Down the rabbit hole
Lately, I've been trying to get crime statistics from the Baton Rouge Police Department to see if there's evidence to support the narrative that has been developing about an increase in property crimes in the south Baton Rouge neighborhoods that comprise the second district.
While the public information office of the BRPD is friendly and responsive, they have been largely unhelpful in actually providing numbers. The problem is a system seemingly designed to thwart transparency and stymie the dissemination of accurate, timely and easily comprehensible statistics—the stuff people want and deserve to know.
This quest to find out how safe our neighborhoods are from the people who know has devolved into a trip down the rabbit hole. It began in late August, when I got a call from a local business leader alarmed about a rash of burglaries in his Southdowns-area neighborhood. I called BRPD to try to verify this perceived trend. Initially, they said there was no increase in crime. I asked to see the numbers.
The next day, I found a post on the website of the Southside Civic Association, showing that the organization's private patrol officer—an off-duty BRPD officer—had responded to five times as many burglary calls in the month of July as during the same month a year ago.
Interested, I called the BRPD back and asked about the discrepancy between what I'd seen online—from their own, off-duty officer—and what they had initially told me. They said they couldn't verify it because it wasn't official.
Later, they said on closer review of their own data, they could confirm a slight uptick in burglaries in a handful of south Baton Rouge neighborhoods in July, which they attributed to kids being out of school. With school back in, however, they said property crimes had gone back down. I asked to see the data. I received a partial list of statistics
In the weeks since, I've communicated with the department's public information officer, Lt. Don Kelly, and requested year-to-date crime statistics for the entire second district. He says they are unavailable. As he tells it, the BRPD—like most law enforcement agencies, including the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office—submits "official" Uniform Crime Reporting statistics to the FBI just twice a year, and the process of taking initial incident reports and verifying, coding and turning them into "accurate" crime statistics is a months-long process, hence the lag time.
Perhaps I could be persuaded by that argument, but I'm a little skeptical of the bureaucratic alchemy that transforms a firsthand incident report into an "accurate" statistic only after it has been submitted to the FBI. Aren't those public records? And doesn't the public the BRPD serves deserve at least a glance at the numbers before they are blessed by the FBI?
The sheriff's office apparently thinks so. It posts on its website a comprehensive list of every incident report in every neighborhood in every crime category—and it's current through the month of August.
The BRPD, in contrast, has only a "rolling, seven-day pin map," which shows a select number of incidents in a handful of crime categories and only over a rolling, seven-day period.
Kelly says the pin map gives users a more accurate idea of what's going on in their areas than does the EBRSO data. Have you seen the pin map data? I find it functionally next to useless; it is neither comprehensive nor complete.
Kelly argues the department does not think it's in the public interest to release the available incident reports as they are "internal 'unofficial' operational data we use in-house but don't publicly disseminate because can be inaccurate and misleading."
How can the data the BRPD uses "in-house"—presumably to track crime trends and allocate manpower resources—mislead the public? How is the public misled by knowing how many burglaries or auto thefts the BRPD reports each month, even if, on further examination, those crimes are eventually reclassified or downgraded?
Raw data is still data, and this is still public information the public has a right to know. Local homeowners and civic associations aren't concerned about the effects of crime on their quality of life twice a year. All of us live with those concerns every day. Why should any of us be deprived of this readily available information?
"Do you rely on the weatherman to tell you it's raining at your house?" Kelly asks. "Or do you go outside and check for yourself?"
The analogy doesn't fit. The weatherman does not wait to tell me about storms and hurricanes until the National Weather Service has been consulted, and he certainly doesn't provide information on whether I should board the windows only twice a year.
It doesn't make sense. Like I said, it's a trip down the rabbit hole.
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