The New Math: Drop in Gang Violence Aided by Change in Accounting

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.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

7 Comments

  1. What has happened to San Jose?  The Mayor has been bragging how everything is in control.  We can lower gang violence with half the police we use to have,  Seems like he got caught lying about numbers again. But the real number we learn is 117%.  The police are short 117% of what they should have to provide safety.  The next closest city is only 22% short.  So it only makes sense that the mayor would try to show that despite having the smallest PD in the nation crime is going down. Nice try Reed but Jena and NBC caught you lying again. Khamis crying to the Police Department that the police are calling him names.  Khamis of course not taking any responsibility for missing a fallen officer memorial in his district.  And with all Khamis crying his own aide has history of doing the same thing to numerous city employees. But at least Oliverio is happy because the police are not complaining about his goofy ideas, or his stealing signs.  Liccardo is trying to pitch an idea that when we hire new people we but them on the hook for 175k; wow that will help the recruiting efforts.  Remember before the Reed and current council, SJ was safest city, we saw mounted officers downtown keeping the city clean. No Graffiti few homicides,  a dept that would respond to a burglar alarm. Now the police will not even investigate the burglary. This city is in need of dumping some of our council people, that have taken SJ down to the dumps.  All the other Bay Area cities are recovering, but in SJ we hear lies from our leaders.

  2. Wow this is embarrassing, before you brag about stats make sure you can back up those numbers.  The mayor should be held accountable for this scandal, since he’s been bragging and taking credit about his “Mayor gang prevention task force ” Success.  As for staffing I saw the KTVU report and can’t believe San Jose is that bad off.  As a resident in San Jose I will vote against any person ( running for mayor) who has been involved in letting this happen to our city.

  3. I think there is some amount of inertia in most things.  The numbers say we are way understaffed.  I think our city government has been the benefit of some inertia.  Things are getting worse, but we have some time to fix things before things get bad.  When I say bad, I mean Oakland bad.

    When things get Oakland bad, it is almost impossible to fix.  Like in Humpty Dumpty, “all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

    I am still for pension reform, but the market is setting the price for police services.  San Jose can’t insist on paying police what the City wants when everyone else is willing to pay more.  Look at every job and adjust compensation to the market.  There are probably places where we can save money.  Police isn’t one of them.

  4. What we have here is a calculated effort to deceive the public in service to City Hall. The elements listed in section 186.22 criminalize, in clear and definite terms, conduct that had previously been difficult to define for purposes of prosecution (murder has never suffered that problem). For our police department to commandeer it to obscure the true picture of local crime is deplorable.

    Since when is the “willfulness” of an unknown perpetrator the litmus test for classifying crime? Knowledge that the people getting gunned down on the street are gang-bangers, or drug dealers, or hookers has always been important to a community, lest they be left to fear random killers are on the loose. How can the city expect public cooperation in rescuing its neighborhoods if the public is denied the hard truth? How will terrified parents convince their teenagers of the danger of wearing the wrong clothing?

    And isn’t the timing of this just a little bit suspicious? The mayor and his council dupes have ruined the police department and put the public in real jeopardy, and all of a sudden the police department starts playing coy with the crime stats? If cheap politics is what we can expect from Chief Esquivel then he can expect to one day leave this city as widely despised by his force as is Chuck Reed.

  5. I worked with Larry, but to play games with numbers is sad.  Time to move on to another department who will not make up stats to make you look good.  SJ is as low as it can go.  I hope you are not pressured by the clowns, Larry are better than this.  Take your pension then “double dip” as they like to call it!

    I call it if I did my 30 years and retire from some job it is my decision if I want to flip burgers or take another job as Chief of Police where ever I want.  I earned my retirement and if I decide I want to work again it is my decision.

    Not like a council member who talks out both sides of his ears after taking a questionable at best disability, worked at his photo shop while on duty,  seems to have no back problems now and abuses our city funds.