ATLANTA - Not accounting for 22,000 crimes can definitely improve a city's crime rate.
That was the case in Atlanta, where police recently revealed they were missing that many crime reports from a single year.
While the underreporting shocked many civilians, it was no surprise for those in law enforcement, who are well aware that agencies across the country lose or alter crime reports to burnish their widely reported crime statistics.
In New York, a police captain was accused of routinely downgrading crime reports so he'd look good in the eyes of his superiors. Philadelphia's Sex Crimes Unit dismissed as non-crimes several thousand reports of rape in 1999. And in Baltimore, an information technology worker quit in December over claims the city's crime reporting was wildly inaccurate.
"It's been a chronic problem," said Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who runs the Web site www.policeaccountability.org
. "But then again, no one knows exactly how serious it is. There's no real accounting, no real auditing."
Police and experts say crime rates never are all that accurate, since the job of crime reporting is mostly left to the police themselves _ and police are under constant pressure to show crime rates are dropping.
Even the FBI's national crime reports are known to be only vaguely accurate, since they too rely on reports from police.
"Criminologists have known for years that crime statistics are not reliable," said Robert Friedmann, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University.
The problem, Friedmann said, can be caused by pressure from politicians who want to put a good face on crime, or by officers who fear for their jobs. The solution may involve more independent assessments like Atlanta's.
For the most part, the public would only find out if crimes are being downgraded _ or if incidents are tucked into a dark corner _ when there's a scandal.
The exception is a department such as Atlanta's, which ordered an independent audit to come clean on its misreporting problem. Only a few other cities _ including Boston and New Orleans _ have done the same.
Atlanta's audit said the city underreported crimes for years to help land the 1996 Olympics and pump up tourism. In 2002 alone, there were more than 22,000 missing police reports, 4,281 of which could have been counted as violent offenses.
Despite the distorted figures, Atlanta ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in violent crimes such as rape and murder in nine of the last 10 years, according to FBI crime data, which is compiled from reports submitted by police departments.
"Soon after coming here, I discovered that the systems and practice of the Atlanta police department were essentially broken," Chief Richard Pennington said in the audit.
Pennington has proposed a number of reforms, including accounting for crimes from the time a 911 call is made.
In Broward County, Fla., which includes Fort Lauderdale, the state attorney's office is investigating reports that deputies cooked crime statistics so evaluations of the department would go more smoothly.
"Crimes are reclassified every day. If someone has a broken window, they may dial 911 and say their house was robbed. It may turn out it was a burglary, perhaps it was criminal mischief," said sheriff's spokesman Jim Leljedal.
Sometimes, as in Baltimore's case, the crime statistics were simply miscategorized, said police spokesman Matt Jablow.
"In no case did we find that any allegations of rape were uninvestigated," Jablow said. "No one came forward and said, 'No one investigated my rape.'"
So crime reporting often comes down to the integrity and ethics of police officers.
In New York, 70 sergeants rallied in front of a Queens station house with a 15-foot inflatable rat this month as they demanded the ouster of Capt. Sheldon Howard, who they say reduces the severity of crimes so his statistics look better than they are.
"If Howard's numbers are good, he doesn't get called up and he looks like a star," said Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins. "It's a regular pattern and practice that exists in that precinct."
New York police spokeswoman Chris Filipazzo would not comment because of an ongoing investigation.
In Atlanta, meanwhile, police believe the audit may have overstated its case. The accounting of the problem could have been exaggerated because crimes get repeatedly re-categorized in different computers, said Sgt. John Quigley.
"If there were a lot of reports missing, I would have thought letters to the editor would have reflected the frustration of the citizenry," he said.