DALLAS - Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle defended his department's reporting of crime statistics Tuesday during a City Council public safety committee meeting undercut by confusion over the issue.
The crime reporting methods have come under a spotlight after several Dallas Morning News stories showing that the department lets hundreds and perhaps thousands of offenses slip from the city's crime tally each year by not following federal guidelines.
Kunkle told committee members Tuesday that he has overhauled the department's crime reporting system since he became chief in 2004 and that it would be a mistake to undo those changes.
"It'll be a mistake because we will be overreporting crimes in relationship to other cities," he said.
Kunkle's PowerPoint presentation to the committee about the department's collection of crime statistics made no mention of the FBI guidelines that the department is supposed to follow.
Instead, the chief's presentation focused on the Texas Penal Code, which the FBI says should have no bearing on how the department classifies crime for reporting numbers to federal authorities.
What followed was a wide-ranging discussion during which often confused and sometimes skeptical committee members peppered Kunkle with questions on how his department collects its crime numbers and whether the system is accurate.
"If I take a crowbar and hit [council member] Ron Natinsky on the kneecap, and he does not go to the doctor, that is not an assault?" frustrated council member Tennell Atkins asked.
Kunkle replied that it was an assault but that it couldn't be classified as an aggravated assault – and go into the city's violent crime statistics – unless Natinsky required a trip to the hospital.
Kunkle's definition of aggravated assault does not comply with FBI guidelines. By classifying the crime differently, Dallas greatly reduces its violent crime rate.
The chief said Tuesday that his definition better reflects state law.
Largely lost in the discussion was the fact that prosecuting crimes under state law is a process that is supposed to be distinct from classifying them for reporting crime statistics to federal authorities.
For years, Dallas held the distinction of having the highest crime rate among U.S. cities with more than 1 million people. Last year, Dallas was able to move to No. 2. The City Council has assigned the department to get out of the top five by next year.
The list is compiled by the FBI and depends on numbers provided by local police departments. The program, called Uniform Crime Reporting, or UCR, sets guidelines on how departments throughout the nation should classify crimes to arrive at their numbers. The idea is to have a standardized, nationwide classification system independent of varying state penal codes.
The federal government uses the data to figure how much grant money that local police receive. Had Dallas not participated in the UCR program in recent years, the city would not have been eligible for about $7 million allocated as part of last year's federal stimulus package. Criminologists, city managers and others also rely on the data.
Acknowledging the system's shortcomings, the FBI strongly discourages comparing one place to another based on the raw statistics. But many people do.
During Tuesday's meeting, council member Ann Margolin brought along a copy of the UCR assault guidelines and at one point handed them to Kunkle.
"When I looked at ... the definition of aggravated assault that is given by the UCR, it really does conflict with what we're doing," Margolin told the chief. "I'm just a little confused about when we're choosing to follow the UCR or not."
Kunkle publicized his crime reporting changes over the years, saying their purpose was to more accurately adhere to the federal guidelines.
"If we are reporting crime at a higher rate than we should based on the criteria that the UCR establishes, then what we've done is unfairly represented the extent of crime in Dallas than in other cities," he said in August 2007.
But while The News' recent investigation has shown that the department is deviating from federal guidelines, a survey by the newspaper also showed that other major departments claim to be classifying assaults correctly.
The News asked 25 police departments how they would report an assault involving a bottle, stick, bat, rock or other dangerous object that caused no serious injury.
Of those that answered, two said it depended. Twelve others, including Baltimore, Detroit, Fort Worth, Houston and Los Angeles, said the assault would be reported to the FBI as aggravated. That agrees with how the FBI says assaults should be classified.
Kunkle says he doesn't believe the claims and insists that most departments deviate from federal guidelines in ways similar to the policies in Dallas.
During a contentious moment Tuesday, Atkins pressed the chief on that issue.
"What other city reports with the same system that we do in Dallas?" Atkins asked.
Kunkle declined to answer.
"We have told the cities when we've talked to them that we're not going to put them out there," the chief said.
Atkins persisted, turning toward First Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans, who was seated next to Kunkle.
"Can you answer the question, Ryan, since the chief doesn't want to answer?" Atkins asked.
The back and forth continued, but the question remained unresolved.
Council member Jerry Allen, on the other hand, praised Kunkle, pointing out that the issues raised by The News do not discount the bulk of the reported crime drops during his tenure.
"At the end of the day, that's a pretty good number," Allen said. "We can argue all day long how good it is."