Understanding crime in Cleveland Heights: First in a series

Chart 1: Violent crime in Cleveland Heights: Jan.-Oct. (lower is better)

Source: Cleveland Heights Police Department

Late in 2014, the Cleveland Heights Police Department began posting information about local crime rates on the city’s website (http://bit.do/crimestats).

“Communication between the police and the citizens we serve is essential,” explained Cleveland Heights Police Chief Jeffrey Robertson. “Along with our Facebook and Twitter feeds, Meet Your Police meetings, and other community outreach efforts, such as the Citizen's Police Academy, the posting and ease of access to these statistics continues my commitment to transparency.”

Now, the Heights Observer is working with the police department to amplify and interpret the data to eventually foster a better understanding of public safety issues in Cleveland Heights.

Reports in this series will be published at least once per quarter—and perhaps more often, depending on time constraints at the police department and among Observer volunteers.

Over the years, city residents have questioned the accuracy of crime statistics reported here. When Robertson took over as the police chief at the beginning of 2011, one of his first initiatives was to update the technology and processes used to collect and understand crime data.

“The major overhaul was in our records management system,” Robertson said. “We’re using the same vendor [TAC Computer, based in Northeast Ohio] but it’s a more advanced system. It required us to learn it from the bottom up—training everyone, from dispatchers to officers to the records bureau—on how to use it.”

The new system began accepting data in March 2011. Once it was running smoothly, data from the first two months of that year were input manually. The job was lengthy and expensive; Robertson said there is no plan to convert older data.

As a result, crime statistics from 2010 and earlier—collected under a different administration, technology and processes—cannot reasonably be compared with more recent information, Robertson said.

But, he emphasized that the department has been consistent in the way it manages data since the upgrade—providing apples-for-apples information.

Using that information, this project seeks to create enough context over time to empower residents to make their own educated judgments about the relative safety of Cleveland Heights and the effectiveness of policing in the city.

“I am proud of the fact that residents of Cleveland Heights can look at the numbers reported by us and be confident in the fact that their police department accurately reports the information and further uses this information in our crime prevention efforts,” Robertson said.

Sidebar: What’s in the charts

The data provided here represents all serious crimes reported in Cleveland Heights from Jan. 1 through Oct. 30, 2014. Full-year data will be reported here when it becomes available through the CHPD’s data-management process.

These crime reports are not subjective. According to Police Chief Jeffery Robertson, they adhere to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) guidelines—a regimented, clearly defined set of rules for classifying and reporting crime that has been updated continually since being introduced in 1930.

The purpose of the UCR codes is to create a barometer to identify whether crime is trending up or down. The FBI’s UCR website cautions that the information is not reliable for comparing the crime rate of one city with another, due to important differences between locales, such as population density and distance from an urban center. Further, though the FBI doesn’t come out and say it, not all agencies are consistent in the care they take when reporting crime data (see sidebar: Commitment to UCR).

The charts here do not represent every call to service that comes into the police department, nor do they account for every crime that takes place in the city. Rather, they represent all serious crimes as defined in Part I of the UCR guidelines: violent crimes against people—murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault; and serious crimes against property—burglary, theft, auto theft and arson.

The less serious and more numerous Part II crimes—such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief, sexual imposition, public intoxication, drunk driving and many more—are not collected by the FBI because law enforcement agencies as a rule don’t have resources to track them as carefully.

Sidebar: Commitment to UCR:

When Jeffery Robertson became police chief in Cleveland Heights at the beginning of 2011, he committed the department to a high level of competence in applying UCR standards.

“It is [my] responsibility . . . to structure the department and its resources to effectively address criminal activity that has occurred or may occur,” Robertson said. “One tool in doing this is to have accurate data to see if our . . . resources are being effectively used in the prevention of crime. To do this without accurate, reliable crime data would not be possible.”

However, UCR standards can be complex and difficult to apply. Doing it well requires training and organization.

In October 2014, the CHPD hosted a UCR workshop, presented by Ed Claughton of PRI Management Group, a nationally recognized expert in using the UCR system. Thirty-one representatives from police departments across the region attended.

“Inaccurate crime statistics are most often the result of problematic reporting systems, user error and misunderstanding of crime reporting processes,” Claughton writes on his website. “Our research has indicated that legitimate instances of intentional downgrading of crime by police are uncommon and usually occur at the reporting officer level, not systematically by the agency in question.”

For instance, while the difference between theft and burglary is clearly defined, applying that definition correctly to a specific incident can be tricky when an officer first shows up at the scene—and it can change as new information is discovered in the first days or even weeks of investigation.

During the workshop, Claughton recommended that at least two people review each police report to assure it has been properly classified for UCR reporting purposes.

In Cleveland Heights, the classification of each crime is reviewed at least four times after the responding officer inputs his or her initial report: by the officer in charge of the shift; the detective bureau captain at the time a crime is assigned for investigation; the chief of police through a weekly summary of reports; and the captain in charge of records. It’s reviewed one more time at the end of each month by detective bureau supervisors, who are assigned to oversee UCR compliance for the department.

Bob Rosenbaum

Cleveland Heights resident Bob Rosenbaum is co-chairman of the Heights Observer Advisory Committee, and is responsible for its advertising sales and market development.

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Volume 8, Issue 1, Posted 12:17 PM, 01.03.2015