June 18, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Detroit police routinely underreport homicides

Actual '08 total gives city worst rate in nation

A Detroit police crime scene technician working in October near Henry Ford High School, after a shooting in Detroit. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

Detroit -- The Detroit Police Department is systematically undercounting homicides, leading to a falsely low murder rate in a city that regularly ranks among the nation's deadliest, a Detroit News review of police and medical examiner records shows.

The police department incorrectly reclassified 22 of its 368 slayings last year as "justifiable" and did not report them as homicides to the FBI as required by federal guidelines. There were at least 59 such omissions over the past five years, according to incomplete records obtained from the police department through the Freedom of Information Act.

A thorough look at the 2008 homicide statistics reveals other omissions:

  • In one case, the police reclassified a homicide as a suicide.

  • Two men were stabbed to death, but were not included due to "insufficient evidence."

  • A man who was beaten to death, according to the medical examiner, died by accident, according to the police.

  • A baby beaten to death never made the homicide tally, nor did a man who was found shot in the head.

    What is more, records show Detroit police officers killed 10 civilians last year, a five-fold increase from 2007. That makes the Detroit department one of the most deadly in America even as it operates under federal supervision, for among other things, the use of lethal force and the illegal detention of witnesses.

    Adjusting Detroit's number to 368 homicides pushes the city's rate to 40.7 per 100,000 residents, past the previously reported rate of 33.8 and well ahead of Baltimore's 36.9. It makes Detroit once again the Murder Capital of cities with more than 500,000 residents.

    "What's happening here is they're excluding justifiable homicides when they shouldn't be. Period." said Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

    Tally sparks questions

    The chronic undercounting not only revises Detroit's homicide rate upward, but also raises questions about whether all killings are fully investigated and whether officials have accurate information on which to devote crime-fighting resources or gauge their effectiveness.

    Detroit police officials acknowledge that they don't include homicides that are ruled self-defense, but say that prosecutor's decisions influence their reporting.

    "There is a lot of outrage out there," said Ron Scott, a civil rights activist and leader of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality. "People call me wanting to know why the killing of their loved ones are not being investigated."

    Criminal justice experts say that perception often is a motivator for police departments to keep murder stats low. "There is a lot of pressure out there to bring crime down," said Jon Shane, a professor of criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York and a former supervising officer of homicide with the Newark Police Department. "No mayor wants to be mayor of the murder capital. Precinct commanders are pushed to bring down crime. Those who do, get promoted. Those who don't, languish."

    The Detroit Homicide bureau shows that detectives responded to 423 cases of suspicious death in 2008. The number of homicides was reduced to 377 after the medical examiner ruled 45 people had died either of suicide or natural causes. Ten of those were killed by police officers, a number that's excluded from homicide counts by federal regulators. These were removed from homicide roll and given the classification of "backed out." The News found one other death in Detroit that was not recorded by either the police or reported to the medical examiner.

    But the Detroit police reported only 306 homicides to the Michigan State Police, who forward statistics to the FBI as part of the bureau's preliminary report released this month on crime in America. That number, the lowest in decades, immediately prompted skepticism.

    Dr. Carl Schmidt, the chief Wayne County Examiner, says his office investigated 377 cases of homicide in Detroit last year, including the killings by police.

    "All I can tell you is that we look at an injury and 99 percent of the time -- because of the kind of injury it is -- there is no question that it is homicide," said Dr. Schmidt. "Those 377 are unequivocally homicides -- death from another person's hand. We're careful about that. If we have any doubt, if it is not clear that the death is homicide, we will label that as indeterminate."

    How FBI defines murder

    The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program defines murder as the willful killing of one human being by another. The classification is based on police investigation and not that of a court, prosecutor's office, medical examiner or jury. The category does not include deaths by suicide, accident or justifiable homicides. But a justifiable homicide, according to the bureau, is limited to the killing of a felon by a peace officer in the line of duty and the killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a citizen.

    "There's homicide and there's murder," said Detroit Police Dep. Chief James Tolbert. "Now when the medical examiner still says it's a homicide and we go on about our investigation and (in the course of) our investigation we present documents to the prosecutor's office, they can say it's self-defense. It's ruled medically a homicide. But in the eyes of the prosecutor's office they will not charge anybody with this."

    Tolbert said that the prosecutor makes the decision about intent to kill and is ultimately the one who backs-out homicides.

    "We have 26 warrants sitting at her office waiting for her to sign. We cannot count those homicides until she signs those warrants," Tolbert said.

    But FBI guidelines state: "Reporting agencies should take care to ensure that they do not classify a killing as justifiable solely on the claims of self-defense or on the action of ... prosecutors" and that "agencies must report the willful killing of one individual by another, not the criminal liability of the person or persons involved."

    "It is very, very clear in the language," Worthy said. "Lawful self-defense is still a homicide and it still has to be counted as a homicide and it still has to be reported to the FBI."

    As a matter of policy, the other top cities for murder Houston (294), Chicago (510), Philadelphia (331), Los Angeles (384), New York (523) and Baltimore (234) claim that they use the medical examiner's numbers.

    "The presumption of police reporting that someone did not die of a murder because he was killed in self-defense is not correct," said Lee Baca, the Los Angeles County Sheriff.

    The system of crime reporting works on the honor system. "The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program is a cooperative statistical effort that relies on the good-faith reporting of thousands of law enforcement agencies across the nation," according to a statement from the FBI.

    The Detroit police backed-out more than just self-defense cases, records show:

  • Feb. 19: Eugene Richards, 54, died of stab wounds. The police ruled insufficient evidence; the medical examiner said homicide.

  • April 14: Willie Lee Thomas, 61, died of multiple stab wounds. Police ruled insufficient evidence.

  • June 8: Antonio Bailey, 33, suffered a gunshot wound to the head. Police called it suicide; the medical examiner ruled homicide.

  • April 7: One-year-old Promise Wilson-Jones died of abusive head-trauma according to the medical examiner. Her case was not recorded in the police tally.

  • Nov. 28: Roland Jordan, 52, was found at the McNichols/Interstate-75 interchange with blunt force trauma to the head. Police called it an accident; the medical examiner ruled it a homicide.

    Then there was the murder of Rico White, which appears in no official Detroit death record. White was abducted last January along with his fiancee and two children from their home in Warren. The family was released unharmed. White was found dead at McNichols and Van Dyke in Detroit with bullets in his skull. His case is being handled by Warren police but his murder was never recorded in Detroit.

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  • A husband and wife had an argument. The wife shot the husband and severely wounded him. He grabbed the gun and shot and killed her. The husband survived his wounds. The police subsequently arrested him.
  • While playing cards, two men got into an argument. The first man attacked the second with a broken bottle. The second man pulled a gun and killed the first. The police arrested the shooter; he claimed self-defense. The police found no other witnesses.
    Source: U.S. Department of Justice Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook