North Adams violent crime stats appear to be less dire than thought - but how can they correct the record?
NORTH ADAMS — "It's hard to believe we have the highest crime rates in the state," City Council President Keith Bona wrote in an Oct. 17 email to Mayor Thomas Bernard.
It's even harder to believe now.
Following a recently disclosed internal inquiry that found North Adams has over-reported the number of felony domestic assaults, the City Council's Public Safety Committee is looking for answers.
In a federal crime report issued earlier this year, North Adams was found to have the highest per capita violent crime rate of any reporting city or town in Massachusetts. But now the numbers are in question, validating the perception of many local officials that North Adams is safer than the numbers suggested.
The Public Safety Committee, which was already slated to meet on Monday to discuss an unrelated issue, has added reporting error to its meeting agenda.
"I'm glad it was found," Bona told The Eagle on Wednesday, "but why did it take until now to find it?"
North Adams Lt. Jason Wood discovered the data entry error and detailed his findings on Nov. 20 in a letter to Mayor Thomas Bernard and Police Director Michael Cozzaglio.
Reviewing each case individually, Wood found that 35 of the 111 assaults thus far in 2018 were actually reported as felonies instead of misdemeanors, and thus inappropriately counted in the number of violent crimes reported to the FBI.
The reporting error was disclosed by Cozzaglio during a news conference Friday to announce his upcoming retirement.
"I think it's critical to have a better understanding of what went wrong and why, and how we move forward with improved operating policies," said City Councilor Jason LaForest, who sits on the Public Safety Committee. "I think it's important to consider an independent audit of that data."
According to FBI data, the number of violent crimes — homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — per year averaged about 111 from 2007 to 2013, hitting a low of 75 in 2014. But by 2015, that number doubled 150, and violent crimes have increased every year since.
The city has not looked back at 2017 or 2016 data to determine what the crime rate would have been if the assaults had been reported correctly, and it's unclear for how long the reporting issue has occurred.
Wood told The Eagle on Wednesday that it appears the issue stretches back to 2016.
The department reports statistics to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program in monthly increments.
"Supervisors are now aware of the issue and have been instructed to watch for this error until a more permanent solution is found," Wood said.
Councilor Benjamin Lamb, who serves as chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he would like to see a resolution to the reporting issue.
"For me that would be along the lines of correcting online representations of the incorrect FBI stats for the last couple years, and also a formal plan for ensuring this doesn't happen going forward, whether that is improved process training for our officers or a fix by the software company," Lamb said.
Using the department's Central Square IMC public safety software, simple assaults that should have been labeled as a 13B were being labeled as felony charges, 13A, when officers selected "domestic assault and battery on a family member."
The IMC software is commonly used by departments both in the county and across the state, but it is unclear if many have had a similar coding issue. Attempts to reach Central Square on Tuesday and Wednesday were unsuccessful.
The city's version of the software is up to date, Wood said, and "maintenance of the diagnostics are overseen by the IT department at City Hall."
Councilors also expressed concern about the difficult-to-quantify impact the high crime rate had on the city.
"While on the face of it, it would appear a minor glitch either in software of processing, the implications of being No. 1 for reported violent crime in the state for several years in a row are far reaching for the local economy and development," LaForest said.
Bona, who had also sent emails to the previous administration regarding the crime rate, echoed that sentiment.
"While we are told not to judge these numbers by their appearance due to many other factors, most will," Bona said. "Today many people search online where to move based on education, crime, price, amenities, etc. Sites like Zillow promote that you can look up crime rates. There is no doubt those ratings affect us."
Wood said he has reached out to the FBI to discuss correcting the record.
"I have a message into the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division regarding this issue. However, I would suspect corrections are not possible," Wood said.
For Councilor Joshua Moran, news of the coding error was validating.
"Those numbers just seemed to be really surprising and they didn't correlate with what we actually have in the city," Moran said, adding that the city will still "work on things we need to work on" to combat crime.
Adam Shanks can be reached at email@example.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.