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Expert: Nashville's Crime Clearance Stats 'Not Credible'

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Tom Nolan, Boston University Tom Nolan, Boston University
Former Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas Former Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas

By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter

Nashville police claim to have one of the best records in the country for solving crime.

That's what former Chief Ronal Serpas repeatedly told the Metro Council -- and the police department's own internal reviews backed him up.

But an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that may not be the truth. In fact, one expert said, the department appears to have been "fudging" the stats.

Ronal Serpas' crimefighting image as Nashville's police chief was of "thugs" -- as he called them -- being arrested, photographed, fingerprinted and locked up.

He even boasted in a 2006 presentation to the Metro Council of an astounding percent of cases "cleared by arrest."  (View that 2006 slide.)

Here are some of the chief's numbers:

  • Violent crime, 76.5 percent.
  • Aggravated assault, 82.4 percent.
  • Forcible rape, an incredible 122.8 percent.

During an exclusive interview with Serpas before his resignation, NewsChannel 5 Investigates observed, "Nobody turns those kind of arrest numbers -- 122 percent of rapes?"

Serpas refused to concede that the numbers were not believable, although a spokesperson later acknowledge that they were not an accurate reflection of arrests.

"My staff gave me what they thought was the best information they had available," Serpas said. "If subsequently we find that information isn't completely accurate, it is what it is. It needs to be recognized and fixed."

While Serpas downplayed his reliance on crime stats as he announced his resignation, our investigation discovered he leaves behind a trail of questionable numbers -- like the claim made to the Metro Council of clearance rates "significantly higher than peer cities." (View the 2007 slide.)

They're numbers questioned by Boston University criminologist Tom Nolan, a former police lieutenant who spent years working with crime stats.

"It seems like they're fudging the stats," Nolan said. "Their numbers are very strong, but they're relying on a pretty shoddy and noncredible foundation."

Under Serpas, precinct leaders from across Nashville had to appear before the chief every week not only to talk about where crime was occurring, but also to report to the boss their progress in solving those crimes.

"Do people feel like they have to play a numbers game to impress the boss?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates wanted to know.

Serpas denied there was any such pressure. "I've not asked the officers to do anything other than follow the rules. That's all I asked them."

Under federal rules, police can tell the public that they solved a crime only if they've made an arrest -- or cleared it by what's called an "exception."

Exceptional clearances mean they've got a suspect, they know where the suspect is, they've got enough evidence to charge the suspect, but they cannot proceed -- usually because either the DA or the victim doesn't want to prosecute.

"When I blew into town in 2004," Serpas said, "these people didn't know who I was from Adam and they were clearing cases by exception the way they had been clearing them forever. When we found out, we fixed it."

Yet, take a look at what Metro police told the TBI.

Beginning in 2006, the number of crimes against persons and property that were cleared by exception -- essentially just written off -- outpaced the number of crimes cleared by arrest.

Crimes Against Persons, Property
SOURCE: TBI Data, Accessed 3/25/2010
Year Cleared by Arrest Cleared by Exception
2004 9,661 5,629
2005 11,397 9,356
2006 9,091 12,847
2007 9,874 12,942
2008 11,357 11,462

Serpas said he became aware that there was a problem in 2005.

But between 2006 and 2008, exceptions made up 55 percent of all cases that Metro police claimed they solved. Compare that to Memphis where arrests made up more than 80 percent of clearances. Statewide, less than a quarter of all cases were cleared by exception.

Two Top Reasons for Exceptional Clearances
SOURCE: TBI Data, Accessed 3/25/2010

Year Prosecution Declined Victim Refused to Cooperate
2004 5,113 471
2005 7,690 1,596
2006 4,860 7,891
2007 2,569 10,330
2008 1824 9,591

Still, in his interview with NewsChannel 5 Investigates, Serpas continued to blame those who came before him.

"Do you believe that we showed data that they had been clearing them by exception incorrectly from at least 2000?" he demanded.

That overlooked the fact that, in 2006-2008, exceptions exceeded arrests.

"If they are following the rules -- and that's what we've got to continue to work towards -- then it is what it is," the chief added.

But Nolan didn't buy it. "I don't believe that people should be convinced that this occurs with such a high frequency because that's just not credible."

In fact, a 2006 audit by the TBI found repeated problems with "exceptional clearance criteria not being met." (Read the TBI's 2006 audit.)

Then, a 2009 audit questioned "the number of cases being exceptionally cleared," especially those cleared based on suggestions that the victim would not cooperate with a prosecution. (Read the TBI's 2009 audit.)

"We continue to fix that," Serpas said.

But does that call into question his claim to have one of the best clearance rates in the country?

"I think it calls into question that we continually look for a better service, we look for a better product," Serpas responded. "I don't know if it means that it was worse or better."

While Serpas refused to acknowledge that his claims about how many crimes were being solved may have been inflated, Professor Nolan says there's no question about this: "It's something that should, ought to be investigated."

Another question is: who's to blame?

Chief Serpas pointed out that auditors found that the department was trying to fix the problems.

Still, several officers tell me that they were just doing what their commanders told them, playing a numbers game to make their precincts look good to the chief.

E-mail: pwilliams@newschannel5.com

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