Nashville Police Don't Count Some Burglaries - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NC5 Investigates: The Truth About Crime

Nashville Police Don't Count Some Burglaries

Updated:
Tiffany Johnson Tiffany Johnson
Deborah Taylor Deborah Taylor
Metro Police Captain Harmon Hunsicker Metro Police Captain Harmon Hunsicker
Clyde Sweet Clyde Sweet

By Phil Williams
Chief Investigative Reporter

Metro police admit the public may not have been told the whole truth about burglaries in the city of Nashville.

For years, the department boasted about how burglaries were on the decline.

But an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation has discovered that if the intruder didn't get away with anything, police sometimes didn't count it as a serious crime.

Now, they're promising to fix the problem.

Still, our investigation discovered that the victims never knew.

"It's hard because I feel, I feel like I was violated," said one victim, Tiffany Johnson.

Johnson is haunted by the memory. A burglar kicked open the back door to her Antioch home. Outside the bathroom, she heard him rifling through her things.

"I was in the shower, completely vulnerable, and I didn't know what the intention of anybody would have been," Johnson recalled. "I waited in the bathroom for about 15 minutes I think before I got enough courage to open the door and go get my cell phone."

With emotion crackling through her voice, Johnson called 911: "I'm locked in my bathroom 'cause I don't know what to do."

But instead of classifying her terrifying ordeal as a burglary, which would have been counted in the city's crime stats, the police report noted that "nothing has been taken."

So officers classified it as a simple case of vandalism.

"The only reason it wasn't classified as a burglary was because I didn't have something they wanted, which was cash -- it had to have been," Johnson told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

A man also broke into Deborah Taylor's home in Old Hickory, kicking through the door to the living area. There, the suspect bumped into Taylor's adult son, who had been sleeping inside.

"When the guy ran down the steps, he was running so forcefully he pulled this railing out," Taylor said, showing the railing leading into the basement area.

Police first wrote up the incident as a burglary, but later downgraded it to vandalism.

Taylor cannot understand why.

"Anyone that comes into your home looking for something to take is a burglar," said Taylor.

Then, there was an incident at Jefferson Street Pawn Shop, discovered by employees one morning as they opened up.

"We noticed that the door's chains had been cut," said store owner Clyde Sweet. Surveillance cameras showed one man acting as a lookout. "Another guy walked up with a pair of bolt cutters and tried to cut the locks off the doors."

Yet, instead of attempted burglary, police also wrote up that incident as damage to property -- in other words, vandalism.

"Nobody is just going to come up in the middle of the night and cut your chains off your front door and try to cut your padlock for vandalism," Sweet said. "They are trying to break into your building."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Metro police training Capt. Harmon Hunsicker, "Has the department been correctly classifying burglaries?"

"I believe, for the most part, we have -- yes," Hunsicker said.

But when NewsChannel 5 Investigates analyzed two full years of crime reports for the city of Nashville, we found almost 1,900 burglary calls in 2008 and 2009 that were later classified as vandalism.

While many of those may have indeed been vandalism, in other cases, suspects were later arrested and charged not with vandalism, but with burglary.

"We are looking at a few reports that we believe mistakes were made on, but we do not believe is systemic," Hunsicker said. "We do not believe it is willful. We believe it is mistake. We don't believe it is misconduct."

Yet, in recent emails, East Precinct Commander Bob Nash tells his officers that an internal review of such reports, prompted by NewsChannel 5's questions, revealed a "significant problem"  with how burglaries are counted, "indicating a systemic issue."

In fact, the error rate was so high that it was "unacceptable," Nash said,  and "leads to an appearance that we are trying to fudge numbers."

Our investigation also discovered other incidents like a shooting at a house in West Nashville where someone fired five to eight shots into the upstairs apartment where a mother and her child were sleeping.

But when police wrote up the report, they classified it as just another case of vandalism.

In that case, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said the crime should have been classified as aggravated assault.

Critics like New York professor John Eterno blame the crime tracking system implemented by former Chief Ronal Serpas, known as Compstat. Precincts compete to see who can do the best job of bringing crime stats down. Burglaries count. Vandalism doesn't.

"The police officers themselves are in control of those statistics," said Dr. John Eterno, a criminal justice professor at Molloy College, a retired NYPD captain and author of a blog titled "Unveiling Compstat." "You are measuring people -- their success or their failure -- on something where they have complete control of the statistics and this is very tempting for people to do."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Hunsicker, "If it's a close call, I could classify this as a burglary or I could classify it as vandalism, isn't there a subtle pressure to say I'll go with the lesser?"

The police training captain denied any such pressure. "I've said over and over that I believe that if we believe it's a burglary then we encourage them to report it as such," said Hunsicker.

Tiffany Johnson said she's also bothered that police left out any mention in their report of the burglar having looked through items in her house.

"It makes it look like they didn't have any malicious intent," she noted.

Now, as a result of questions raised by NewsChannel 5 Investigates about how these burglaries are counted, East Commander Bob Nash wrote, "the word going forward is to call these incidents what they are."

As a result, he acknowledged, "I have no doubt we will see an increase in burglaries." "However," he insisted, "this is the right thing to do."

It's a point with which Tiffany Johnson wholeheartedly agreed.

"I'm very grateful that no one came to hurt me, but in a way they did. That is still a crime against me," she said. "So to downplay it in order to make it less of a crime, it bugs me."

As a result of our questions, Metro police plan to send about 40 officers to a special training session at the TBI in two weeks on how to classify burglaries and all sorts of crime.

Then, those officers will come back and work with officers throughout the department to fix whatever problems they've got with counting crimes correctly.

E-mail: pwilliams@newschannel5.com

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