For example, the Statesman reported (Aug. 5) on why the city's count of DWI statistics keeps changing. The short answer is that none of their data people are trained statisticians but just folks who answered "yes" when asked if they knew Excel and Filemaker Pro. Even so, counting the raw numbers isn't exactly graduate-school statistics. The correct tally of how many DWI accidents APD responded to a given period is basic information they're supposed to report upstream to other institutional actors. There's no reason at all to think such mistakes are limited to DWI numbers.
Some of the problems relate to systems and record keeping, not analysts' knowledge of math: "the statistics unit fails to take basic precautions to ensure the quality of its work, experts told the Statesman. Two crime statistics experts told the paper that police departments should treat their queries like pieces of evidence, logging and tracking them every step of the way." Those are best practices learned from job-related training, not a college statistics course.
Further, "experts say the crime statistics unit appears short of important experience and subject matter expertise. Just one of the four staffers had extensive experience working with databases and advanced statistical models when she was hired to work there."
These are significant management failures. It's a truism that you can't manage what you can't measure. And Austin PD appears incapable of deriving even the most basic data - DWI
Similar issues - undertrained staff in technical positions - pervaded the Austin PD DNA lab, which had to close earlier this year to revamp its systems and figure out how many prior cases they screwed up, some of which could result in innocence claims.. The Texas Tribune last week (July 30) provided an update on the clusterf$%#. Here's their assessment of the situation at the lab:
allegations of DNA miscalculation at the crime lab have been a longstanding issue. The June letter from the commission suggested that since 2010, lab analysts have been using expired mixtures and methods that are not “scientifically valid nor supported” by the forensic science community.These aren't the only two areas where important support work gets de-prioritized, as suggested by the 2014 Grits headline, "Failure to hire sufficient, competent staff hindering burglary clearance rates." APD wastes a lot of resources with little practical benefit on burglary cases, while underfunding crime-scene support and detective slots to actually solve the cases.
Former Austin Police Department crime lab senior forensic scientist Debra Stephens, who was fired in 2012 after filing a complaint with the Travis County District Attorney's Office alleging that some employees weren't qualified and didn't follow federal regulations, said officials have ignored issues in the lab for years.
“It shows that the whole system is flawed. Some of these [analysts] are not qualified, have no science background and are pretending to do forensic science,” she said. “I really think everyone should follow the federally established protocols. But they’re getting away with it.”
Similar concerns were raised in 2010 by Cicely Hamilton, a former DNA lab employee, who later resigned after filing a complaint about some employees ignoring situations involving the contamination of DNA samples.
Robert Paine, director of the Master's of Forensic Science Program at Texas Tech University, said the city and state might ultimately have to kick in funds to help labs hire staff and meet standards.
Bottom line: Pretty much across the board, Austin PD prioritizes its patrol cops and fails to prioritize or sufficiently invest in technical support for those functions. Some of that's because of the city council kowtowing to the union, and some of it's because the chief hasn't prioritized these functions, either in his budgets nor with the attention of top management. This sort of inept bungling is the result: A data system so flawed they can't tally DWI accidents
Make Grits Philosopher King and I'd free up officer time for community policing by taking away other time-consuming duties. For example, disallowing arrests for non-jailable Class C offenses would save time for everybody involved. The Meadows Foundation in Dallas has been pushing to shift first-response duties on mental health calls from police to specialized, medical-led units with a healthcare, not a law-enforcement focus. Finally, Grits has long advocated for shifting to verified response for residential burglar alarms, requiring alarm companies to confirm there's been a burglary before responding. (The burglary clearance rate for residential alarms approaches zero.) In the near term, new spending should focus on shoring up these types of non-sworn staff functions, which have been neglected for many years.
Grits isn't saying "don't invest in public safety." I'm saying the supposed stewards of Austin's public-safety dollars have invested unwisely. This pattern of hiring lots of street cops, overpaying them, failing to invest in non-sworn support staff, then watching those key functions fail, has begun to feel repetitive and sad. Grits used to think there was some hidden agenda behind the pattern. These days I'm more inclined to suspect that the folks running the show at APD simply don't know what the hell they're doing.
CORRECTION: This article originally said APD did not track DWI arrests, but it was DWI-related accidents which weren't correctly documented. Corrected throughout. Grits regrets the error.