Truth behind Phoenix kidnapping statistics

PHOENIX - ***This article provides a history, explanation and guideline to better understand the truth behind Phoenix's 2008 kidnapping statistics. The ABC15 Investigators have been investigating this issue for two-and-a-half years. We've reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents, court records, internal memos, investigative reports, emails and recordings.***

In 2008, Phoenix claimed it had 358 ransom or border-related kidnappings.

Officials routinely reported the figure to the media and the public. Police and city leaders also cited the statistics twice in testimony before Congress.  

Before a Senate subcommittee in 2009, former Mayor Phil Gordon testified , "People are being tortured. People are being kidnapped. Almost every night, Phoenix police will get one or more calls with variations of the same story, 'My wife is being held in a Phoenix drop house and they say they will torture and kill her if we don't pay them thousands of dollars.'"

Police then used Phoenix's infamous designation as a "kidnapping capital" to get millions in federal stimulus funds.

The Phoenix Kidnapping Stats Controversy Begins

An ABC15 investigation in February 2011 exposed major discrepancies in the statistics.

After our story, the city launched an official review and put together a special panel to look into the kidnapping statistics.

The panel would determine that there were actually 668 kidnappings in 2008 – and likely more.

However, panel leaders would admit to ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing that they didn't review all of the reports – only samples provided by the city. Instead, their final findings relied solely on an internal audit by Phoenix police.

ABC15 filed a public records request for the initial department report for all of the alleged 668 kidnappings. After more than a year, the police department fulfilled the request.

An ABC15 review of the reports revealed that Phoenix police did not respond to 668 ransom or border-related kidnappings in 2008.

To see a full breakdown of our review go to the interactive graphic at the end of this story.

The reports show Phoenix police investigated up to 82 possible ransom kidnappings.

Some of the most common crimes we found counted as kidnappings in those 668 reports:
- 218 home Invasions or home invasion robberies
- 85 carjackings
- 165 armed robberies 
*This includes 43 armed robberies at restaurants and stores.

How Phoenix Police and the Panel Tallied 668 Kidnappings

In Arizona, kidnapping is a broadly classified crime.

According to Arizona Revised Statutes "a person commits kidnapping by knowingly restraining another person with the intent to:

1. Hold the victim for ransom, as a shield or hostage; or
2. Hold the victim for involuntary servitude; or
3. Inflict death, physical injury or a sexual offense on the victim, or to otherwise aid in the commission of a felony; or
4. Place the victim or a third person in reasonable apprehension of imminent physical injury to the victim or the third person; or
5. Interfere with the performance of a governmental or political function; or
6. Seize or exercise control over any airplane, train, bus, ship or other vehicle."

Experts said most violent crimes can be classified as kidnappings. Other large cities could tally thousands of kidnappings if counted this way.

So How Many Ransom, Border-Related Kidnappings Did Phoenix Police Really Handle in 2008?

Again, our review of the initial reports show the number could have been as high as 82.

But ABC15 obtained depositions and internal emails from police officials and federal agents that show they calculated there were approximately 50 ransom or border-related kidnappings investigated by the Phoenix Police Department specialized kidnapping unit.

**The depositions are part of a federal lawsuit filed by Sgt. Phil Robert, who was fired after he blew the whistle about the kidnapping statistics and other alleged misconduct. He sued for wrongful termination and retaliation.

Here is sworn testimony from a lieutenant who ran Phoenix's Home Invasion Kidnapping Enforcement unit, or HIKE. The HIKE team is the specialized police unit that handled ransom kidnappings. She states (pg. 49) that "I knew there wasn't a ransom kidnapping coming into the bureau every day. I mean, I know that that was the kind of the media saying, okay, you had this number. That would constitute every day, you know." Through the lawsuit, ABC15 also obtained this lieutenant's log book of "operational" kidnapping cases handled by the HIKE unit. The notes list 49 entries for ransom or border-related kidnappings.

Here is an internal email from an ICE intelligence officer who analyzed and reviewed all of the Phoenix reports assigned to the HIKE team. The officer concluded there were 48 kidnapping cases.

Under oath in a deposition , former Phoenix police chief Jack Harris claimed  that he believed there were more than 300 ransom kidnappings (pgs. 20 – 21) and that 30 or 40 officers were responding to these crimes daily. That statement contradicts claims by city and police officials that the media, public and others were responsible for misunderstanding the kidnapping statistics and taking them out of context. Harris publicly challenged allegations that the statistics were inflated.  He was removed from his position as police chief as a result of the kidnapping statistic controversy.



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