Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Original fact-check on Joe Biden and Flint, Mich.

Editor’s note: When we first examined this statement from Vice President Joe Biden, we rated his statement Mostly True. We noted in that report, published Oct. 20, 2011, that the numbers he gave for rapes seemed questionable. Since then, we’ve found more definitive evidence that those numbers are in fact wrong. We have re-reported this item and given it a new rating of Half True. (Read our new report.) Here, we have included the text of our original report for archival purposes.

If Congress doesn’t pass President Barack Obama’s jobs plan, crimes like rape and murder will go up as cops are laid off, says Vice President Joe Biden.

It’s a stark talking point. But Biden hasn’t backed down in the face of challenges during the past week, citing crime statistics and saying, "Look at the facts." In a confrontation with a conservative blogger on Oct. 19, Biden snapped, "Don’t screw around with me."

We were intrigued by comments Biden made in Flint, Mich., on Oct. 12, 2011:

"In 2008, when Flint had 265 sworn officers on their police force, there were 35 murders and 91 rapes in this city.

"In 2010, when Flint had only 144 police officers, the murder rate climbed to 65, and rapes, just to pick two categories, climbed to 229.

"In 2011, you now only have 125 shields. God only knows what the numbers will be this year for Flint if we don't rectify it. And God only knows what that number would have been had we not been able to get a little bit of help to you."

We looked at Biden’s crime numbers and turned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's uniform crime statistics to confirm them. But the federal numbers aren’t the same as the numbers Biden cited. (Several of our readers did the same thing; we received several requests to check Biden’s numbers.)

When we looked at the FBI’s crime statistics, we found that Flint reported 32 murders in 2008 and 53 murders in 2010. Biden said 35 and 65 -- not exactly the same but in the same ballpark.

For rapes, though, the numbers seemed seriously off. The FBI showed 103 rapes in 2008 and 92 rapes in 2010 -- a small decline. The numbers Biden cited were 91 rapes in 2008 and 229 in 2010 -- a dramatic increase.

What’s going on here? We asked Biden’s office, and they said they got the numbers from the city of Flint.

Our research showed murders are an acknowledged problem in the city of Flint. The Flint Journal reported that murders in the city reached a historic high of 66 in 2010, with homicides happening so often that one officer deemed the city a "killing field." That same year, the city laid off 66 officers, bringing the total number to about 120.

In May 2011, Flint voters approved a tax renewal to prevent more layoffs. But they rejected a separate tax increase to fund the city jail. The jail has been shuttered since 2008.

How would Obama’s job bills help the situation? Well, it does not directly fund police positions. Rather, it sends additional money to the states, primarily for education. Biden is likely making the assumption that additional money for states in one area could prevent layoffs in another, as many states are required to balance their budget on an annual or biannual basis.

Getting back to the crime numbers, we found that discrepancies between the FBI and local agencies are not uncommon, and they happen for a number of reasons. Local numbers are usually more current and complete, and local police departments may have crime definitions that are more expansive than those of the FBI.

And in fact, the definition for rape is probably the most problematic. The FBI definition -- "the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will" -- is particularly restrictive, excluding male victims and other types of sexual assaults. (The New York Times recently published a detailed report on the problems of the rape definition.)

Flint provided us with a statement from Police Chief Alvern Lock when we asked about the differences in the crime statistics, particularly the rape statistics.

"The City of Flint stands behind the crime statistics provided to the Office of The Vice President. These numbers are an actual portrayal of the level of violent crime in our city and are the same numbers we have provided to our own community. This information is the most accurate data and demonstrates the rise in crime associated with the economic crisis and the reduced staffing levels.

"The discrepancies with the FBI and other sources reveal the differences in how crimes can be counted and categorized, based on different criteria." (Read the entire statement)

We ran all of this by James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University. He said police departments and the FBI often differ in their crime statistics, for reasons both of timing and because of different definitions of crime.

"A police department’s statistics can be more up-to-date than the FBI’s," he said. "So it’s not unusual for them to be different."

We also asked him about Biden’s broader point -- that few police can translate to more violent crime. Fox said he agreed with Biden’s general point

Increases in crime can be caused by several factors, but the primary problem with reducing force strength is that there are fewer officers to staff special units that target a community’s particular problems, such as gangs or sexual assaults, Fox said.

Large-scale reductions like Flint’s are particularly problematic, because rebuilding a force when the economy improves will take time, according to Fox.

"It’s not like a light switch you can turn off and on," he said, because it takes so much time to hire and train new officers. "I’m always concerned when police force numbers are cut drastically. In the long run, it’s very problematic."

Our ruling

Biden cited statistics saying that as Flint reduced its police force, the number of murders doubled and the number of rapes more than doubled. Crime statistics from the FBI are a little different, but largely in line with what he had to say about murders. In addition, local news coverage said murders in Flint reached a historic high in 2010.

The numbers on rape, however, seemed significantly at odds with the FBI numbers. Biden said there was a large increase; the FBI showed a small decline. We found that the FBI uses a much more restrictive definition of rapes than do local police departments, but we can’t entirely explain the difference. For the record, the Flint police department stands by its numbers and says that there are "differences in how crimes can be counted and categorized, based on different criteria."

For broader context, a criminologist we spoke with said that serious reductions in a police force could result in increases in violent crime, though it would be only one of several factors.

In ruling on Biden’s statement, his numbers are at odds with FBI crime statistics, but they do come from the law enforcement agency for Flint. We rate Biden’s statement Mostly True.

About this statement:
Published: Thursday, October 20th, 2011 at 6:18 p.m.

Subjects: Crime

Sources:

YouTube, remarks by Vice President Joe Biden in Flint, Mich., on Oct. 12, 2010

Human Events, All Huffy, Joe Biden Stands By Rape Reference to GOP, Oct. 19, 2011

FBI crime statistics for the city of Flint, 2010 and 2008

City of Flint, statement from Public Safety Director Chief Alvern Lock, Oct. 20, 2011

E-mail interview with Dawn Jones of the city of Flint, Oct. 20, 2011

E-mail interview with Kendra Barkoff, Office of the Vice President, Oct. 20, 2011

Interview with James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, Oct. 20, 2011

The Flint Journal, Flint Police officers union head: Response times expected to go up another 25 percent after layoffs, Dec. 15, 2010

The Flint Journal, Serial stabber and record homicides, Dec. 31, 2010

The Flint Journal, Voters defeat Flint jail millage, approve millage renewal for police services, May 4, 2011

The New York Times, Rape Definition Too Narrow in Federal Statistics, Critics Say, Sept. 28, 2011

Written by: Angie Drobnic Holan
Researched by: Angie Drobnic Holan, Sue Owen
Edited by: Martha Hamilton