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Safest city? ABC15 investigation finds crime stats from Valley agency can't always be trusted

Buckeye police
Posted at 9:46 PM, Nov 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-08 00:27:34-05

Can the public trust their local police department’s crime statistics? An ABC15 investigation into the Valley’s so-called safest city reveals that citizens cannot.

Until this year, law enforcement agencies were not required to be audited by any outside entity despite a legal requirement to report statistics to state and federal authorities.

The lack of oversight allowed the Buckeye Police Department to pass off rock-bottom statistics for years by making up bogus exemptions and intentionally under-classifying crimes, according to an ABC15 review and an outside investigation.

Buckeye police and city officials have repeatedly declined interviews about their crime statistics.

But a leading state representative believes what happened in the city may indicate the need for more oversight by the state.

“Clearly, there has been a real problem,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican and former police officer from New York. “It has to be resolved because in the end, you want communities to know how much crime there is or isn’t in their neighborhoods.”

Kavanagh called Buckeye’s past crime statistics “outrageously low.”

After an ABC15 investigation into the numbers last year, outside experts found the city’s numbers to be laughably false.

For example, in 2017 before getting caught for having false stats, Buckeye claimed to have just eight aggravated assaults and three sex assaults for a city with nearly 70,000 residents.

The next year, Buckeye reported numbers 10 times higher in those categories: 78 aggravated assaults and 30 sex assaults.

Overall, Buckeye went from reporting 30 violent crimes in 2017 to 126 a year later.

“What we probably need is more oversight and we need random checks of police departments as a deterrent,” Kavanagh said.

Within the last year, the Arizona Department of Public safety said it has begun conducting audits of agencies’ crime stats and those audits.

But before, agencies were “wholly responsible” for their own numbers, records show.

Buckeye used its false crime stats to earn a designation as the safest city in the Valley. The city touted the status as a recruitment tool for new residents and businesses.

“I am honored and privileged to serve alongside the men and women of the Buckeye Police Department, as well as the dedicated and committed citizens who earned this special achievement,” wrote Chief Larry Hall in his department’s 2017 annual report. “Having a safe city will not only draw more employers and residents, but will expand retail opportunities throughout the city and region.”

Chief Hall, and his lieutenant and sergeant who oversaw the crime statistics, claimed they didn’t know basic crime reporting rules during an outside investigation ordered by the city after allegations about false numbers were raised.

Experts found their explanations hard to believe.

ABC15 also learned the lieutenant, Charles Arlak, even received specific training from DPS related to crime statistic gathering in 2012.

Hall and Arlak received a week suspension from the city after Buckeye was forced to admit to the inaccurate statistics.

Sgt. James Virgodamo, who intentionally underclassified crimes, resigned and has forfeited his police officer certification with the state.

In a written response, Buckeye said it now has new personnel overseeing crime statistics.

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing