 30,000 more deaths by criminal homicide were reported by coroners and medical examiners to the Center for Disease Control than were reported by police to the U.S. Justice Department or otherwise on their books.

These are crimes for which there is no other plausible explanation for their systemic and consistent disappearance in such numbers other than intentional recoding, from coast to coast.

In Canada, we’ve yet to see an accounting and tracking problem of this scale regarding murder. But a suspicious pattern presents itself with respect to a time-honoured favourite for statistical manipulation and clearance fiddling: Breaking-and-entering. Here’s some Statistics Canada data on B-and-E rates:

The decline in B-and-Es would seem to defy current socioeconomic conditions in many communities across Canada, which are actually conducive to elevated numbers of break-ins (epidemic addiction issues, mental health crises, precarious employment, non-affordable housing, an eroding middle class, record debt levels, etc.).

But the Statistics Canada graph would suggest community policing and crime prevention programs are perhaps mitigating or offsetting the issues otherwise plaguing these communities. Unlikely.

Rather than using administrative clearance, recoding might offer a solution for police services increasingly required to do more with less and could explain this puzzling incongruity.

Break-ins often precursors to violence

Another problem is that the B-and-Es most likely to be reclassified are, based on recent Canadian studies, the ones that are actually the most likely to be precursors to violent crime, up to and including homicide.

So even though in Canada, the practice of recoding murders to give the impression of a lower violent crime rate has not revealed itself as it has in the U.S., police are at risk of doing the next best thing. They could be allowing potential murderers, usually sexual murderers, to thrive during their formative and gateway crimes.

In my next piece for The Conversation Canada, I detail how high-risk serial predators begin their careers, as we now know most sexual offenders do, by dabbling in residential burglary.

Yet the Kafkaesque numbers game played by police forces allows many of them to go free – and entirely undetected, in most cases.

Since 2010, Michael Arntfield, an Arts & Humanities professor and former police officer, has worked with Western students to research unsolved historical homicides, some of them long-forgotten or never even publicly known.

This originally appeared in The Conversation Canada.