When the San Jose Police Department boasted about a 42.9 percent drop in gang-related homicides last month, it should have placed an asterisk by that figure. Police failed to mention that the dip in homicides and other gang violence this year came mostly from a change in the way the department classifies those crimes.
NBC Bay Area and the Mercury News both reported Wednesday on the funny math, and police admit the reports should have denoted the change in accounting method. And it seems a police spokesman is falling on the sword.
The reclassification, according to police information officer Albert Morales, was ordered by the department’s command staff. SJPD set criteria where there were none, he said.
“What we wanted to do was to remove subjectivity,” Morales told San Jose Inside. “We wanted to make the way we classify gang homicides more objective.”
Morales admits the lack of context in the numbers was a misstep.
“I personally have gone up to reporters and said, ‘You know what, my mistake,’” he said. “But the thing with crime and law enforcement is that there’s change all the time.”
NBC reported that the city came off as disingenuous when it released an announcement about the dramatic drop in gang killings. The Merc noted that SJPD changed gang crime classifications to come in line with state standards and departments of other major cities, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.
In June, the city decided to classify gang killings according to the measures spelled out in California Penal Code 186.22. The code says a homicide can’t be considered gang-related unless a suspect “willfully promotes, furthers, or assists in any felonious criminal conduct by members of that gang.”
Basically, there has to be enough evidence to show it was committed to further a gang’s interests. If a gang member commits a crime, but there’s no evidence that it was in accordance with some gang agenda, it won’t get classified as a gang crime.
This sets off an interesting debate. Just because someone is in a gang doesn;t mean those ties are always the inspiration for violence. On the other hand, one could argue that random violence to spread fear and intimidation is part of some gangs’ core values. And if there are no suspects or known motive, some crimes are left unclassified altogether.
Police Officers Association (POA) President Jim Unland called the department’s incomplete reporting of the drop in gang homicides shameful.
“It’s crap,” he said. “Listen, if you want to reclassify, knock yourself out. If you guys want to say there’s fewer gang crimes, go ahead. But don’t go bragging about how homicides are down without giving an explanation for anything. You create this false sense of security for people. You just don’t get to take the credit.”
Unland suspects the timing was calculated. The announcement of a drop in gang homicides came in September, just weeks before City Manager Debra Figone announced she planned to make Larry Esquivel the permanent police chief.
“My first thought was, ‘OK, he must want the job real bad,’” Unland said.
Morales said a clearer picture of gang crime in San Jose will come at the end of 2014, when comparative numbers are in place.
“Otherwise, it really is comparing apples to oranges,” he admitted.