Audit finds 'weaknesses' in police department reporting process

Friday, June 24, 2011 at 4:31pm

An internal audit report of Metro police’s crime statistics reporting released Friday found no intentional problems in the department’s reporting of stats but did find several “weaknesses” in the department’s reporting process.

The audit, which started last June and covered a three-year period between Jan. 1, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2009, found no intentional manipulation or massaging of crime stats within the department’s leadership and that the error rate of stats reporting for the period fell right at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s  “unofficial” tolerable error rate of 10 percent.

In a May 14, 2010, letter to the Metro Nashville Office of Internal Audit, Mayor Karl Dean requested the audit based on concerns raised about the accuracy of how the police department reported its crime stats.

The audit did find that the TBI did not receive some 10,906 MNPD offense records out of more than 300,000 during the reporting period, which it attributed to “computer scripting errors.”

Police Chief Steve Anderson said the errors resulted from a fault in the implementation of the department’s Automated Records Management System (ARMS). That issue has since been corrected, he said.

Those records were subsequently located within the department’s database and re-submitted to the TBI, according to Anderson. He said it was no fault of the TBI that the data in more than 10,000 offense records didn’t properly transfer in monthly data submissions from the department to the bureau.

“They did not know that we had sent them,” he said. “Although, we did not know that they were not received that — that they were lost in some manner — it was our error. And it’s something that we have already put steps in to correct.”

The error resulted when TBI computers did not accept data sent electronically from the police department because it was not in the proper format. Anderson said his department now has a process that counts records sent to the TBI and then checks to see if they were properly transferred.

Anderson said the reporting errors were not lost within the department and, therefore, had no effect on what was reported to Metro government or the public.

In interviews with 74 Metro Nashville Police Department employees, Metro auditors found “several” who had a “negative view of the process and/or had little faith in the accuracy of the numbers reported.” But none of those interviewed reported that they had been pressured to downgrade reported crimes.

A review of 35 MNPD employees’ performance evaluations found no evidence that performance was tied to crime statistics, according to the report.

The audit recommended, however, the department take steps to addresses certain weaknesses in its reporting procedures.

Those weaknesses included the following: inconsistent quality of report narratives from officers in the field; a lack of written procedures for the reporting process; no effective procedure to justify calls received by the Emergency Communications Center with incident reports; and no “process owner” in place to monitor and address quality issues.

Anderson said the department had already addressed the lack of a “process owner” a few months back by appointing one of its crime analysts, Matthew Morley, to the new position. Morley would have the authority and responsibility, the chief said, to oversee the crime stats reporting process and address any future concerns as well as those outlined by the audit.

In its response to the audit report, the MNPD accepted all of the recommendations of the audit except one advising the department abandon its use of the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data reporting system used by the TBI in favor of the Tennessee Incident Based Reporting System (TIBRS).

Anderson said the UCR system better serves his department for response to concerns in Nashville and allocating resources, but moving forward he would evaluate the prospect of abandoning the UCR system perhaps sometime in the “far future.” The MNPD collects data for both the UCR and TIBRS systems but relies on UCR for its planning purposes.

Metro Auditor Mark Swann said the recommendation to consider moving to TIBRS over UCR boiled down to a data management decision for the department rather than any flaw in one reporting system over the other. Since the department collects data using both systems now, it is simply creating an extra step in the process as the data starts out in TIBRS form and must be filtered into UCR form, he said.

“The other part was making sure people understand the differences between the systems,” Swann said, adding the department did add a link to its website showing the public where to find both sets of data.

Internal Audit first provided the police department with a working draft of the audit in February 2011. Anderson said the past six months or so consisted of a back and forth between the two departments working together to satisfying auditors’ concerns that all necessary information was provided and included.

The rollout of ARMS has been a bumpy process for the department. Anderson said the new system has had its problems but those have been addressed as the process continues.

“Ten years from now we’ll still be improving on it,” the chief said. “But any system that is static doesn’t serve the police department well.”