New Orleans crime statistics, the subject of skepticism for years, will get a fresh look from New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office next year.
Quatrevaux plans two audits in 2016 that center on the New Orleans Police Department’s checks on registered sex offenders and the accuracy of the crime data the NOPD’s Sex Crimes Unit reports to the FBI.
At some point in the future, he will also review another, as yet undecided category of crime numbers to determine whether those data are being reported accurately.
Quatrevaux’s audits — the latest in a string of such analyses by his office — will be the latest efforts to check up on NOPD statistics, which for years have been dogged by doubts about their reliability.
The latest series of questions was raised by a New Orleans Advocate/WWL-TV analysis of millions of 911 calls between 2010 and this year, which found that long police response times may be artificially suppressing the official count of major crimes by as much as 12 percent.
The analysis found that an additional 1,332 major crimes would have been counted through mid-August of this year if police had gotten to crime scenes as quickly as they did in 2010.
In the wake of those revelations, the Police Department has dramatically curbed its use of the category “unfounded” to mark up 911 calls. Calls put into that category — which was often used in cases with such long response times that there was no victim present by the time police arrived — do not count as crimes.
An NOPD spokesman did not respond to a question about whether reported crime statistics have increased since the October policy shift.
But well before response times erupted as a major issue for the NOPD, questions have swirled about the department’s crime numbers.
In 2013, crime experts interviewed by The Times-Picayune called into question the number of aggravated assaults recorded in the city, which was surprisingly low given New Orleans’ sky-high murder rate.
The state Legislative Auditor’s Office also found in a 2013 report that out of 1,000 calls for service it reviewed, 186 should have been reported to the FBI as major crimes but were not. The auditor did not allege that crimes were deliberately ignored or downgraded — that is, treated as less serious offenses than they really were. The NOPD blamed a computer programming error for the missing reports.
Quatrevaux followed up with an August 2014 audit that found 37 percent of offenses that should have been classified as robberies were instead listed as “miscellaneous” incidents and not reported to the FBI. Then his office looked at the department’s Sex Crimes Unit in November 2014 and found documentation was missing for hundreds of incidents.
As he often does, Quatrevaux said in an interview last week that he operates with “professional skepticism” about the NOPD’s numbers.
He said he hopes to have the latest sex crimes audit completed by March or April.
“Then we’ll have a better idea of how the sex crimes data is,” he said. “If it’s a vast improvement, that’s great.”
In the meantime, New Orleanians eyeing the department’s official numbers may have noticed a consistent trend in the regularly issued crime numbers this year. Reports of crimes in three of the most eye-grabbing and fear-inducing categories — murders, armed robberies and rapes — are all up this year. But citing drops in other categories, like simple robberies and auto thefts, police claim an overall 6 percent decrease in crime.
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said such a divergence is actually common in major cities.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that other crimes are not being recorded faithfully or anything of the sort,” Rosenfeld said. “New Orleans is not alone in that divergence.”
A national survey by New York University’s Brennan Center found, in fact, that the split mirrors national trends. Researchers project murders in major cities nationwide will be up roughly 11 percent this year, while overall crime will be down roughly 1.5 percent.
Rosenfeld said studies have generally not found that police response times have a major impact on the reporting or solving of crimes. But those studies have mostly looked at response times measured in minutes. In New Orleans, the average time shot up from 24 minutes in 2010 to an hour and 19 minutes through mid-August of 2015.
“That variance in response time could well have an effect on crime reporting,” Rosenfeld said.