News & Politics

Why Are Police Departments Classifying Brutal Physical Assaults as ‘Minor Offenses’?

An investigation reveals that the Los Angeles Police Department has misclassified hundreds of violent crimes.

Stabbings. Burnings. Domestic abuse. Robbery.

According to the Los Angeles Police Department, none of the brutal offenses listed above qualify for inclusion in the city’s official tally of serious crimes. In a thorough investigation, the Los Angeles Times uncovered nearly 1,200 instances in which violent crimes were either misclassified or reclassified as minor offenses over a one-year period. Several of the current and former LAPD officials interviewed point to numbers-based crime reduction strategies as the reason for the chronic misreporting.

Local police departments are under increasing pressure to demonstrate their success at reducing violent crime rates by using hard stats as evidence. By relying on computerized tracking systems to map crime hot spots—and enforcing strict quotas in order to keep crime numbers down—police departments create the appearance that they operate in a data-driven, systematic fashion. After all, it’s these numbers that go into the public statistics on crime that local officials and the public use to judge the success of the department and the overall safety of their cities. But the reality is much more subjective.

Though the FBI provides police departments nationwide with clearly defined rules for classifying crimes, places like L.A. have witnessed high rates of incorrect reporting. If the city had included all the misclassified crimes from September 2012-September 2013 (the time frame of the Times analysis), the total aggravated assaults for the year would have been almost 14% higher. The LAPD told the Times that these incidents were mostly inadvertent, but acknowledged that the department was reviewing how it oversees crime records. Incorrect reports have serious repercussions for urban policing, as minor offenses don’t appear on crime maps that help departments know where to deploy officers and allocate additional resources.

One of the horrifying stories recounted in the Times investigation involves a woman who was choked, stabbed in the face with a screwdriver, and thrown down a flight of stairs by her husband. He was sentenced to six years in prison, but the department classified the crime as a “simple” rather than “aggravated” assault—meaning it wasn’t included in the city’s serious crime tally. In another case, a man suffered third-degree burns after his girlfriend poured boiling water on him as he slept—another “minor offense.”

The public can accept that there is some degree of subjectivity in how a crime is processed and recorded. But reports of false classifications have cropped up in cities from New York to New Orleans to Milwaukee. It seems increasingly apparent that policing by the numbers is a flawed approach to reducing crime. 

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.

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