"Matters of Record" in Domestic Violence Cases



The Tennessean has a good story about, in part, how the police department's habit of classifying things as "matters of record" affects not just reports of rapes, but also has implications for domestic violence.

As you recall, the whole "classifying rapes as 'matters of record' " strategy was pretty straightforward. Rapes that women reported to the police were mysteriously classified as "matters of record" instead of reported crimes, thus having the effect (the jury's still out on whether this effect was intentional or not) of making it look like the city's rape stats were declining when they were not.

This story is more complicated, but no less disturbing. In this case, we learn that things we would want there to be a written report of — like a son reports that his father is threatening to kill his mother, but the mother and father refuse to cooperate — were not being reported by the responding officer at all. You could make your kid so afraid that you were going to kill his mother that he'd call the police on you and there'd be no record of it when you finally, oops, did kill your wife.

Spurred by Pascal Gahungu's murder of Yoranda Ntahomvukiye — mere days after their son reported that Gahungu was threatening to kill Ntahomvukiye, and the police came, interacted with the couple and left no written record — the police now regularly report instances that don't rise to crimes as matters of record.

This is an improvement over where we were.

But the concern now is whether this is similar to the rape reporting, where things that should be classified as crimes are being moved into the "matters of record" category in order to make the crime stats look better.

I don't have an answer for that.

I do, however, have some numbers for you to mull over. In 2009, there were roughly 240,000 households in Metro. According to the TBI, there were 12,461 domestic violence incidents reported by Metro police. Add that to the 6,509 matters of record reported by The Tennessean, and it means we averaged, as a city, a police response to a domestic violence incident that generated some type of report in one of every 13 households in Metro in 2009.

That's a pretty staggering and depressing number. But at least it gives us a better idea of the scope of the problem. In 2009, Metro police went out on almost 19,000 domestic violence calls where it seemed like something worth reporting had happened. About a third of those didn't rise to the level of criminal behavior.

The stats for 2010 are not yet up online, but we know, thanks to The Tennessean's reporting, that there were almost 11,000 matters of record last year.

And here's where we're going to have to keep our eye out. We need to know if this is a matter of the police doing a better job of reporting incidents that had been previously unreported or if some serious incidents have been downgraded or seemingly misclassified, giving us a false sense of the severity of our problem.

It's a shame to have to be so suspicious, but in light of the problems with the reporting of sex crimes? (And Channel 5's discovery that burglaries were being downgraded to vandalism, among other problems?)

We're at a historical moment with the police department where we, as a city, need to be very Reagan-esque: We should trust, but verify.

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