Friday, September 20, 2013

“23 Murders in 1987” Claim Still Uncorrected After Nearly Two Weeks

Another sign that all is not well at the Standard-Examiner

By Dan Schroeder

It was the top story on the front page of the Saturday Standard-Examiner, and it began like this:
Late in 1988 Ogden officials to their civic relief proclaimed the city was no longer the murder capital of Utah. 
Numbers had dropped below 1987’s watermark of 23 homicides, then-Mayor Cliff Goff announced at an Ogden City Council meeting. The 1987 tally having exceeded Salt Lake City’s total.
Twenty-three homicides in Ogden in a single year! More than Salt Lake City! Yet we now know that this statistic is absolutely pants-on-fire false. And the Standard-Examiner knows it’s false. And after nearly two weeks they still haven’t printed a correction.

As Weber County Forum reported the following day, I checked the “23 homicides” claim against the freely available FBI data as soon as I saw it on September 7.  According to the FBI, Ogden had only six murders in 1987, and this number was typical for the late 1980s. (The online FBI data go back only to 1985.) I immediately posted a comment to this effect on the Standard-Examiner web site, along with a graph of the FBI homicide data for both Ogden and Salt Lake City (which had 13 murders in 1987, somewhat on the low side for that era).

I naively hoped that my comment and graph (not to mention the Weber County Forum coverage) would be enough to prompt someone at the Standard-Examiner to verify the error and print a correction. But by Tuesday, September 10, no correction had appeared. So I emailed the reporter, Tim Gurrister, to make sure he had seen my comments, and to ask him more about the “23 murders” claim.

Mr. Gurrister replied that he had seen my comments, but he expressed some skepticism about the accuracy of the FBI data. He also explained that the “23 murders” claim was based on his vivid memory of what Mayor Goff said at a city council meeting that Gurrister covered soon after he began working for the Standard-Examiner in late 1988.

At that point I speculated that Mayor Goff really had said something about 23 murders or deaths, but that either he or Mr. Gurrister had gotten mixed up over the locations, or time frames, or types of deaths that were included in the statistic.

Unable to quench my curiosity, I then emailed Ogden City Recorder Tracy Hansen, and asked whether she could quickly check her electronic archive of city council minutes for any such statement by Mayor Goff.

Ms. Hansen’s reply came back after less than an hour. She had searched the minutes for all of 1988 using the keywords “murder” and “homicide”, and found no relevant statements at all by Mayor Goff. She did, however, find a brief statement on the subject that he made on March 16, 1989. The minute entry reads in full:
Mayor Goff re: “Murder Capital”.
Mayor Goff reported that he received a call from a reporter at the Deseret News today. She indicated that so far this year, there have been no murders in Ogden and eight have occurred in Salt Lake City. The Mayor discussed the need to eradicate the image of Ogden as the “Murder Capital.”
So it’s absolutely true that Mayor Goff was concerned about Ogden’s reputation as a murder capital. It’s even conceivable that he made a similar statement at a 1988 meeting that wasn’t recorded in the minutes, and that he mentioned the number 23—but if he did, the city has no record of it.

Mayor Goff’s statement in March 1989 came after the presentation of the Ogden Police Department’s annual report to the city council. That report was for calendar year 1988. The minutes from March 1988 show no statement by Mayor Goff upon the presentation of the report for 1987, the year of the alleged 23 murders. Ms. Hansen generously offered to dig both of these reports out of her (non-electronic) archives, and I accepted. A few hours later, the extraordinary Ms. Hansen emailed both of these newly scanned documents. The reports are concise and informative, so I recommend that interested readers take a look at them: 1987 OPD Annual Report; 1988 OPD Annual Report.

The annual reports essentially confirm the FBI data: five homicides in Ogden in 1987 and nine in 1988. The reports also include statistics on Ogden traffic fatalities: ten in 1987 and nine in 1988. And the reports include some historical data from earlier years:

Year     Homicides     Traffic fatalities

In short, Ogden averaged about six murders per year during the “murderous” 1980s. The minor discrepancies with the FBI data probably come from inconsistencies in how to classify certain manslaughters and automobile homicides. I can’t find any reasonable way to obtain the number 23 from the data in the OPD reports.

Of course I immediately forwarded these reports, as well as the city council minute entry, to Mr. Gurrister. At that point he acknowledged that some sort of correction to the “23” claim was called for. He later told me he’ll be writing a follow-up article, but due to his other assignments he couldn’t predict when it would appear.

We all make mistakes, and I commend Mr. Gurrister for admitting his mistake and being willing to correct it. I’m less sympathetic to the Standard-Examiner editors, who obviously saw no need to fact-check such an outrageous and undocumented claim, and who seem to be in no hurry to print a correction. Perhaps they’re overly intent on reinforcing the narrative that Ogden has miraculously recovered from a crime-ridden past. Or perhaps they’re just stretched so thin, trying to put out a daily paper with inadequate staff, that they no longer have the luxury of caring about accuracy. Either way, this incident is yet another sign that all is not well at the Standard-Examiner.


blackrulon said...

The unamious vote to renew Mr. Smiths contract really simplifies things.It will eliminate the need to check which board members voted for or against renewal. Simply vote against all incumbents for the Ogden School Board when facing reelection.

Bob Becker said...

Yup. Operation Clean Sweep.

smaatguy said...

you can't fix stupid.

James Humphreys said...

Very well said Dan. Is there any chance the Standard will post this as a guest column? It is totally misrepresenting our city and perpetuating a total lie about crime in Ogden.

James Humphreys said...

Does anyone have ideas on who they wish to run?

Dan S. said...

Thanks, James.

In the past, when I've submitted guest commentaries that were critical of the Standard-Examiner (or of the mayor), they've been rejected. In any case, I think I've said enough on this subject for the time being. I'm now looking forward to Mr. Gurrister's follow-up article, though he informs me that he has next week off so it won't happen until sometime after that.

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