By Brian Chasnoff, San Antonio Express News
September 18, 2009
The San Antonio Police
Department has misplaced more than 2,000
police reports ranging from thefts and car
wrecks to more serious offenses of rapes and
assaults, according to internal police
documents obtained by the San Antonio
Now, the Police
Department is scrambling to “recover and
correct the open cases so all reports are
properly received, entered and accounted
for,” according to an internal memo that a
deputy chief sent last week to Police Chief
“We’ve got to get our hands on a piece of paper. That’s what it boils down to,” Assistant Chief Geraldine Garcia acknowledged Thursday. “Our problem now is finding that report.”
Police discovered the lapses two months ago while trying to clean up the record-keeping system, Garcia said.
The memo to McManus listed 20 “major contributing factors” to the mess, including random errors by patrol officers and supervisors, incorrect coding of calls and a lack of oversight of records clerks and couriers.
Responding officers in many cases showed up at scenes, handwrote reports and tendered them to be tucked away in the records unit.
But at some point in the department’s process of managing records, the reports — about 2,300 in the first seven months of this year — went unaccounted for, documents show.
A police source familiar with the imbroglio but unauthorized to speak to media said some officers have been asked to rewrite reports on incidents to which they responded months ago.
“They don’t have the information,” the source said. “This is very basic, but it affects just about everything.”
Police reports in some ways are the nexus of a law enforcement agency.
They provide raw data for conducting investigations, responding to troubled neighborhoods and calculating crime statistics. They also serve as crucial resources for prosecutors and residents seeking insurance coverage for damaged or stolen property.
Cliff Herberg, first assistant district attorney for Bexar County, acknowledged police reports are essential to a prosecution, but added he was confident police would manage either to recreate the reports or recover copies of them.
“If there’s no police report, then no case gets investigated, and then no case gets filed with us,” he said.
But he also said: “I just don’t see (a report) falling through the cracks.”
Thomas Aveni, co-founder of the Police Policy Studies Council in Spofford, N.H., stressed that the sheer volume of reports that police agencies generate on a daily basis can create “day-to-day pandemonium.”
“It’s just the chaos in which police departments are trying to manage tens of thousands of reports coming in from various sources,” Aveni said.
But he added that the situation in San Antonio appears problematic.
“If I have 2,000 reports missing in a fairly compressed period of time, I’d be concerned,” Aveni said. “This is an embarrassment to them on some level, and they should want to rectify it.”
This is not the first time problems have arisen with the Police Department’s handling of records.
In 2007, McManus asked the city and FBI to review the department’s record-keeping practices after the Express-News questioned its homicide clearance rates for the previous year.
McManus said he planned to create a unit that would ensure accuracy in the department’s Uniform Crime Reporting system, the national standard for recording the numbers of crimes in a law enforcement agency’s jurisdiction.
Completed last year, the city audit found the department had “no true central records function in place to ensure accuracy, completeness and compliance” with FBI guidelines on submitting the statistics.
In attempting to fix the way they report crimes, police this year discovered “many cases” were unaccounted for, according to the memo to McManus. The memo didn’t specify how many, but police acknowledged Thursday that more than 2,000 reports had been misplaced.
“You get slapped when you try to do a good job,” said Garcia, the assistant police chief. “We said we’re going to self-audit.”
Michael Gilbert, a University of Texas at San Antonio criminologist, stressed that the apparent number of missing reports is low compared to the estimated 1 million calls police here receive on an annual basis.
He called the missing reports’ impact on UCR numbers “negligible.” Yet, lost reports could understate crime levels in neighborhoods, Gilbert said.
“It could affect response levels. It could affect assignment of personnel,” he said. “As a manager, I’d want to know: Is it the tip of an iceberg or is it just some random cases?”
He said missing reports also could delay investigations.
The case “might not resurface unless somebody inquires,” he said.
The reasons for the missing reports are myriad, according to the memo to McManus.
Reporting officers often write reports illegibly and invert numerals when writing case numbers. Patrol supervisors assigned to officer-complaint calls fail to follow up with a report, consigning the cases to a black hole.
In one case with a missing report, a man with bloodstains on his shirt showed up at a police station claiming an officer had assaulted him at the Saint nightclub, according to an internal police document.
Sometimes, officers in the field assign case numbers to incidents that they shouldn’t, such as when they request wreckers for flat tires or dead batteries.
The memo also noted a lack of accountability for those who physically carry police reports to the records unit at police headquarters.
Unlike those in other Texas agencies, San Antonio police still handwrite most reports. A computer system conceived a decade ago that would have allowed officers to type their reports into laptops never materialized.
Aveni pointed to the antiquated system as a possible monkey wrench.
“If you’re dealing with an old-fashioned paper system, in many respects you’ve got more opportunity for a report to get misplaced,” he said. “And the larger the agency, the more hands that are in the pie.”
Gilbert added that staffing levels could have contributed to the problems. San Antonio has about 2,200 police officers for a city of about 1.3 million people.
“Rushed work can occur when a police department has too few people to do too much work,” Gilbert said.
For one, Garcia said she’s determined now to correct the problems.
“We found another way to audit ourselves,” the assistant chief said. “I anticipate a couple hundred (missing reports) a month. And I’ll be on top of it every month now.”