Disclosure Thursday that police in Los Angeles misclassified serious assault cases for eight years -- including a period when William Bratton was chief there -- illustrates a national problem going back decades, noted criminologists said.
The Los Angeles Times reported that between 2005 and fall 2012, cops in the nation's second largest city misclassified an estimated 14,000 serious assaults as simple assaults, resulting in a 7 percent artificial drop in the city's crime rate.
The report said the improper lowering of the assault classifications didn't adversely impact the recent downward trend of serious crime in Los Angeles.
Bratton, who was chief in Los Angeles from 2002 to 2009 and now is the NYPD commissioner, declined through a spokesman to comment and referred questions to the LAPD.
LAPD Chief Charles Beck acknowledged to the Los Angeles newspaper problems with crime statistics and said steps were taken to deal with them.
Franklin Zimring, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and author of "The City That Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control," said Thursday the problem of how to classify serious or aggravated assaults is one that has dogged police for a long time.
"This is a problem that is very broad in crime reporting and not just because of dishonesty," Zimring said. "It is a problem in every place, a problem for Los Angeles as well."
The problems occur in classifying cases when a gun isn't used and there is a question of how serious a victim has been injured, criminologists said.
Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said experts noticed as far back as the 1970s that the number of aggravated assaults reported in the FBI uniform crime report didn't match what victims reported in national surveys. If a firearm wasn't used, police tended to classify the case as a simple assault, said Rosenfeld.
Eventually, with the rise of victims-rights organizations and the feminist movement, police began classifying more non-gun assaults as aggravated assaults, Rosenfeld said.
"No one is saying these are easy judgment calls, there is no reason to believe the misclassification was intentional," Rosenfeld said. "But we do want these events classified correctly."
"Los Angeles had a problem and acknowledged it," Zimring said. "But it doesn't change Los Angeles' almost singular record of crime decline."