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Opinion

Examiner Local Editorial: Navigating the quicksand of crime statistics

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Opinion,Local Editorial

Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier and New York-based Human Rights Watch have been sniping at each other for months over HRW's high-profile claim that the MPD failed to investigate nearly 37 percent of rapes reported during a three-year span, especially those involving alcohol and drugs. The full 197-page report released last week blames MPD detectives of further traumatizing victims by telling them they were "lying" or "wasting my time" and not following up with criminal investigations.

HRW's analysis was based on 480 sexual assaults reported to police between 2008 and 2011, by women treated at MedStar Washington Hospital Center -- the only medical facility in the city that performs forensic examinations of sexual abuse victims. According to Senior Counsel Sara Darehshori, 170 initial police reports (Form 251s) were missing. An additional 34 percent were classified as "miscellaneous" or other low-priority designations.

In response to these serious allegations, Lanier accused the group of publicity-seeking, blasted its methodology and then listed all the improvements the MPD has made in the meantime, including changing personnel and reporting procedures in the Sexual Assault Unit. As one astute blogger noted, Lanier's response was: "We did nothing wrong and will never do it again."

In a Dec. 20, 2012, letter, Lanier accused the group of taking a "cheap shot," being "secretive and opaque" for not providing her with an advance copy of the report, and making "incorrect assumptions" based on uncorroborated allegations and incomplete data. But Lanier's department, which has itself been accused of being secretive and opaque, supplied the data through a Freedom of Information Act request. If it's incomplete, whose fault is that?

Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the D.C. chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, has complained for years that the MPD manipulates crime statistics. And given that the number of reported sexual abuse cases in D.C. inexplicably surged 51 percent between 2011 and 2012, HRW may at least be on to something.

But it's also worth nothing that in a 2006 Huffington Post column, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz accused HRW of fudging numbers itself to meet its fundraising and ideological goals. "It turns out they cook the books about facts, cheat on interviews, and put out pre-determined conclusions that are driven more by their ideology than by evidence."

Where does the truth lie? Probably somewhere in between, which means that there's still plenty of room for improved crime reporting and increased transparency at the MPD.

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