News

Undercounting Crime

Santa Fe Police Department grossly low-balls crime stats in national database

Santa Fe saw three homicides in 2020, marking a five-year low for the capital.

But have a look at the FBI’s newly published Uniform Crime Report—the bureau’s annual attempt to present data from hundreds of cities around the nation, known as the UCR—and the homicide total for New Mexico’s fourth largest city looks even lower.

In fact, it looks like zero.

That’s because the Santa Fe Police Department underreported homicides and nearly every other crime documented in the 2020 UCR, in some cases by vast margins.

Figures the department provided for the 2019 UCR are way off, too.

Deputy Chief Paul Joye tells SFR a more accurate picture of crime in the city can be found in the department’s annual reports, which are presented to the City Council each year as part of the department’s budget request.

“I believe the numbers we gave to the governing body should be the most accurate,” Joye says. “We do our best to verify those.”

If that’s correct, consider: SFPD reported 343 aggravated assaults to the council in 2020 and 90 to the FBI. The previous year, the department listed 425 aggravated assaults in its annual report and pegged that number at 230 for the UCR.

There’s an even wider gulf in the larceny figures: 1,843 for the 2020 report to the council and 563 for the UCR; 2,465 in the previous year’s annual report and just 1,472 for the FBI’s national snapshot.

Department brass were not aware of the discrepancies until SFR brought them to officials’ attention last week, Deputy Chief Ben Valdez says, adding that they are committed to ensuring the numbers match in the future.

The mismanagement of statistical reporting raises further questions and red flags about vital record keeping procedures within the department. Last year, a public safety consultant issued a blistering report that listed dozens of problems with the SFPD evidence room, including evidence that had been lost in a first-degree murder case.

And just last month, Assistant District Attorney Tony Long dashed off a letter to SFPD with a laundry list of items missing from the case file in the high-profile shooting of a Santa Fe teen. Long informed the department that prosecutors would have to dismiss charges against the accused while police shored up the investigation—which involved one of the 2020 homicides not listed in the Uniform Crime Report.

There are potentially serious consequences for the low-balled figures in the last two UCRs; it’s not just a matter of optics that inaccurately show Santa Fe significantly bucking the national trend of a rise in several different crime categories.

In addition to documenting crime for the nation, the bureau uses the UCR as a measuring stick to dole out millions through its Justice Assistance Grant program. Failure to submit stats—or misreporting them—for the UCR could lead to a police department’s grant funding being pulled.

That would mean tens of thousands of dollars for SFPD. Most of it goes toward the department’s traffic safety efforts, including radar devices and more, Valdez says.

“To have that be in jeopardy is certainly concerning,” he says. “Those tasks will still need to be done, whether there’s funding or not.”

For at least the last two years, SFPD has reported different numbers for homicides. In 2020, the department told SFR and the Santa Fe New Mexican there had been three, but reported none to the FBI. The previous year, police officials told SFR seven people were murdered in the city, but reported eight to the New Mexican and the City Council, but just five to the FBI.

Neither Joye nor Valdez could say how their department pushed out such radically disparate crime statistics. Valdez points the finger at the New Mexico Department of Public Safety which, by statute, administers the UCR program for all law enforcement agencies in the state.

DPS spokesman Herman Lovato says Santa Fe police entered their own data, and his department’s Records Bureau chief, Regina Chacon, walks SFR step by step through the reporting process.

In years past, police and sheriffs’ agencies provided their yearly statistics to DPS which, in turn, sent them along to the bureau for the UCR, Chacon explains.

“We don’t modify any agency’s data, ever,” Lovato adds. “We are here to facilitate the information being submitted.”

The process changed for 2020, Chacon continues, when New Mexico switched over to the FBI’s new, more comprehensive National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).

Among other new bells and whistles, NIBRS allows individual law enforcement agencies—rather than a state clearinghouse, such as the public safety department in New Mexico—to submit data directly to the FBI via a flat file or a .xml file.

Public safety department personnel have spent countless hours training departments around the state on how to use NIBRS, Chacon says, including Santa Fe police.

Chacon confirms that SFPD submitted its stats directly to the FBI for the 2020 report. And a review of Santa Fe police data stored on the DPS website shows that the figures reflected in the 2019 UCR were, in fact, the drastically lower numbers, as opposed to the higher ones provided to the City Council.

Valdez says he isn’t sure of the reporting procedures for 2020, but he believes his department used the old process and passed its numbers to the FBI through the public safety department.

“We still need to get that worked out, where there was a mistake,” Joye adds. “There’s clearly a disconnect between the two agencies.”

Lovato is more certain about the statistical snafu, and he does not see it as a disconnect.

“Any effort to place the blame on the Department of Public safety would not be true,” he tells SFR.

Valdez and Joye concede that SFPD uses different systems to compile figures for the UCR versus the department’s annual reports to the council. Numbers are pulled directly from the department’s records management system for the former. For the latter, they say, a newly hired crime analyst verifies and “cleans” the data in a more painstaking process.

The deputy chiefs say they believed there had been a delay with reporting to the FBI for 2020 on account of their transition to NIBRS. But they were unaware of the huge disparities until SFR inquired about them last week.

“A lot of things you don’t know until you know,” Valdez says. “You have to do right by that and make sure you learn from what has just occurred.”

He won’t say whether his department plans to inform the FBI of the errors, but says SFPD wants the numbers to match up with those reported to the council.

“It won’t be an easy, overnight fix,” Valdez says. “But we will look at this and make the improvements that are needed.”

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