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Exonerated: Expert debunks crime reporting allegations against Jane Castor

“That’s not a police agency trying to manipulate data.”

A criminology expert from the University of South Florida doesn’t agree with recent allegations against former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor claiming she manipulated crime data to make crime rates look lower than they actually were.

Bryanna Fox holds a PhD in psychological criminology from the University of Cambridge in England. She also used to work for the FBI. She’s well-versed both academically and in practice in the Uniform Crime Report methodology at the center of the recent allegations.

“There were year-over-year crime decreases after the department changed the way data were reported,” Fox said. “You would expect when they were coded one way and it was apples and then they reported it a different way and it was oranges that there would be a drop.

“But crime continued to drop.”

Simply put, if crime dropped from 2006 to 2007 after the Tampa Police Department changed its crime reporting methods, that drop would have held steady unless there was some other variable affecting it.

Crime dropped more than 58 percent from 2006 to 2015. That decline grew to 70 percent by 2017, meaning the data reporting changes could not have been the only factor.

Three retired Tampa Police officers have come forward and appeared in videos for the David Straz campaign claiming insider knowledge about how the agency reported crime. They criticized Castor for supporting reporting methods that bundled certain crimes.

Those claims were already bunked, but the Straz campaign has continued to hammer the issue arguing “reducing paperwork is not reducing crime.”

A report the year after the Tampa Police Department honed the way it reported crime under the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report process found “significantly correct” data. It did not identify any evidence of misreporting or under-reporting.

Furthermore, it provided a list of other departmental changes that would have explained the city’s crime reduction, the missing variable Fox mentioned.

The Straz campaign cited that very same report in an attempt to prove its accusations, but referenced just one paragraph out of the 14-page report.

The campaign produced its third accuser less than 24 hours after at least two media reports, including from Florida Politics, showed it supported the agency’s methodology.

Fox also addressed concerns that Castor and other department leaders had been downgrading crimes to make them look less severe.

One of the accusers, Steven Brock, said he participated in a case in which a man was repeatedly stabbed. He thought the incident should be documented as attempted homicide, but instead it was classified as aggravated assault.

Responding to that claim in general because Brock did not provide specifics for the case he was referencing, Castor said that would have been necessary because the UCR does not include attempted homicide as a code.

“You’re either dead or you’re not,” Castor said referring to the reporting methodology.

Fox confirmed Castor’s statement was accurate: “The biggest thing with UCR is it was never meant to code all crime.”

The FBI includes in its reporting criteria eight different crimes: murder, non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft.

And on claims the reporting method misleads the public on actual crime?

“Most people don’t know the UCR already omits a lot of crimes because it only counts the most severe offense,” Fox said. That means if someone broke into a home and murdered an occupant, only the homicide would count.

Law enforcement experts created a new methodology to address that issue called the National Incident-based Reporting System (NIBRS) that counts all crime, not just severe crime. It was principally created for research purposes. If someone was studying burglaries but some weren’t counted because they were also part of a homicide, that could affect research outcomes.

Law enforcement agencies are required to use the UCR, but they are not required to use NIBRS.

Straz is right on one thing. As Police Chief, Castor could have opted to use NIBRS in addition to UCR, but that would have come at a cost. Fox couldn’t say how much because she doesn’t work on budget issues, but reminded that duplicating reporting efforts would equate to additional man-hours and resources.

While it wasn’t required then and still isn’t today, the FBI aims to make all law enforcement agencies NIBRS-compliant by 2021.

It’s worth noting that Castor was chief during some of the most lean times the agency has faced in recent decades.

Further, UCR is considered the “unifying lingo” in law enforcement. Crimes are classified differently from state to state. What might be a felony in Florida could be a misdemeanor in another state. Using UCR means the nationwide data is consistent regardless of differences in state laws.

“That’s not a police agency trying to manipulate data,” Fox said.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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