Pretty much everyone involved in local law enforcement knew the release of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s Annual Crime Report for 2020 was going to have some bad news.
Homicides had increased dramatically over 2019 in cities across the nation, including Knoxville. Experts tentatively blamed the COVID 19 pandemic, perhaps for lack of any other obvious culprit.
With its contents drawn from law enforcement agencies across Tennessee, the TBI’s report is often perceived as a definitive look at the crimes that take place each year in every city and county in the state. People from many professions draw heavily from the publication on a regular basis — legislators, academics and journalists, to name just a few.
It turns out, though, that Knoxville’s homicide numbers in the 2020 report that was released Monday (as well as in several previous editions) may be inaccurate.
Put simply, the TBI’s numbers differ from those released publicly by the Knoxville Police Department, even though they both supposedly come from the same source. While the differences aren’t large, they are significant enough to call into question the accuracy of any attempts to use the numbers to draw firm conclusions about crime trends.
Internal data from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office wasn’t available in time to be included in this story, so it’s unclear if the same pattern of inaccuracies arise when the agency’s numbers are compared to the TBI’s.
“Tremendous spike in violent crime”
According to the data contained in the TBI’s most recent report, the number of homicides in Knoxville shot up from 22 in 2019 to 38 in 2020.
That’s an unprecedented 72 percent increase in a single year, and it’s not looking as though 2021 will bring an improvement. There have been 27 slayings in the city limits since January 1, a 50 percent increase from this time last year.
“We’ve obviously seen a tremendous spike in violent crime locally, statewide and across the country in 2020,” said KPD spokesperson Scott Erland. “The trend is not exclusive to Knoxville. I think what’s driving that is probably a lot of things. Obviously this is an unsettling trend, and one we’re all working on.”
He explained that trying to nail down a specific cause of the increase in homicides is impossible right now. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has caused a tremendous amount of disruption in the daily lives of nearly every man, woman and child in the United States.
“Covid 19 has destabilized things to such a remarkable degree,” Erland said. “I think it will take years before people who are much more intelligent than me are able to look at the full impacts of the pandemic beyond just the immediate economic impacts and health effects. I think years of research will go into that.”
The number of homicides in the rural areas of Knox County that are under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office saw an even larger increase than the city of Knoxville.
The Sheriff’s Officers had two slayings in 2019 and eight in 2020, according to the TBI’s figures.
Traditionally, the homicide rate is considered a pretty good indicator of the overall number of violent crimes in a community.
That trend seemed to continue in 2020, but with some caveats.
Aggravated assaults (assaults where a weapon is used and/or the victim is seriously hurt) increased nearly 32 percent, going from 867 to 1,141.
Misdemeanor assaults, however, went from 2,966 to 3,022 — only a two percent increase.
Other violent crimes seemed to hold steady. The number of robberies went from 233 to 240, while the number of forcible rapes actually decreased from 131 to 111.
“I don’t know”
It’s not entirely clear, however, how reliable the homicide data from the TBI — or KPD, for that matter — is.
The numbers reported in the TBI’s annual report differ from the numbers that KPD uses in-house and releases to the public, even though they’re ultimately supposed to come from the same source — the records maintained by KPD.
For instance, the TBI’s report states that Knoxville had 38 homicides in 2020, with 13 of them cleared by arrest or other means.
But KPD’s records, available on its website, say there were 37 homicides last year with 17 of them cleared.
In fact, the homicide statistics differ between the TBI and KPD every year since at least 2015. Each year, the TBI reported a number of homicides that differed from KPD’s numbers by one or two killings. The discrepancies between clearance numbers followed a similar pattern.
Hard Knox Wire first began inquiring about the discrepancies three weeks ago while researching another story, and this week’s release of the 2020 report showed the trend had continued for yet another year.
When asked to account for the discrepancies, officials from KPD and the TBI gave different answers.
Every law enforcement agency in the state is required to keep track of data about crimes in their jurisdiction and then feed it to the Tennessee Incident Based Reporting System, or TIBRS. The data includes the type of crime as well as information about the victim and suspect such as gender, race, and age.
Erland explained that KPD’s homicide statistics are kept by a single employee in the Violent Crimes Unit. The statistics are then reported to TIBRS by the Records Unit.
He also pointed out that data in some categories, such as clearance rates, may change several times over the course of a year as suspects are arrested or cases closed by other means.
Erland said clearance data for 2020 on KPD’s website is out-of-date. It states that only 17 of 2020’s homicides have been cleared when the true number is higher.
“That’s not entirely accurate, as the document on the open records page needs to be updated just a bit. For the purposes of the publicly-facing records, a homicide is listed as either ‘open’ or ‘arrest.’ However, the records kept by the Violent Crimes Unit have a bit more detail on the status of those cases,” he said.
“There has actually been an arrest made in 18 of the 37 homicides last year. A grand jury indicted the suspect in the murder that occurred on August 10 on E. Inskip Drive. Additionally, four cases from last year have been referred to the DA’s office for further action and/or prosecution. I am not certain what determination the DA has made on any of those particular cases.
“Two cases are listed as pending, which means that charges could be coming soon. And in one case …. the suspect was killed in a shooting this year. So the clearance rate is quite a bit better than what is represented on the document on the open records page.”
He continued: “I also generally agree with your assessment of how the data is represented on our website….That really might muddy the waters to have a larger variety of statuses listed on the website, though. And we would have to update that much more frequently. It’s a tough balancing act.”
When it came to the question as to why the TBI and KPD have differing numbers of homicides each year, however, Erland was unable to provide an explanation.
He speculated that perhaps the TBI interpreted some incidents differently than KPD after the information was entered into TIBRS but stressed that he didn’t know.
“I don’t know for sure what the TBI classifies as cleared,” Erland said. “I really don’t know…. I know that’s an unsatisfying answer, but I really don’t know why there would be a marginal difference….It’s confusing to be looking at TIBRS data that differs from your own data.”
An official from the TBI denied that information submitted to TIBRS is changed at all from what the reporting agencies provide.
“The data in our repository is the data as submitted by the agency. We don’t ‘interpret’ the data or reorganize it in any way. If our data shows fewer homicides than KPD indicates, it could be the incident(s) were submitted to TBI with errors. Either way, any questions about discrepancies you’ve noted should be directed to KPD,” said TBI spokesperson Josh DeVine in a series of emails about the discrepancies.
DeVine said the crime reports are meant to be a “snapshot” of the database, which he described as “fluid.”
“After all, agencies are routinely updating submitted incidents as they determine more details about them,” he said.
When asked if there were consequences for departments if they don’t ensure the information they provide is accurate, he replied: “Agencies who fall out of compliance with our TIBRS program are listed as ‘Decertified’ and risk losing certain grant funds administered through the state’s Office of Criminal Justice Programs.”
“Crime has increased”
The number of homicides and violent crimes are only a small part of the overall picture of crime in Knoxville, of course. The TBI’s yearly report includes data about everything from shoplifting to prostitution, although KPD’s “public facing” data on those offenses don’t provide the level of detail needed to do a similar comparison with the TBI’s data.
Also, the TBI report may be looking at recent history but it’s still essentially a historical document. More contemporary data isn’t available through the TBI, of course, but Erland was willing to discuss some of what KPD has seen so far in 2021.
The most startling statistic remains the homicide rate, which averaged 22 slayings per year over the last decade but is now on track to break records two years in a row.
Other types of crime are picking up again, too, he said.
“Based on the latest, unofficial crime data, reported crime has increased in 2021 compared to this time in 2020,” he said. “Property crime has seen about a five-percent increase, while crimes against persons, which would include homicides and assaults of any kind, has seen a little over a 10-percent increase.”
He continued: “Crimes against society – DUI, public intoxication, drug/narcotic offenses, etc. – has seen the biggest increase with a roughly 50-percent increase compared to 2020. It is also worth noting that calls for service are up about seven percent compared to 2020. Again, it is important to remember that this is the unofficial, unaudited data, but it does give a general impression of what law enforcement is dealing with on a daily basis.”
CORRECTION: The initial version of this story incorrectly stated that KPD had a single employee in the Violent Crimes Unit responsible for both collecting homicide data and reporting it to the TBI. KPD’s Records unit is, in fact, responsible for reporting data to the TBI. We apologize for the error.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published on July 22, 2021