U.S. 'Murder Capital' a Tricky Figure

Detroit police dept adjusts murder figures, making it U.S. "murder capital."

June 19, 2009, 4:44 PM

June 19, 2009 — -- What's the murder capital of the nation? That depends on who does the counting.

Until this month, that dubious distinction for 2008 fell on Baltimore. But then, Detroit's police department conceded the city had 339 murders in 2008 rather than 306 -- making Detroit the deadliest city in the nation.

The disclosure followed newspaper reports that the city had consistently underreported its murder rate, leading to accusations that Detroit, along with other cities, was gaming the system to make the city appear safer.

"Figures don't lie, but liars sure do figure," former North Carolina Attorney General Rufus Edmisten, who used to announce that state's crime statistics, told ABC with a chuckle.

Was Detroit gaming the numbers to avoid an unpopular title? It's a common practice, Edmisten said.

"You have a lot of numbers manipulated, depending on what you want to achieve," he said. "If you need more help you say how bad things are. On the other hand no public official wants to say we're No. 1 in the number of murders."

According to the FBI, the total number of murders Detroit reported last year is 306. That put Detroit behind Baltimore in per-capita murders, at 36.9 murders per 100,000 residents. But Detroit Police Department spokesman Rod Liggons says that number undercounts the total.

"Three-thirty-nine is our actual number," Liggons, who did not immediately return a call from ABC, told The Baltimore Sun.

The higher number pushes Detroit's rate to 37.4 murders per 100,000 residents, making Detroit the deadliest city with more than 500,000 residents in the nation.

Abbe Smith, director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at Georgetown University Law School, agreed.

"I'd bet you this is highly politicized," Smith told ABC News, "especially that in places like Detroit, that are hard-hit by the recession, would do what they could to interpret the statistics in ways that are not quite so damning."

Murder Statistics Hard to Game for Detroit, Other Cities

But experts say homicide statistics are harder to game because there are few alternatives in a violent death, such as suicide or accidental death.

"Homicide is one of the more accurate crime statistics versus sexual assault, versus prop crimes, etc," said ABC News Consultant Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent.

In the 1990s, Philadelphia police routinely downgraded rapes to lesser crimes and portrayed the results as drop in crime, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Detroit's disclosure came after an analysis of homicide cases by The Detroit Free Press found the city was undercounting homicides, in violation of FBI standards. The Free Press analysis found that among the deaths not considered a homicide were a fatal stabbing and a fatal beating.

City officials have acknowledged that the department uses a different standard than the FBI, based on prosecutors' reports -- which are generally stricter because they assign intent -- rather than medical examiners' conclusions.

FBI guidelines say that "agencies must report the willful killing of one individual by another, not the criminal liability of the person or persons involved."

That is the standard cities should use, ABC's Garrett said.

"It should be uniform," Garrett said of homicide statistics. "They should be following the same rules to make it accurate."

Detroit isn't the only city that's had trouble with crime statistics. A recent audit of police practices in Atlanta, funded by the Atlanta Police Foundation, found that the "broken police department" routinely underreported crime, especially as the city prepared to welcome tourists for Atlanta's 1996 Summer Olympics.

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