Bear in mind that when the numbers came out, we were placed #4 nationally. Then a "mistake" was discovered that would put us ahead of Atlanta. Now this....
When is a crime not really a crime?
By Jeremy Kohler
[copyright]2005, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Saturday, Jan. 15 2005
Somebody is robbed in the city of St. Louis every three hours, on average. At
least, that is what the official crime statistics suggest.
Danielle Geekie's time came on a cold night last January, as she walked along
South Broadway. She said the gunman called her lucky. A crazy notion, but true
enough. He took her purse, but not her life. She ran into a liquor store and
pleaded for help as he sped off in a maroon car.
Geekie, then 19, was a crime victim as defined by the FBI. She was a crime
victim as defined by the St. Louis Police Department's policy. But the officers
who responded the night of Jan. 12, 2004, decided otherwise and quietly invoked
a process that arbitrarily discounted hundreds or more crime reports a year.
Instead of writing an "incident report" that triggers further investigation and
gets counted in the city's crime totals, the officers opted for a "Crime Memo
Data Sheet" that generally languishes in a file drawer of a district station.
It is a mechanism secret enough that a Police Board member who was tipped off
about it tried to find it and came away convinced it didn't exist.
A Post-Dispatch investigation found the memos do exist. One effect is to
deprive Geekie and unknown others of further investigations and deny them proof
they ever reported crimes.
While the use of memos does not appear to be illegal, it clearly violates FBI
standards for reporting crimes in a national compilation widely used for
comparisons among cities. The effect makes St. Louis appear safer than it is -
both to its own residents and to outsiders.
St. Louis has recorded an overall decrease over three years in the crimes it
does report - and dramatic drops in all categories except car theft.
St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa said in an interview Nov. 16 that his
department adheres to the FBI policy that a full report be made on every crime
made known to officers. "The ethics of the process do not allow any flexibility
for the Police Department to speculate whether (a crime) is legitimate or not,"
he said. "You have to have proof that either the complaint is invalid or you
have to rely that it's true."
When asked last week specifically about crime memos, Mokwa and other department
officials refused to discuss them. Mokwa said he will not comment on police
crime reporting practices until a panel studying the process delivers its
findings to the Police Board on Wednesday morning.
But they did not wait for the panel's report to order a halt in the use of
crime memos and arrange for 2004 memos to be converted into regular reports.
The Post-Dispatch obtained a copy of a notice from the 1st District commander,
dated Dec. 28, telling his officers to stop writing memos. Several sources
confirmed that the orders were issued after the newspaper filed a Sunshine Law
request to see the memos. The request is pending.
The paper did obtain about 70 memos from sources, from several police
districts, and tracked down about 30 people listed as victims. One was Geekie,
who said she missed a bus the night she was robbed and was hurrying to the
women's shelter where she was staying, trying to beat a curfew.
Officer Joyce Wesley answered the holdup call. "I believed that Geekie was
attempting to get a police report to justify her late arrival to the shelter,"
Wesley wrote in a memo. "She appeared to be more concerned about being late
than being robbed."
There was no proof Geekie was lying. There was no witness to contradict the
story, no surveillance video. Just the word of a shaken teen facing the
prospect of a midwinter night on the street. By FBI rules and Mokwa's own
description, that word is supposed to be enough.
Some U.S. cities have been caught under-reporting crime statistics in the past,
creating an illusion of safer streets. In Philadelphia, police labeled major
crimes as minor ones. Robberies became "disturbances." Thefts were "missing
property." Atlanta police used fuzzy math. Police wrote reports - but failed to
count all of them.
Reports vs. memos
Police reports are official records of crimes. The department stores them
centrally. The public can view them at headquarters, 1200 Clark Avenue. Police
count the reports by category, and the totals become crime statistics.
Officer Wesley submitted the memo she wrote about Geekie to a supervisor, who
signed it and sent it up to the district's crime memo coordinator, Lt. George
Venegoni. By design, memos are not sent to headquarters for counting and
further reference. They go into file drawers in the area stations. Geekie's was
kept in the Central Patrol station, 919 North Jefferson Avenue.
The examples obtained by the Post-Dispatch include what would seem to be some
serious crimes - burglaries, rapes, armed robberies and thefts. A few ended up
being written up as police reports eventually, but only if the victim insisted
on it. In many cases, victims said they saw police fill out a form and presumed
it was a real crime report.
How many memos St. Louis police officers write each year - and how deeply their
numbers cut into crime statistics - is not clear. A reporter filed a Sunshine
Law request on Dec. 15, seeking to know the number of memos written from May
2003 to May 2004 and to obtain copies. After a month, the department still has
not provided either.
The Sunshine Law requires governmental bodies to provide requested records
within three business days - or to provide a detailed reason why not and to
tell when it will comply. The department's lawyer, Jane Berman Shaw, originally
gave no timetable, but on Tuesday said it would take seven to 10 more days for
a review to see whether releasing them would violate any privacy laws.
Who started the practice of memos - and why - also is unknown. But it appears
to be widespread. By one supervisor's estimate, more than 3,000 per year may be
written in situations where officers used to write official reports. There is
no way to know how many of those would qualify as "Part 1" crimes, the ones for
which the FBI publishes statistics.
If 3,000 memos were added to the city's Part 1 crime total, they would increase
it by about 6 percent.
Mayor Francis Slay, whose office does not control the police but who is one of
five members of the Police Board, declined to be interviewed. But he provided
an e-mailed statement Friday saying he was told there were about 450 memos
written last year, less than 1 percent of the number of crime reports. "So it
appears the impact of this is very, very small."
"Rumor bothered me"
While the Police Department told Slay there were 450 memos, it told another
Police Board member, Michael Quinn, a year ago that they did not even exist.
Quinn has an extensive background serving the downtrodden. He was a longtime
board member at the St. Patrick Center, one of the area's largest nonprofit
organizations helping the homeless. He served as its chief executive for nearly
A year ago, Quinn said, he heard a rumor that troubled him.
It was that officers weren't always writing police reports when a crime was
called in. That officers were sometimes writing memos and "shoving them in
drawers" in the stations. That the incidents weren't being counted in the
city's crime statistics.
"It was hot enough an issue, and the rumor bothered me enough," Quinn said.
He clipped an article from a national newspaper about how another city
under-reported crime. He gave it to Mokwa and asked whether the rumor about
memos was true. Quinn said he was concerned St. Louis could be embarrassed in
the same way.
He said Mokwa told him: "It certainly isn't policy. I'm certainly not aware of
Mokwa forwarded the clipping to department commanders. Quinn dug further,
seeking out officers on the street. He couldn't verify the rumor.
"I asked direct questions of field officers and no one knew what I was talking
about," he said. "It never got stronger than a rumor for me, and I did
He chalked it up to "innuendo and half-truth" and "guys talking over the fence
just for the sheer joy of stirring up stuff."
But crime memos were not a secret within the department.
Sgt. Gary Wiegert, a supervisor in the 3rd District, spoke on the record about
them. He said there were never written directives about writing the memos, but
that commanders had discussed it during roll call.
Wiegert, interviewed on Sept. 2, estimated that his district was writing one
memo per day in situations that in years past would have gotten regular
reports. A former president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association,
Wiegert said he thought every district was writing about one memo a day. If all
nine districts wrote one per day, that would be 3,285 memos per year.
Wiegert said his officers think the memo is a valuable tool. Sometimes an
officer suspects a victim is lying, but can't prove it. Officers don't have
time to dig further to invalidate a victim's claim, he said.
"It's possible this could be a crime but, no, we're not going to put this on
our crime sheet because it isn't verifiable and it's not really believable," he
"Does it downsize crime? Yeah, but because we're getting the true facts. It
isn't that we're downsizing crime. It's that the other crime that we reported
in past years probably weren't crimes."
Officers use crime memos to document how they responded to complaints, he said.
It's better than writing nothing.
"Because people will go down and complain and say the police did nothing,"
Wiegert said. "Then the policeman says wait a sec. I got the call. I did the
investigation. It's a lie.
"You see, you have to realize people are out there lying on the police every
day. So this is a way to protect the policeman."
Susan Rollins, president of the Police Board, declined to comment.
In the fall, the Post-Dispatch exposed errors in crime data over the past two
years that apparently misled even Slay to believe crime was falling. Mokwa has
attributed the errors to confusion in a transition between computer systems.
Officers formerly dictated all reports by telephone until late 2003. That's
when the department began having them write reports in their cars.
He and Mokwa have eagerly cited a falling crime rate as a lure for city living.
In response to Post-Dispatch stories about major errors in crime reporting,
Mokwa assembled a blue-chip panel over Thanksgiving to audit the department's
2004 data and review its procedures. The aim was to restore public confidence,
The panel held an introductory meeting, and Shaw insisted it is exempt from a
state law requirement that public agencies meet openly. Under threat of a
lawsuit by the Post-Dispatch, Shaw eventually promised to provide notice of -
and access to - the members' meetings, without conceding that the law applies
According to Shaw, the panel has not met since, even though its final report is
due in just three days. Notice arrived Friday that the panel would meet at 8:30
a.m. Wednesday, one hour before the report is to be delivered.
"Crime is down"
Crime memos have been used since at least January 2003, in an environment in
which city officials held up falling crime rates as part of the evidence of St.
Louis' resurgence. Even the day of a Post-Dispatch story that reported crime
was up last year, Slay sent an e-mail to city employees pointing to better
news: auto theft, a major problem in 2003, was falling this year.
"The good news does not end there," he wrote. "Crime is down 18 percent so far
this year. While the number of homicides has gone up over last year's historic
low, we are on track for the second lowest number of murders since 1966."
It also has been a period in which Mokwa has garnered national acclaim for
cracking down on violent crime.
In the past decade, Philadelphia and Atlanta were among big city police
departments that were caught suppressing crime data. A common motive was to
present a rosy portrait of their city as a safe, viable alternative to the
St. Louis appears to be no different, said Mike Maltz, a criminologist at the
University of Illinois at Chicago.
"Atlanta did it in order to project an image of safety when they were trying to
get the Olympics," he said. "Philadelphia seems to do it as a matter of course.
It looks as if St. Louis stats are just as subject to revision."
St. Louis is "trying to show that they are a safer city than is the case. And
it shows they are less interested in protecting the ones who need the most
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis,
said the crime memos are not, on their face, improper, as long as police are
following up and then making reports on crimes they could not prove false.
"I don't have any objection, per se, to ensure that incidents that make their
way into the crime count qualify as criminal events," he said.
But Rosenfeld, an expert in crime statistics, said he was concerned about
several of the St. Louis memos that a reporter showed him. Police never wrote
reports about the incidents in those memos.
"At the individual level, if a police report is not written, then there is no
investigation, and that represents an injustice," he said. Victims shouldn't
have to pursue the police to get them to write a report, he said.
Rosenfeld said he would like to know how many memos police write. A large
number of them would distort the city's crime statistics, he said.
"My preference would be that all reports are written up with the intention of
founding them on crimes, and the burden is on the department to show why that
was not founded as a crime."
Mokwa, in theory, agrees.
Officers sometimes suspect that a victim is either confused or lying, Mokwa
said in November. It's never enough to disregard a case.
"They have feelings that people don't tell the truth every day," Mokwa
explained. "You write the report. . . . Feelings don't count for anything
unless you can substantiate them."
No matter how many memos there are, even one violates the FBI's procedures for
reporting crime. A police officer who becomes aware of a report of a crime is
expected to make a full report, according to an FBI handbook on crime
If an investigation proves the report false, the department can, for
statistical purposes, consider the crime "unfounded" and subtract it from crime
totals. The FBI still wants to see the math. Reported crimes minus unfounded
crimes equals actual crimes.
But the FBI does not police its own program, said Mary Victoria Pyne, a
"There are no sanctions from the FBI," she said. "This is a voluntary program.
We do help the agency through training, and through audits, to report according
to (FBI) guidelines."
The use of memos "sounds like an internal problem if indeed this is occurring,"
"If we were aware that the crime data were incorrect - and I'm talking
absolutely, totally wrong - we would probably suggest that we not publish the
File drawer of memos
Geekie, the homeless teen who said she was robbed on South Broadway, had
plenty of company in the file drawer.
There was Linda McGlone, 48, a janitor. She said her ex-boyfriend attacked her
while she was cleaning the offices of EDM Inc., an engineering firm on the
third floor of a downtown office tower. He snatched her cell phone and $45 from
her pocket and fled, she told police on June 9, 2003.
An engineer, Glenn Maijer, said he witnessed the attack, called 911 and told
responding police what he saw.
The officer wasn't convinced. McGlone seemed "uneasy" about reporting the
incident. That's what he wrote in the memo.
McGlone said she tried to follow up with police a few days later, but was told
there was no record of her complaint. She said she hounded police for six
weeks, until an officer finally did write a real crime report on July 21.
It described the attack as a "playful" encounter that became an argument. And
the report scrambled other details. It said she reported the crime. Maijer said
he called 911. Even stranger, the report made no mention of Maijer at all.
Maijer particularly took issue with the characterization of the incident as
"He had her in some kind of hold, and she was screaming," the engineer said.
"Had I not opened the door and stepped out there, who knows what might have
Then there was Jack Young, 80, a retired truck driver who lives in an
assisted-living complex after losing a lung to cancer. Young reported his 1993
Ford Probe stolen.
"Now, why would I make that up?" he said. "I didn't even have insurance on the
thing." The vehicle was later recovered.
He had no idea police thought he was lying until October, when a reporter
showed him the memo. It said his credibility was questionable.
"That's a hell of a report," he said.
In fact, many of these people contacted thought at first that officers had
written full reports. All thought their crimes had counted. None had ever heard
of a crime memo.
"Police came," said Derby Haywood, 38. "They listened to me. They took notes.
It seemed like they were interested."
A memo said the officers didn't feel that Haywood was credible in reporting a
street robbery four days after the fact, at the urging of his depression
counselor. He said he had not expected an arrest, but wanted police to know
about the robbery in case they were looking for patterns.
"I felt like it might have done some good to report it," he said.
Not credible? That hurt to read.
"Rotten," he said. "Pretty rotten police department. I feel kind of, what's the
word? Discounted. Like I wasn't taken serious. I felt they had a low opinion of
me. It's unfair."
In some cases, an officer gave no explicit reason for not making a crime
report. In most of those cases, the victim was homeless. In some, there were
indications of mental illness, or intoxication.
On Feb. 4, 2003, police responded to a call for a theft outside the Greyhound
bus station. A man told them that when he got off a bus from Springfield, Ill.,
someone ran into his back. A few minutes later he realized his wallet, with
$198 inside, was missing.
"Subject didn't seem shaken or upset," the officer wrote. "He could provide no
source of income for currency or explain how he knew exact amount of money."
The police dropped him off at the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center, a
homeless shelter at 3010 Washington Avenue. The officer wrote a memo instead of
a report, listing the victim's credibility as "questionable."
A homeless man flagged down officers north of downtown on April 12, 2003. It
was 3:11 a.m. He said two men had robbed him of $40 a few blocks away.
The officer noted that the man had a black eye and was dizzy. He wanted to go
to the hospital.
The officer wrote that he was "unable to clearly establish that a crime in fact
occurred." He didn't write, however, what he had done to establish that the man
had not been robbed.
At 4:30 that same morning, another homeless man showed up at police
headquarters to ask for help. He told them he had been asleep in a park across
from Union Station. Two other men had been with him.
When he awakened, $400 was missing from his pocket, he told police. And the men
were gone. The memo doesn't say whether police looked for the thieves.
But when an officer checked the victim's name, she realized he had arrest
warrants. So she locked him up. The theft, apparently, could wait.
The memo said: "Alleged victim was booked accordingly and advised to contact
detectives" in two days.
"I'd like to see someone apologize"
Geekie didn't know, or care, what impact her ordeal would have on St. Louis
crime statistics. She just wanted to be taken seriously. And she was willing to
fight for it.
Geekie said Officer Wesley's supervisor, a sergeant, leveled with her. The
police didn't believe her. "He said, 'We're not going to take a report,'"
Geekie said. "Come to the station and take a lie detector test.'"
Back at the shelter, Geekie had some explaining to do about why she was late.
But the shelter took her in. "We believed Danielle," an official there said.
Two days later, Geekie showed up at the Police Department's Central Patrol
station with two other women. One was an advocate for the homeless. The other
was Sue McGraugh, a civil rights lawyer based at St. Louis University. McGraugh
said she "really cross-examined" Geekie and found her truthful.
"I'd like to see her get vindicated," McGraugh said. "She's not a kid who's
gotten many breaks. I'd like to see someone apologize to her, but I doubt that
it will ever happen."
Police Officer Christina Gonzalez greeted the trio of women.
Geekie gave her the whole story. Gonzalez did not ask for a lie-detector test.
The officer wrote the incident report as if Geekie were telling the story for
the first time. It made no mention of Wesley or other officers at the scene two
And now the gunman's words about her luck rang truer than ever. She was lucky
in a new way. She was one of the few victims who managed to climb out of the
file drawer and into the crime statistics.
The public can view her report by asking the police for No. 04-003959. The FBI
will count her in this year's Crime in the United States publication.
As far as the police were concerned, the robbery really did happen.
The problem was, there wasn't much that officers could do. Her purse and the
gunman in the maroon car were long gone.
Reporter Jeremy Kohler