The public entrusts its law enforcement officials to protect it from crime and to use the tax dollars it provides to fulfill that duty. The manipulation of that trust has come to light. An Atlanta audit reveals that police officers caused more than 22,000 crime reports to disappear. An investigation in Tacoma County, Washington, is underway to determine if the county illegally used public tax dollars to promote a sales tax ballot initiative for more criminal justice measures.
The Tacoma investigation revolves around Proposition 1 on the November 2003 ballot. The measure sought three_tenths of 1 percent in the sales tax to pay for more cops, prison guards, prosecutors, and judges.
The investigation was launched by the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) after three citizens filed complaints alleging the County used $60,000 in tax dollars to send flyers to likely voters and to campaign for the proposition. The campaign included creating programs addressing the proposition on the County's government cable channel, KRCC. Despite the County's effort, Proposition 1 failed when 59 percent of voters rejected it.
The Atlanta audit shocked many civilians, but law enforcement officials were not surprised. "It's been a chronic problem," said Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who runs the www.policeaccountability.org website. "But, then again, no one knows exactly how serious it is. There's no real accounting, no real auditing."
Atlanta seems to be an exception, as its police department ordered the audit to come clean. Boston and New Orleans have followed suit. Atlanta's audit showed that in 2002 alone there were over 22,000 missing police reports, 4,281 of which could have been counted as violent offenses.
Atlanta's underreporting achieved status and fiscal gains for the city. The audit concluded the city underreported crimes for years to help land the 1996 Olympics and boost tourism. The systematic underreporting of crimes had no effect upon Atlanta being No. 1 or No. 2 in violent crimes, such as rape or murder, in nine of the last 10 years.
Atlanta is not the only city with reporting problems. A New York police captain downgraded crimes to look good in superiors' eyes. In 1999, Philadelphia's sex crime unit dismissed several thousand reports of rape as noncrimes. In December 2003, a Baltimore information technology worker quit over claims the city's crimes reporting was extremely inaccurate. In Broward County Florida, the State Attorney's Office is currently investigating reports deputies altered crime statistics to smooth departmental evaluations.
Violations of the public trust usually only come to the public's attention when there is a scandal. In the case of underreporting crimes, city's have little to lose because there are no penalties or sanctions for underreporting. The Tacoma investigation may result in the PDC assessing fines of up to $2,500 against the County Commissioners. However, as statistics are trotted out to bolster arguments for or against more prisons, police and similar repressive measures, it is worth remembering that those parties with the biggest vested interest in more police and prisons are the same parties charged, with no independent oversight, to generate the same statistics and figures.
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