The Washington Post has added a lengthy editor’s note to an investigative story that suggested D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department manipulates data to present a more favorable picture of homicide closure rates. In fact, the department uses a statistical model that is accepted and used within the law enforcement community.
The February story ran with the headline, “The trick to D.C. police force’s 94% closure rate for 2011 homicides.” Starting with the use of “trick” in the headline, the story went on to say that the department uses a “statistical mishmash that makes things seem much better than they are.”
The story generated over 200 comments and was much talked about in D.C. It also upset Police Chief Cathy Lanier. She registered a complaint with the paper and spoke publicly about her frustrations.
In a video interview with TBD 10 days after the Post story was published, Lanier objected to “The tricky way that it was written, the misinformation that it implied that somehow since I’ve been the chief that we’ve skewed the numbers and used some new way of counting.” (Her comments come roughly 15 minutes into the video.)
On Sunday the Post responded by publishing the editor’s note in the paper and adding it to the online version of the story. Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli was involved in the decision to publish the editor’s note, according to Jeff Leen, the paper’s assistant managing editor in charge of investigation projects.
“Top editors reviewed her complaint and documents she submitted along with the original story,” said Leen in an email. “Marcus Brauchli felt the original story incorrectly conveyed the impression that the data were manipulated, when in fact the department was using data that were produced according to a standardized convention. He felt the story needed more context and the language was too sharp. He decided an editor’s note was warranted.”
The editor’s note says:
“The article about the D.C. police department’s homicide-closure statistics suggested that the department may have manipulated data to foster a positive impression of the force’s performance.”
The note attempts to clarify that the department’s treatment of data was within standardized methods used by organizations such as the FBI. It also acknowledged that “… the article, as well as elements of the headline and an accompanying graphic, implied that the department artificially inflated public data on the number of cases that are closed each year.”
The text does not include an apology or list other factual errors. Though obviously it’s a significant error to not place the department’s statistical method within the proper context, and to imply that manipulation was involved.
“We set out to write a story about how police were touting a statistic that could be misleading,” Leen said. “We did not intend to suggest that police had manipulated data to derive that statistic. The note was intended to address that confusion.”
“I think the editor’s note in The Washington Post is a significant step and I appreciate it,” Chief Lanier said through a representative. However, she added, she remains unhappy with the way the story was reported and presented by the paper.
Leen said he believes the story is still relevant to readers.
“We stand by the thrust of the story, that police choose to report a certain statistical approach to homicide closure rates that makes those rates look much better than a simple accounting would,” he said. “The methodology used by the D.C. police conforms to FBI standards, and can be statistically valid but, without further explanation, it tends to make things look much better than they are.”
The story of the stats behind the homicide closure rate was initially reported in a December piece published by HomicideWatch D.C. That post by Laura Amico took a look at how the department arrived at the seemingly high 94 percent homicide case closure rate for 2011. (The Post story links to her piece.)
“While I think the Post’s story suffered from an unfortunate headline that overstated MPD’s actions, and from oversimplifying the mathematical calculations, calling them a ‘statistical mishmash,’ for example, the Post’s story added depth to our story by investigating how other police agencies report the same number,” said Amico in an email. “For the public, understanding these numbers is critical to how safety, and the effectiveness of policing, is perceived.”
She added, “Good math or bad math, I’ll leave that to the experts, politicians (and The Washington Post) to debate. What is important is that the public knows how the math is done.”
Update: Post Ombudsman Patrick Pexton examined the paper’s story and the resulting editor’s note in his March 2 column. “Rather than suggesting that Lanier was fudging numbers, I think the story would have worked far better as a straightforward explanation of how the Metropolitan Police Department, other major police departments and the FBI keep homicide statistics — and of some of the pitfalls in that method,” he said.
Correction: This story originally said The Washington Post decided to investigate the D.C. police’s homicide closure rate after reading Laura Amico’s December post for Homicide Watch DC. In fact, Jeff Leen says the Post learned of her story in the course of its reporting.