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Richmond's Adjusted Crime Figures Show Decline
April 19, 2001

State audit finds some crimes were overstated in 2000; without adjusting past tallies, comparisons are difficult 

By John Simerman

RICHMOND -- Overall crime in the city continued its downward slide in 2000 -- but only on paper. 

That is because Richmond police adjusted their tally of some felonies last year, turning a 4 percent rise in serious crime into a 4 percent decline. 

Last October, police Chief Joseph Samuels asked the state Department of Justice to audit Richmond's crime reporting practices after he noticed a 50 percent rise in reported auto thefts. Justice officials sampled crime reports and estimated that Richmond overstated auto thefts by 39 percent, and aggravated assaults by 9 percent. 

The department long has had the same system for crime reporting, and Samuels acknowledged that those two crimes likely have been overstated for many years. But he ordered the figures adjusted only for 2000, saying he wanted a new benchmark, not revised historical data. 

The result: The rise in auto thefts appears as an 8.5 percent decline when compared with 1999's unadjusted crime numbers. And a modest drop in aggravated assaults becomes a dramatic falloff. 

If both years are adjusted using the same Justice Department error estimates, overall serious crime in Richmond rose 2.9 percent in 2000. 

"We need to fix our systems and processes before we talk about up and down," Samuels said. 

With the adjustment, Richmond can claim its lowest overall crime rate in more than a decade. Without it, the city saw the first increase in federal Part I crimes since 1997. Part I crimes include homicide, aggravated assault, rape, robbery, burglary, larceny, vehicle theft and arson. 

Samuels this week delivered both interpretations in a public report to the City Council. 

"It's very difficult to say that one figure represents our crime rate experience." Samuels told the council. "All of this is good, bad and ugly. There's actually more good than bad." 

The good includes a drop in all categories of violent crime -- homicide, aggravated assault, rape, robbery -- including a 19 percent drop in rape, according to police. Homicide slid from 31 to 29. Oakland, by comparison, saw its homicide numbers climb from 60 to 80 last year. 

So far this year, there have been six homicides in Richmond. 

Unadjusted, Richmond's crime rate generally followed the statewide trend for 2000, when crime rose in California for the first time in eight years, according to preliminary figures released last month. 

Mike Van Winkle, spokesman for the Department of Justice, said the agency receives requests for audits of crime reporting procedures from one or two police departments every year. Richmond was the only jurisdiction in the state to seek one last year, he said. 

Samuels said auditors found that many joy-riding cases and civil disputes that Richmond tallied as auto thefts failed to live up to that felony category. Similarly, a zero tolerance policy regarding domestic violence helped overinflate some civil disturbances to aggravated assault status, he said. 

"I did not get the perception that there was any cooking of the books to make it look like something existed that didn't really exist," said City Councilman Gary Bell. "I believe we're making good progress in dealing with the issue of crime." 

Councilman Tom Butt said he was not very concerned with comparisons of Richmond to itself.

"Plus or minus a few percentage points I don't think is significant," Butt said. "It's significant how we rate with other places. How does this crime rate compare to other places I might want to move my businesses or family? They've got to come to grips with that and set some goals or objectives." 

The city's per capita homicide rate in 2000 remained about five times the state level, while its broader crime rate was about twice the state's, according to state and city crime data.