East Spencer police address state reporting issue

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, August 16, 2022

EAST SPENCER — For at least two years, the town has voluntarily shared its crime report statistics with the state through the National Incident-Based Reporting System or NIBRS run by the FBI, but the numbers coming back are not a correct representation of the town’s crime activity.

The way the reporting system has been set up, until now, has meant non-criminal deaths (natural causes or overdoses, for example) have been classified as homicides. And that is wrong, said Police Chief John Fewell. East Spencer has had zero homicides in the last two years.

Participation in the national data collection program is voluntary, and not all towns or counties in the state participate, but Fewell said his department wanted to participate “both for our own use in terms of collection of information and because transparency with the community is essential.”

However, the way NIBRS is set up, previously officers would have to start by looking up the statute of the crime being reported, then select it as what was being reported.

According to the FBI website describing NIBRS, “when used to its full potential, NIBRS identifies, with precision, when and where crime takes place, what form it takes, and the characteristics of its victims and perpetrators. Armed with such information, law enforcement can better define the resources it needs to fight crime, as well as use those resources in the most efficient and effective manner.”

However, as evidenced by what happened in East Spencer, more clarification about how to report incidents using the system is needed. When it came to deaths from natural causes or other issues, such as overdose, that are not criminal in nature, according to the department’s IT manager Mark Perry, there was no designation available. Once categorized as a death, the incident would automatically be listed as a homicide because there was no other place to put it.

Which means according to the numbers that will come out in October, barring a possible correction, it will look like East Spencer had nine homicides in 2020 and eight in 2021.

When in fact, there were none.

The town’s last murder was in 2019, and the person responsible has not only been arrested, but tried and convicted, said Fewell.

“Since 2012 we have had three homicides,” said Fewell. “One in 2012, one in 2015, and one in 2019. We are an incredibly safe community, and while we may be able to correct the misinformation before the numbers are published, I didn’t want to wait. If we waited, and cannot get the report to accurately reflect that there are no murders in East Spencer, I wanted residents to know the numbers are not right and there is no need to be afraid.”

In fact, overall, the crime rate in East Spencer is lower than both the state and the national average, in some instances by a significant amount.

Going forward, said Perry, officers will be able to search by a description of the incident first, instead of by statute, and deaths that are not criminal in nature will now fall into an “other” category, instead of showing as a homicide.

Chief Fewell said he sends a report of the department’s activity monthly to the State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) and once he hits send, and the report is accepted, he gets nothing back until he receives the full year’s report for approval.

“If a report is not validated by the system, meaning some piece of information the program wants is missing, it is kicked back until I or the officer on the call puts that missing piece in,” he said. “But once it is accepted, it’s gone and I am not able to change anything.”

He and Perry realized that the deaths had been mis-categorized only when Fewell received this year’s report of the previous year’s numbers for confirmation.

In addition, because Fewell is fairly new in his position, he and Perry are not sure if the town reported numbers in previous years, but they have focused on the two most recent years for correction, because they cannot access previous years. They are both hopeful that the data can be corrected, even if it means it is purged and they start again this year.

“We of course still have all the data here locally,” said Perry. “And reporting to NIBRS, as noted, is voluntary. So if they delete it, and we start again with the new classifications we have put in place, that’s OK. The information is still here with us, and if the SBI needs to access it for any reason we can provide it.”

“The important thing is for residents, both those here and those considering moving here, East Spencer is a very safe place,” Perry continued.

“As I said, transparency is everything,” said Fewell. “The numbers that might come from NIBRS are not an accurate or factual reflection of our community. And I want the people here to know they continue to be safe.”