When a Guardian reporter probed how public agencies respond to citizens reporting a crime, a St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD) employee erroneously told the reporter that you have to live in the city in order to report a crime committed in the city. Hear the audio below.
The call was made shortly before 10 A.M. on May 23rd. The operator answered a call about an alleged misdemeanor, and asked the caller “where are you located?” The reporter said “I’m not sure that matters”, and also asked “why does that matter?”
After a long pause, the operator said “you’re the complainant, for us to make an investigation, you need to live within the city limits of St. Petersburg”. This erroneous claim is contrary to widely accepted law enforcement practices, and also contrary to SPPD policy.
The key portion of the audio can be heard by clicking here. It was obtained through a public records request, which SPPD filled promptly and at no cost.
Yolanda Fernandez, Community Affairs Manager at SPPD, said ” we apologize for the operator’s mistake”. Fernandez explained that the operator is “new civilian employee who is half-way through her training. In fact, the long pauses during the call are due to the supervisor seated next to her and helping her through the call.”
However, SPPD’s response to this call may also be an indication of a deeper problem, namely that SPPD doesn’t want people to file police reports. Suppressing crime reporting would keep the rate of reported crime down, while the actual crime rate is much higher, and perhaps even increasing without any official knowledge of it.
Because the operator is a trainee, the Guardian is withholding her name from publication. However, if it were true that you had to reside in the city in order to report a crime committed there, tourists and non-residents might have reasons for concern.
We asked David Downing, Executive Director of the county’s taxpayer-funded tourist bureau (the “Convention & Visitor’s Bureau), whether the erroneous information given to the caller causes his agency any concern. We received no response.
An audit of the Atlanta Police Department published in 2004 found “deliberate efforts to improve the city’s image for tourism, possibly including the Summer Olympics in 1996.” Like Atlanta, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County as a whole rely on tourism to fuel its economy.
Tom McKeon, a retired 20-year veteran of the Philadelphia PD, does not believe SPPD falsifies crime statistics. “If they wanted to make the crime statistics look better than they really are, they would reduce the classification of the crime. For example, a burglary goes down in the books as petit theft or lost property”.
McKeon stressed that he’s not saying that SPPD or any local law enforcement agency do that kind of “crime reduction”, only that it’s known to have been done around the country for the purpose of falsifying official crime statistics.
We shared the nature of the alleged misdemeanor with McKeon, and he said those kinds of misdemeanors are usually not prosecuted. McKeon suggested that the office of Bernie McCabe, State Attorney for Pinellas and Pasco, could explain what crimes they actually do prosecute.
“If a civilian employee of the PD gives you information that you believe is incorrect, then ask to speak to a police officer,” Mc Keon said. “What is perceived by the public as a common and obvious crime is not necessarily something the police will investigate”.
Discouraging crime reporting, even inadvertently, could lead to vigilantism, as a citizen might conclude that they need to take matters into their own hands because no help will be forthcoming from law enforcement.
As always, the Guardian reports and the readers decide.