Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney speaks during a public safety town hall meeting on June 8 at the Marysville Opera House in Marysville. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney speaks during a public safety town hall meeting on June 8 at the Marysville Opera House in Marysville. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Sheriff: Years of crime data ‘inaccurate’

Sheriff Adam Fortney told County Council his team has been working for years to fix faulty data from as far back as 2016.

EVERETT — Sheriff Adam Fortney has called his office’s crime data “inaccurate,” highlighting lapses that date back to 2016.

Last week, the sheriff told the Snohomish County Council that his team spent the last two and a half years addressing unreliable crime statistics featured in past annual reports.

“Now that we have two full-time crime analysts, they have dug deep into this data, and they have not been able to recreate any of the information that’s in there,” Fortney said. “I think that should be fixed.”

Fortney said he received questions about crime data after holding a public safety town hall last month in Marysville. There, the sheriff described criminals as becoming more emboldened in recent years, and urged a packed house to support his upcoming budget requests.

Some analysts say it’s too soon to draw reliable conclusions about recent crime trends, with year-to-year variability further clouded by the pandemic and legislative reforms. Some local data contradicts claims of surging crime.

According to the sheriff, about 70,000 incidents between 2016 and 2021 were “floating in the back end” of the office’s computer system, unaccounted for, largely due to errors in how addresses were entered. About 40,000 of those have been fixed so far, he said.

Not all of those 70,000 incidents resulted in a crime report, according to the sheriff’s office. The office receives about 200,000 calls for service each year.

Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell, who’s working on a public dashboard that would include sheriff’s office data, also said he was unaware of the discrepancies. Cornell’s data project aims to make a complicated local criminal justice system more transparent, and to clarify crime data he said officials often can’t agree on.

Fortney told the council that resolving the issue will improve the accuracy of the data, aligning with industry standards for statistical integrity.

However, a spokesperson said that threshold has already been met, even with the current gaps in the data, and further corrections will not change the agency’s analysis of recent crime trends.

Fortney also told county council members why he decided to discontinue the office’s annual reports when he took office.

The last one, for 2018, was a dense 30-page report with crime data, a budget breakdown and information on misconduct investigations.

“A good question is why on earth would I do this?” he said. “… Very few people read it. Almost no one in the organization read it. And when I asked for a historical perspective, I was told that we would print about 500 copies of these, we would mail about 150. The rest would sit in boxes at the sheriff’s office.”

Fortney said the data is still collected but is not packaged in a published report.

“To be honest, I wanted to save my staff, I think, an egregious amount of man-hours putting something like this together,” he said.

Charles Lanfear, a sociology and crime researcher who earned his doctorate at the University of Washington, said low readership is normal for government documents. Lanfear is a former research consultant for the Seattle Police Department.

“At the most basic level, something like an annual report from an organization is the minimum basic thing you’d expect from a public agency,” said Lanfear, an incoming criminology instructor at the University of Cambridge. “Just for basic transparency and accountability.”

The sheriff’s office has since switched to an annual video report. Its 20-minute “2020 Year in Review” video did not include information on crime data or misconduct. It featured interviews by staff and community members and slow-motion footage of deputies in action.

Lanfear said the videos aren’t a legitimate replacement for annual written reports.

“It’s nice and might make the department feel good, but that’s essentially PR,” Lanfear said.

The sheriff’s office keeps information on recent crime stats and misconduct investigations elsewhere on the county’s website.

But Lanfear said that’s “adding an additional burden on people to get a basic glimpse of what’s going on.”

“It’s kind of odd to expect people to hunt down these specific things,” he said.

As the sheriff’s office cleans up its data, Fortney wants to launch an interactive data dashboard for the public.

“We want to go live with this. We’re ready,” Fortney said. “But we have to work with county IT to make it work.”

Cornell said he was unaware of the plan. He said his own department’s data project would be “more comprehensive,” but that he supports other agencies following suit: “I’m all for increasing transparency and accountability.”

Herald writers Rachel Riley and Jake Goldstein-Street contributed to this report.

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; claudia.yaw@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @yawclaudia.

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