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National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre attracted wide media attention recently when he suggested in an op-ed that after Hurricane Sandy, New York City had become a violent, post-apocalyptic wasteland -- thanks to an absence of guns.
A reader asked us to check out a claim in LaPierre’s op-ed, which ran on Feb. 13, 2013, op-ed in the conservative Daily Caller. "Latin American drug gangs have invaded every city of significant size in the United States," LaPierre said. "Phoenix is already one of the kidnapping capitals of the world, and though the states on the U.S.-Mexico border may be the first places in the nation to suffer from cartel violence, by no means are they the last."
The claim that "Phoenix is already one of the kidnapping capitals of the world" was already familiar to us, since we had debunked it in 2010 (it was a finalist for our Lie of the Year). But that was three years ago, so we decided to take another look.
The NRA did not respond to an inquiry for this story. But we found a lot happened in the interim -- though the statement is still wrong.
What we found in 2010
Our original fact-check, coming at a time when Arizona’s tough immigration law known as SB 1070 was a major topic nationally, looked at a comment by Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. He said that Phoenix "is now the No. 2 kidnapping capital in the world, right behind Mexico City."
ABC first reported on Feb. 11, 2009, that: "Phoenix, Ariz., has become the kidnapping capital of America, with more incidents than any other city in the world outside of Mexico City and over 370 cases last year alone." Several news organizations then repeated it, including the Associated Press, the Arizona Republic and United Press International. The Los Angeles Times went so far as to note that Phoenix "police received 366 kidnapping-for-ransom reports" in 2008 and that they estimate "twice that number go unreported."
However, none of the stories cited an authoritative source for the ranking or for how the kidnapping ranking was calculated. We did extensive checking and couldn't find anything to back it up.
We found that neither the FBI nor the U.S. National Central Bureau of Interpol, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice that serves as the United States' representative to the international police organization, compiles city-based kidnapping statistics.
We also contacted Daniel Johnson, an overseas kidnapping operations consultant at ASI Global, a Houston company that coaches clients through kidnappings. "From our internal experience in the last year," he said, "Mexico by far has been the biggest location for kidnappings" followed by Honduras, Venezuela, Nigeria and the Philippines. The company has handled domestic cases but said they don't compare in volume to overseas incidents.
This fit broadly with the perspective of Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence for Stratfor, an Austin, Texas global intelligence company. "According to our analysts, there is no way that Phoenix is the No. 2 city in the world for kidnapping, and there are significantly more kidnappings in many other cities throughout Latin America," he told us in 2010.
A Stratfor spokesman reached for this article said Stewart’s comments remain accurate today, and we found evidence to back up high and often growing rates of kidnapping in Latin America. In all of Mexico, the official count for 2012 was four kidnappings a day, though a non-governmental organization pegged it at an astronomical 72 per day. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the official statistics show kidnapping rates rising from 44 in 1999, to 1,105 in 2011, not counting "express" kidnappings, in which a perpetrator forcibly takes a victim from ATM to ATM until their checking account is depleted. Police sources told the newspaper El Universal that Caracas alone experiences perhaps two express kidnappings a day.
But there’s no good way to compare cities, and even countries, Johnson and Stewart agreed. It's "extremely difficult to measure given the fact that so many cases go unreported and that the recordkeeping in many of the most affected countries is inaccurate." Even among countries that track kidnappings, Johnson said, the definition of "kidnap" varies.
In 2010, we concluded that there was no evidence proving that Phoenix was No. 2 in kidnappings worldwide. We rated the statement False.
Subsequent doubt cast on Phoenix’s 2008 statistics
Since then, there have been additional revelations that indicate the claim is still wrong.
Prompted by media coverage of the Phoenix kidnapping claim, an investigative team led by reporter Dave Biscobing of ABC-15 TV news in Phoenix spent two months in 2011 reviewing the city police department's 2008 statistics. They concluded that "Phoenix police routinely inflated their kidnapping statistics throughout the year, including at least 100 cases that legal experts said should not have been counted, plus dozens of other questionable reports."
Among the problems cited by ABC-15 was that the count included "cases where officers concluded no kidnapping occurred, reports that were counted multiple times, and even reports for kidnappings that happened in other cities and other states."
In one case, a police report described a woman "claiming she was abducted from a Wal-Mart parking lot and then driven around for hours. But when officers checked surveillance video, they watched her get into her car and drive away -- alone." She had made up the story.
There were other new developments -- a police department whistleblower who said the numbers were inflated, a city audit that insisted they had not -- but they either failed to support the kidnapping-capital claim or further knocked it down. The city's police chief lost his job at least partly because of the controversy.
Last year, an investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general looked into the numbers because the city had used them in a grant application. The investigation found that of the 358 incidents submitted as support for the grant applications, only 208 met Arizona’s requirements of a kidnapping, and only 195 met a uniform crime reporting standard. Phoenix then submitted an additional 175 cases -- two years after its initial grant application -- which enabled the inspector general’s certified count to reach exactly 358 under Arizona standards. The count stood at 254 under the more stringent uniform crime reporting standards.
The inspector general concluded that even if the data Phoenix submitted late was counted, the city "likely overstates the number of kidnappings," and it argued that the Phoenix Police Department "has significant problems with its coding and classification of cases and, consequently, with the accuracy of reports from its case management system."
Meanwhile, it’s worth pointing out that, as we noted in our previous fact-check, kidnapping levels in Phoenix have fallen from their 2008 peak of 358 in 2008 to 318 in 2009 and 105 from January through May 2010, which amounts to an annualized total of 252 kidnappings for 2010.
In the wake of the controversy, we were unable to obtain more recent data for this story. A police spokesman declined to provide new data.
LaPierre bought himself a little running room by avoiding specific international rankings and claiming instead that "Phoenix is already one of the kidnapping capitals of the world." Still, we find no justification to support such a sweeping claim.
Two and a half years later, there remains no reliable international comparison for city kidnapping rates, and an independent expert continues to express skepticism about the claim. In addition, federal investigators have given credibility to claims by ABC-15's investigative reporters and a whistleblower that the city’s claim of 300-plus kidnappings in 2008 were exaggerated. Finally, the most recent official numbers for Phoenix show a decline since 2008 even as kidnappings have soared in several Latin American countries. We rate LaPierre’s claim False.
Wayne LaPierre, "Stand and Fight" (op-ed in the Daily Caller), Feb. 13, 2013
PolitiFact, "Dewhurst says Phoenix has more kidnappings than any other city in the world except for Mexico City," June 18, 2010
Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, "Review of the Phoenix Police Department's 2008 Kidnapping Statistic Reported in Department of Justice Grant Applications," March 2012
Report of the City of Phoenix Kidnapping Statistics Review Panel, May 18, 2011
ABC15 (Phoenix), "Phoenix Police kidnapping stats don't add up," Feb. 27, 2011
ABC15 (Phoenix), "Did PHX police retaliate against ‘whistle-blowing’ officer?" Mar. 11, 2011
Arizona Republic, "Review: Phoenix kidnapping stats used to gain aid not inflated," Mar. 7, 2012
Arizona Republic, "Harris sidelined in flap over kidnapping figures," March 4, 2011 (accessed via Nexis)
Phoenix New Times, "Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris Is Retiring -- Again," Apr. 15, 2011
European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, "International Statistics on Crime and Justice," 2010
InSightCrime.org, "Mexico's Kidnapping Cases Rise Dramatically in 2012: NGO," Dec. 21, 2012
El Universal (Mexico), "SLP contribuyó al índice de más de 4 mil secuestros en el sexenio," Dec. 20, 2012
InSightCrime.org, "With Chavez Win, Venezuelan Gangs Could Expand," Oct. 8, 2012
InSightCrime, "Security Video Catches Kidnapping in Caracas," Sept 21, 2012
El Universal (Venezuela), "En Caracas ocurren dos secuestros exprés al día," Feb. 13, 2011
El Universal (Venezuela), "Según el Cicpc el 2011 cerró con 1.150 secuestros en todo el país," Jan 4, 2012
Foreign Policy, "Kidnap Capital: Why Mexico's snatching epidemic is worse than anything we've seen before," July 5, 2011
Email interview with Kyle Rhodes, spokesman for Stratfor, Feb. 19, 2013
Email interview with Sgt. Tommy Thompson, Phoenix Police Department public information officer, Feb. 19, 2013
Interview with Dave Biscobing, ABC-15 investigative reporter, Feb. 16, 2013
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