Wyoming crime stats are wrong; here’s why

Sheriff’s Office says software, lack of staff to blame for data problems

JACKSON — If you look up how many domestic violence calls to law enforcement there were in Teton County in 2018, the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation’s website will tell you nine.

In reality there were 90.

A records request to the Jackson Police Department and the Teton County Sheriff’s Office provided the correct number.

So why is the state’s annual crime report, available to anyone on DCI’s website, inaccurate?

Because the reports rely on local law enforcement agencies to submit their numbers and many aren’t.

The reasons include technical bugs, lack of staff and changes happening at the state level.

“Law enforcement agencies across Wyoming recognize it’s important but it’s all a priority thing,” said Eric Wiltanger, deputy director of criminal justice information systems at DCI. “They have a job to do, and this is another unfunded mandate that gets thrown on, and it’s tough to get these things done.”

Wyoming law requires DCI to keep certain crime statistics organized and publicly displayed.

But there appears to be no penalties if those reports are wrong or incomplete.

“The last thing you want to do as a county is submit data that doesn’t give a good representation of the crime in your area,” Wiltanger said.

Complete or not, that information, or misinformation, is sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation “for national level analysis and comparison.”

The Teton County Sheriff’s Office, which hasn’t reported crime statistics to DCI since 2012, thinks that for the time being no information is better than wrong information.

The department’s computer-aided dispatch system, Zuercher, isn’t able to generate the right reports, Sgt. Todd Stanyon said. The department’s system before that, Alliance, was working at one time, but then the state quit accepting the format in which Alliance exported data.

“The state has a specific format that they want,” Stanyon said. “Our goal all along was to have a workable system to provide meaningful data.”

They tried reporting crime numbers by hand, but it took too long.

“It became overly burdensome,” Stanyon said.

So the sheriff’s office decided to wait until DCI made a full switch to a new reporting system that’s been in the works for years.

DCI is in the middle of a five-year transition from what’s called Uniform Crime Reporting to the National Incident Based Reporting System.

“NIBRS was introduced in the early 1980s as an update to the 1930s UCR,” DCI’s crime reporting webpage says. “Recent events throughout the U.S. reinvigorated the need to record better data in order to understand and identify potential triggers in criminal activity.”

DCI is working to get all the point people for local law enforcement agencies in the state trained on the National Incident Based Reporting System, which is supposed to be fully operational by Jan. 1. On that date the FBI will no longer accept the Uniform Crime Reporting data.

“The entities are trying, but it is a big hurdle,” Wiltanger said. “We are going to get there, and it will provide a better statistical analysis of crime in Wyoming.”

In the meantime, state crime reports will be missing data from many local agencies.

In 2018’s annual Wyoming crime report there were over a dozen departments that didn’t provide any data: the Converse County Sheriff’s Office, Teton County Sheriff’s Office, Baggs Police Department, Basin Police Department, Cokeville Police Department, Diamondville Police Department, Guernsey Police Department, Hulett Police Department, LaBarge Police Department, Lovell Police Department, Ranchester Police Department, Upton Police Department and Northern Wyoming Community College.

The state summary report claims to compile data from 56 Wyoming law enforcement agencies. According to the last census there are 90 law enforcement organizations in the state.

Wiltanger hopes switching to the National Incident Based Reporting System will get all agencies on the same page, because it includes a free data loader for even the smallest departments to report their numbers.

“It’s been a big lift for DCI,” Wiltanger said. “It has taken a lot of man-hours. Our program manager that started this journey a year and a half ago left and went to another state agency. She started this so we had to take an employee from another section and throw her into it. It’s been a big challenge for us.”

The Jackson Police Department has had the same problems as the Sheriff’s Office, but since switching to a different software company, eFORCE, it’s on track to get all its missing data turned in, Lt. Roger Schultz said

“You have to make sure you’re meeting certain requirements and we have started that process,” Schultz said. “I made our first submission with the test vendor a few weeks ago, and an error came back. I had to go to the vendor, and they have to fix it. Then we will be able to submit the previous months we’ve missed.”

Schultz said the police department has done summary crime reporting to the state since before it had an electronic record-keeping system.

“We got our first electronic system in 1999,” he said. “It was better than doing it by hand, but it was still work-intensive.”

The complications started when both the Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office switched from Alliance to Zuercher, Schultz said.

“There were some glitches that needed to be fixed,” he said. “[Zuercher] got some of the early glitches out but it was such a radically different system than what we were using. It took a while to get us up to speed. Some errors were ours and some were the vendor’s.”

To further complicate things, DCI then changed the way it could receive the information, Schultz said.

“The state wanted a flat file instead of a PDF,” Schultz said. “When they changed that requirement we contacted Zuercher and asked what they could do for us, and we waited and waited, and nothing happened. We eventually decided we could do better with another company.”

That’s when the Police Department switched to eFORCE.

“It’s easier to use,” Schultz said. “But everything is relative. There are always bugs to work out.”

According to Teton County Sheriff’s Office IT Manager Dustin Richards, Zuercher is aware that it needed the reports in flat files instead of PDFs to turn in summary reports, but the technology needed to do it would have cost the Sheriff’s Office extra.

“We didn’t want to build a system in the interim that costs taxpayer money,” Sheriff Matt Carr said. “It was going to be a significant cost.”

Carr said his office had been under the impression that the state would implement the National Incident Based Reporting System sooner than 2021.

An email requesting an interview with someone at Zuercher prompted an anonymous reply from the company’s “media” email:

“CentralSquare is a leader in UCR and NIBRS reporting nationally,” the email to the News&Guide stated. “Across the U.S. and Canada, we partner with hundreds of public safety agencies who use CentralSquare Public Safety Pro (powered by Zuercher) to maintain reporting compliance.

“The system supports UCR submission in Wyoming, and we work closely with all clients to support the submission of their UCR data.”

Carr said Zuercher has promised to fix the crime-tracking bugs next fall.

“That’s what we’re gearing up for,” he said. “We want to be prepared and ready for that.”

His department is Zuercher’s only client in the state, he said, so it has been the guinea pig for Wyoming.

The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office has a good record of getting accurate data to the state on a regular basis.

Lincoln County Sheriff Shane Johnson said his office also uses eFORCE and he has a full-time administrative employee whose responsibility it is to make sure the statistics are submitted.

On top of that, Johnson said he has to make sure his deputies are inputting all the correct crime information in order for it to work.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of work to make sure we’re getting the right things in,” Johnson said. “It’s seamless when we’ve done our job right on the documenting end.”

Johnson said he sympathizes with the departments that have switched to software companies that aren’t compatible with the way Wyoming wants the numbers.

“It is a huge job if your software isn’t doing it for you,” he said.

The Division of Criminal Investigation encourages local departments to get their statistics submitted, but DCI doesn’t expect sheriffs and chiefs of police to prioritize data collection over crime fighting, said Deputy Director of Operations Forrest Williams.

“But then the drawback is that the stats for the entire state of Wyoming aren’t accurate,” Williams said.

Sheriff Johnson, of Lincoln County, said he’s prioritized it because it’s important on a nationwide level.

“The state reports those numbers nationally, so crime trends in different states are used oftentimes to look at different things that are going on in the country,” Johnson said. “I do think it’s important to have that reporting be accurate and have it turned in, because it helps us identify trends and things we should be looking at to do our jobs better.”

For the Jackson Police Department it’s about contributing to a truthful picture of crime in Jackson Hole. If people are contemplating moving here and crime is a big factor in their decision, they should be able to go online and look at trends, Lt. Schultz said. Those statistics can also fuel decisions being made in local government.

“How are we going to know how many officers we need?” Schultz said. “Even insurance companies rely on that data.”

Carr said while they wait for their software to get up to speed with the new reporting system, he encourages members of the public to ask for crime information directly from the Teton County Sheriff’s Office.

“Any meaningful data that we can provide to help steer the way this community operates, we are happy to do that,” Carr said. “We can compile it easily. The problem is we can’t transfer the information to the state at this point.”