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Letter From the Editor: On Accuracy

We stand behind our reporting on the Chicago Police Department’s crime statistics. Here’s why.

Many of the 40 well-placed police sources who spoke to features editor David Bernstein and contributing writer Noah Isackson for “The Truth About Chicago’s Crime Rates” (May)—part 1 of a two-part investigation questioning the Chicago Police Department’s crime statistics—warned them that police brass would be none too happy about the story.

That was putting it mildly. On April 8, the day after we posted the article online, a 12-page memo from Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy’s office landed in my inbox. Its title: “False, Misleading, and Unsubstantiated Reporting in Chicago Magazine.” The police department also distributed the memo to some other journalists who were covering our story or might cover it.

The memo accuses Bernstein and Isackson—award-winning reporters both—of one error after another. As Chicago does with any challenge to a fact we have published, we double-checked each one. We stand by our reporting.

Among the department’s criticisms is that we failed to mention that one case detailed in the story, that of dead college student Michelle Manalansan, “was in fact reclassified as a murder on March 23, 2014 (more than two weeks before this story was published).” But the city’s own public data portal shows that the case was reclassified on April 9, two days after our article came out. The memo also criticizes the story’s use of unnamed sources. Withholding names is a legitimate journalistic practice in situations where individuals have reason to fear retaliation, as was the case here.

Besides, Bernstein and Isackson did not rely solely on these sources. They did their homework. They reviewed the police reports for every case they described. They checked the city’s data portal every day for nearly a year, saving screen grabs and looking closely for changes. They submitted four Freedom of Information Act–based requests—two of them extensive—to the police department, to the city’s Office of Emergency Management, and to the medical examiner’s office. And through police department spokesman Adam Collins, they asked McCarthy for comment before publication—and were turned down.

Ironically, accuracy—and the kind of transparency that would help all of us make sense of the numbers—is what Bernstein and Isackson’s report is all about. Luckily for Chicagoans, lawmakers are beginning to take notice. As I write this at the beginning of May, North Side alderman Scott Waguespack and South Side alderman Willie Cochran, a former cop, have both just introduced City Council resolutions calling for hearings into the accuracy of the city’s crime statistics. “Properly collecting and utilizing accurate crime data is a fundamental and integral aspect of CPD’s critical public mission,” Waguespack’s resolution states, “and is necessary to effectively combat crime and sustain public trust in law enforcement.”

Exactly. The police chief and the mayor are public servants; you pay their salaries. Shouldn’t you get straight answers in return?

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