Solving Atlanta’s Crime Statistics Mystery

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As I handed my kid her Sunday morning plate of blueberry pancakes and simultaneously wrenched the remote out of her hand so I could tune-in the Georgia Gang (I’m getting really good at this maneuver), away goes Sponge Bob and up pops Phil Kent, who was deep in the momentary thrall of calling Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin “a liar.”

Kent says Mayor Franklin is telling outright lies when she says, as she did again recently, that crime in Atlanta is, statistically, down. Kent says Franklin is lying because crimes in the City of Atlanta are actually up, but there’s no way to prove this because APD is not providing accurate stats for interested parties – the “interested parties” being local journalism outlets such as The Sunday Paper and the AJC; that any efforts by journos-with-money to find reliable and accurate crime stats are being thwarted by APD and/or, I presume, City Hall.

Kent cited The Sunday Paper’s recent story by editor Stephanie Ramage about crime stats in Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods as his journo-source in this matter. In the story, Ramage is hinting of a gross cover-up or manipuation by APD of the actual crime stats in Atlanta – a deeply serious charge with criminal implications for those involved, and an historical issue former APD deputy chief  Louis Arcangeli has never been shy about going on the record about, at the expense of his APD job too. From The Sunday Paper:

“You are talking about a department that has a proven, documented track record of manipulating the numbers, so you have to consider that the police department might be doing it again,” says Louis Arcangeli, a former deputy chief of the APD who now teaches criminal justice at Georgia State University. “The amount of public concern is completely at odds with the numbers, and that’s troubling.”

(And the matter of The Sunday Paper being a credible news org was laughingly and haughtily dismissed by Jeff Dickerson on today’s Georgia Gang episode, but that’s a whole other can ‘o worms for a whole other blog post right now. Still, what else we got to help us out in the urgent and critical need for data-driven, reliable journalism? The Panda Press (AJC)?. Thus my plea here. Keep reading.)

Whatever Kent says, Mayor Franklin’s numerous attempts to cite magical statistics about crime in Atlanta are not getting any leverage in the court of public perception. Citizens simply feel crime is out of control. Everyone feels victimized by crime. (This I know from my own citizen reporting on the matter.) People feel Chief Pennington is out-to-lunch and indifferent to their perception. Pennington sure doesn’t help when he says citizens concerns are based on citizens’ “misperceptions.”

To heck with Chief Pennington though, as Atlantans Together Against Crime (ATAC) continues to enlist thousands to their grass-roots cause, with the next ATAC rally scheduled for Monday, February 23rd at 5pm at the corner of MLK and Joseph Lowery.

The big problem for Mayor Franklin is that the stories from the droves of crime victims in Atlanta are now being heard. It doesn’t really matter if crime is up or down, come to think about it. The thing that matters is, because of social media and the networks created in that medium, stories can now be told in new media ways they never were before. The pain of the people comes through loud and clear online… now that harrowing tales of death and survival on the mean street of the ATL are so easily told and shared. Yes, despite City Hall’s best efforts to tone down the citizenry’s rhetoric, voices will be heard.

But that’s one piece of the new media pie in the matter of Atlanta’s magical crime stats. The other is the hard, cold reality of what the crime stats really are now. Who do you believe? Are they up or are they down? Let’s put the matter to Professor Leonard Witt and Kennessaw State University (KSU). Why this place? Why this person?

Because Witt and KSU just received some nice bucks (1.5 million to be precise) to create The Center for Sustainable Journalism. Given the mission and the message of The Center for Sustainable Journalism (CSJ), seems Atlanta’s mysterious crime stats would be the perfect place to apply the resources KSU now has.

From the press release about The Center for Sustainable Journalism (CSJ):

KENNESAW, Ga. (February 7, 2009) In the midst of an annual conference designed to pinpoint the Southeast’s niche in the digital media revolution, Kennesaw State University announced receipt of a $1.5 million gift from the Harnisch Foundation to establish a center to research and develop innovative ways to produce and distribute news.

Kennesaw State President Daniel S. Papp announced the award and the creation of The Center for Sustainable Journalism Feb. 7 at the SoCon09 “Unconference” attended by more than 300 business, non-profit and media professionals, bloggers and digital media enthusiasts.

The center will be overseen by Leonard Witt, Kennesaw State’s Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication, eminent scholar and associate professor, who organized the SoCon09 conference. Witt is a pioneer in developing community-supported journalism models and exploring the potential of online social networks to disseminate news.

Full press release here.

Crime and the APD’s ability to control it aside, what is sustainable in Atlanta now are the networks and the crowd sourcing and the social media structure that would allow for deep and comprehensive dissemination of the journalistic, data-driven findings of a journalism project that would help the citizens of all metro Atlanta  get to the heart of our mysterious and sometimes magical crime stats situation.

So what’dya say, CSJ? Wanna get crackin’ on tackling a community-based journalism project right in your own backyard? Enquiring minds need to know, and it might help a lot of people sleep better at night. And I’m always good for a quickie video package or two.

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12 responses »

  1. What I am most concerned about is the number of kids (under 17) who are committing violent offenses, such as Armed Robbery and Murder. It’s happening and no one seems to be talking about it.

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  2. There is an ENORMOUS industry of well-funded criminologists, activists and, sadly, ostensibly objective journalists who are single-mindedly dedicated to denying the existence of crime; downplaying its impact on communities, and whinging on endlessly about how we just need to “understand” offenders.

    These people manipulate statistics shamelessly. Jeff Dickerson is merely a rather amateurish symptom of the virus.

    So when I see conferences of criminologists gathering to discuss such things, and grant money being thrown around, I think: cover-up. Utter, rank, extreme cover-up that a denialist of any stripe would be proud to call his own.

    The interesting thing that’s happening right now is that, with the help of the internet, people are learning about the real prevalence of crime; the real mess in the courts; the horrifying reality of recidivism; the dictatorial, anti-democratic power of the extremist defense lobby, and the destruction of our justice system in favor of criminality, and they’re acting on it. So the magical bubble has burst, something sane and decent advocates for justice, like the late and great Daniel Patrick Monyihan, no right winger, prayed for 45 years ago and many, many lost lives ago.

    Of course, same defense lobby, which has operated for decades without real opposition or scrutiny, are screaming foul. Used to being treated like society’s Atticus Finches, they are having quite a difficult time adjusting, shall we say, to the infusion of reality the must now inhale. I suggest they loosen their ponytails, take a deep breath, and start acting as if the rules actually do apply to them. As they do.

    But how many lives have been destroyed and lost since Moynihan’s fateful predictions? Millions. Millions of innocents slaughtered, traumatized and oppressed by criminals. Yet the media, and the academic criminologists, who never met a predator they didn’t long to hang with, a la Norman Mailer, et. al., continue living in their self-congratulatory bubble world.

    Enjoy it, guys. The end is near for your type. We’ve had enough of your fantasies ruining real lives. And to the many quasi-brainwashed fence-sitters who wring their hands and feel “just awful” for feeling angry about crime victimization, about whether it’s OK to be mad at criminals: it’s time to grow up. You’re not doing these people, or their children, or their mothers, or their neighbors, any favors with your pristine sensibilities and feeling feelings. It’s all just self-indulgence.

    Everyone has an equal right to not be victimized.

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  3. As the Harnisch behind the Harnisch Foundation grant to create the Center for Sustainable Journalism, I find this suggestion intriguing.
    When Len Witt and I were hammering out the concepts behind the Center for Sustainable Journalism, we agreed that we wanted to invest in experiments that would serve as replicable models for other communities of interest.
    Your idea encompasses a number of what we think of as “communities of interest.”
    There’s the community of average citizens of the area. There’s also the community of real estate professionals and people who are considering buying homes in the area, parents and students considering higher educational institutions in the area, lawmakers, providers of private security services, attorneys, victims of crime, social services providers, law enforcement professionals, students of criminal justice, and so many more that you could spend hours listing them.
    Do you have a budget in mind for this project? What, exactly, would you propose that money be used to pay for, and what journalism (the “J”) do you imagine would be produced?
    How would you imagine that the work would become sustainable, the “S” part? Because that’s what “sustainable journalism” is about, self-supporting models that might get some initial help from a funding source like the CSJ, but which have a clear and credible plan for generating enough revenue to continue paying for itself and possibly repaying the initial funding.
    Since this grant was announced, I’ve been approached personally by a number of people who think the “S” stands for “Subsidized” or “Supported” (such as the ProPublica model) instead of “Sustainable.”
    We’ll run through that money in about ten minutes if we ignore the “sustainable” element of our vision.
    So, I’ll be looking forward to your continued development of this excellent idea! Thanks for thinking of this.
    By the way, I used to live in Atlanta. I was a victim of violent crime in 1970, as well as a devastating property crime a year later. The police who responded to the emergency calls acted in both cases as if nothing serious had happened to me, seemed to blame me for living in a high-crime area (as if that was my desire instead of my economic reality), and in neither case gave me any paperwork so I could follow up. I was young and scared and broke and intimidated by the crimes and then the police. I suspected they never filed reports – not for one minute did I feel anything but invisible and inconsequential to them.

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  4. Ms. Harnisch: what an honor and a delight to have you comment on this post. You pose excellent questions that I should be thinking about, although I can assure you, it’ll take a lot more brain power than my pea-head can muster to come up with good solutions!

    I am so sorry to hear you too were an Atlanta crime victim. It’s an experience that never leaves you, and that’s putting it vaguely. Being so can determine how we approach difficult issues that arise from the the consequences of criminal behavior.

    The issue of crime in Atlanta now is so complex and layered it’s almost hard to see where one would begin to chip away, although my inclination is that FIRST we need to understand just how bad it really is… thus this post. We have people in positions of authority saying one thing at us, slashing funding, and the citizenry thoroughly confused and perplexed by now.

    Finding a way to get a clear understanding of what sort of crimes are happening where, and by whom, would seem to set us on the right path. If the police are unable or unwilling to provide this information, then the burden is on… the journalist? A media outlet?

    As for a budget, I’d expect one would need to hire two people at least to set the process in motion. Two journos’ salaries for, say, a year, would put you in the 150K per year range, if they were compensated as they should be that is. They would be responsible for the info gathering/reporting part of the equation. You could then add another yearly salary for another position of about 75K to that 150K for a person to spend quality time and attention to the matter of creating networks and solutions for dissemination of what the two reporters in the field come up with. So my VERY rough estimate is… $225K per year. PLUS the overhead a staff of at least 3 would need to operate. I honestly have no clue as to what that figure would be, but they’d need operational items such as computers, connectivity, cameras, multimedia gear, phones, work space, transportation… all that kinda thing.

    That give you any kinda ballpark figures?

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  5. Let me also add that it is also an honor and a privilege to have Tina and Jen comment on this post! But since Ms. Harnisch is new to me, I wanted to comment back directly to her.

    One note about any reporting that would be done in regards to gathering statistical data about crime in Atlanta… such an effort would need to be independent of the statistical data supplied by APD, since it is THAT very data that seem to be causing the confusion and the point of contention and disconnect. If the data are no good and are indeed corrupted, then people who are trained and capable would need to be hired to compile independent study and data. Thus the pricey price tag of paying salaries… so that quality people could be employed to harvest the “new” data needed to create the accompanying journalism to go with it.

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  6. I’m a freelance reporter/editor/writer. I’ve been watching the AJC’s “coverage” of this issue with jaw dropped, muttering WTF? when I could recover from the initial shock.

    The way they have clearly chugged the Kool-Aid being served by both the Mayor and Chief Spinnington is frightening, since they are our city’s major print media. Their journalists are “reporting” the way journalism students do in their first public affairs reporting class: go to the PR person/spokes-official and write what they say, throw in a little “he said/she said” from the other side and there’s your piece. No critical thinking, no digging, no questioning.

    I grew up in the Sixties, but even if I hadn’t, a reporter’s job is to “Question Authority.”

    Count me in on ANY civic or community-based journalism project. We certainly can’t count on our traditional media sources to tell the stories of our city.

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  7. Ms. Harnisch:

    Luckily for us, the attitude of the Atlanta Police – and I’m talking about the precinct captains to the foot patrols, not the beginning with the Chief — have changed dramatically since your time in the ATL. Today there’s much more of a “we’re in this together” relationship between intown residents and the police. We both know that the police are understaffed, underfunded and at risk. We also know that when they are called to our homes, they’re there to help us. (In my 25+ years of living intown, I’ve been blessed to have two outstanding majors overseeing my precincts — Maj. Findley and Major Propes.)

    As for the statistics, each neighborhood’s public safety chair is given raw data from the precincts. That’s how we know that while “violent,” or personal injury crime is down while “property,” or break-ins of all kinds, crime is through the roof.

    The sustainabilty, I would think, for this project would be in recruiting citizen journalists and developing Basic Training for reporters. That seems to be what’s missing in the AJC coverage. They ask questions, but no follow-ups. When writing, they bury the lead. The training would teach basics of editorial integrity, how to ask the right questions of the right people, and – frankly – how to develop healthy skepticism of everyone’s positions. This training model could be reviewed, revised and perfected into a template.

    Then the medium for the reporting would be the web and neighborhood listservs… i-Neighbors, for example. I’m working on a story about them, and how their ultimate aim is to see if neighborhood internet communication increases civil involvement. I think they would be the perfect partner for this initiative. They’re a project of the Annenberg School of Communications at UPenn. They’re going to be around for quite a while, so that sustainability issue is moot.

    So those are my thoughts, off the top of my head. I’d love to chat more when I’ve had a chance to think about it.

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  8. I second “Intownwriter” that many of the Captains below Pennington have done a hell of a good job being responsive to neighborhoods. It really is a sea change — and I wonder how that flies with the top commanders, but, whatever. Can’t lose sleep over that.

    There are a handful of reporters around the country who have done excellent and groundbreaking work reporting on the realities of crime, crime stats collection, “unfounding,” recidivism, policing and the courts — the courts often being the real problem above all else. The series these papers initiated are worth reading, and I am happy to go off-line to offer more comprehensive citations, but for starters, here’s a partial list. Mark Fazlollah, formerly of the Philly Inquirer, is the moving force behind much of this and now, I think, works in consulting on writing about crime:

    From 1999 to 2002, the Inquirer ran multiple series on unfounding crimes and other facets of policing. If you can’t acess his articles/series on-line, I’d just try to reach him. It’s brilliant work and a primer on types of unfounding.

    On 10/10/2006, Dana Difilippo of the PI did an article called “Taking Aim at the Recidivists.” Must reading. 215-854-5934 is her listed paper number.

    1/28/99 Ron Martz wrote about Beverley Harvard’s unfounding scandal in the
    AJC.

    In 1993, Sandra Macintosh did an amazing series in the AJC called “Getting
    Away With Rape,” which outlines the police and courts’ unwillingness to put
    away rapists. Contact Sandra (I don’t know where she is), or see is Maureen Downey, perhaps, knows her. Lots of damning local info on the courts.

    In 2002, Sandra Hodson did a great series for the Augusta Chronicle on
    getting away with crime. I think she’s still there, and she is a wonderful
    source. Hodson is an asset and solid journalist. She is worth contacting. She covered some pretty gory serial-killer stuff over there that made national news — but the AJC, rather exclusively among peers, didn’t touch the story! Amazing. The guy admitted to fifty sex murders. He was probably exaggerating, but he lit up the DNA database like a Christmas Tree. And speaking of Georgia’s DNA database, former Lt. Governor Mark Taylor personally made it one of the earliest and best in the country. He’s worth contacting.

    In 2005, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did an AMAZING series of articles on
    the many ways cities “disappear” crimes. Contact the author, Jeremy Kohler, if you can’t access it. You must read this. It is another primer on penetrating the system.

    Stephanie Ramage, of course, is doing the best work in Atlanta.

    Joshua Marquis of the APRI has done some great push-back press on the pro-criminal bias in news organizations.

    There are also prosecutors in Georgia who have done a good deal of work on these subjects. They are restrained by rules from speaking to the media in many ways, but the desperately need someone to speak for them during major cases and legislative initiatives.

    And I will — by necessity only — put in a plug for my own work. I am slated to get my website up by the end of march — it includes archived articles and academic studies on subjects ranging from media bias on crime, recidivism realities, the systematic misuse of appeals, sex offenders who can’t be kept in prison, why registries actually are proving to work impressively well despite the negative media hype, and the untold story of the efficacy of DNA in identifying the small percentage of prolific assailants who commit the majority of truly violent crime.

    I’ve spent 20 years working on laws to protect victims, and I spent most of that time also watching my own rapist cycle in and out of prison in Florida, victimizing more and more women, until he briefly got a life sentence in 1998, only to have it overturned on a technicality, again, in 2003. Elderly victim, cancer patient, brutalized beyond words by the assault, died soon later. Boxes of trophies from previous assaults were found in his apartment. But, hey, it’s his rights that count.

    You can find all of these articles for free if you have access to Lexis-Nexus. For citations on these articles, or more references to the journalists who have put together working groups to change the face of crime reporting, contact me at my website, tinatrent.com. Good luck, and thanks, Grayson. Yes, you were right about this “internet journalism” thing not being a flash in the pan. Sigh. I bow to your vastly superior vision. Goodbye paper files. I did love them.

    T

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  9. One more thing (of course).

    I do not believe it is possible or at least worth the massive effort to spend a lot of time trying to penetrate and quantify the APD’s historical failures. That’s a political task — we know what the problem is and who is to blame; rather, simply work to vote them out.

    The federal UCR folks are far more accurate and helpful with statistics themselves, and they don’t need to be elected locally, so they don’t have those pressures.

    Regarding the problems in the courts, there are three books that guide me: _Trials Without Truth_, by William Pizzi; _Out of Order_, by Max Boot, and _A land Fit for Criminals_, by David Fraser. The latter must be ordered directly from England. The first tow are easy, quick reads.

    Tina

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  10. This comment from my neighborhood listserv perfectly captures the necessity of this proposed program:

    In my view, the video also highlights how poor local reporting is. This problem didn’t become a problem overnight; clearly it has been developing nationwide for some time. With so many people scribbling for the papers, why are there so few “journalists” digging around and putting together stories like this one, told with the big picture in mind? Why do we get so many AJC front pages loaded with “send us your pet photos” and celebrity updates?

    As a shameless self-promotion: If anyone wants to hire me, I’m launching my blog later this week and you can see the kinds of things I’m writing about. Intown news will be my primary focus, but I’ll also cover other topics of interest.

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  11. If I was hiring, I’d hire you, InTownWriter. From your comments here alone! Maybe one day my co. will be able to pay good people like you. Gotta dream big, eh?!

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