Is Roanoke Fudging Its Murder Count To Downplay Crisis / Avoid Bad PR?

To some, the question “What was the murder rate in Roanoke City for 2023?” may seem clear-cut. However, based on responses from some City leaders, the answer to that question is not.

Respected business author Peter Drucker claimed, “What gets measured gets improved.” That shows the necessity of honest statistics and has been rephrased, “You can’t improve that which you don’t measure.”

Some questions surround Roanoke City’s straightforwardness with how they report murder numbers.

The City has long had a growing problem with crime and violence. Seeking to inform the community, The Roanoke Star here reported record-high murders for 2023, the seeming inability of City leaders to get a grip on the crisis, and Virginia’s First Lady’s and Attorney General’s recent visit where they pointed out Roanoke is a hotspot in the deadly fentanyl scourge.

In a shocking report, Roanoke City joins Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Newport News as 4 Virginia Destinations Named Among The ‘Most Dangerous’ Towns In The US.”

Just days before Mayor Sherman Lea Sr. (D) announced last Dec. 20 he would not seek re-election, The Roanoke Star asked him the to-date murder totals for the City. Lea did not respond, but a member of his staff claimed he had no comment and directed inquiries be sent to City Manager Bob Cowell.

So, The Roanoke Star asked Cowell the same question and he responded in a Dec. 21, 2023 email: “The City has recorded twenty-two [sic] gun-related homicides thus far in 2023.”

Judging from Cowell’s email, a quick reader would conclude the answer is “22.” However, a more careful reading shows Cowell did not directly answer the question. By claiming “twenty-two [sic] gun-related homicides,” that leaves out all killings that used other weapons like knives – or no weapon at all.

Further casting doubt on Cowell’s claim, in Nov. 2023 (about one month before Cowell’s email), the City’s new Police Chief Scott Booth told a luncheon meeting of the Williamson Road Business Association, a meeting at which Cowell was present, the City had already experienced a “record high” 29 murders.

Seeking longitudinal context, The Roanoke Star asked Cowell for the City’s murder data for the past 20 years, and in a Dec. 28, 2023 email Cowell sent statistics in a table format and added, “Should you need additional information or have further questions about this information please follow-up with [Roanoke City Police] Deputy Chief Jerry Stokes.”

Notably, Cowell’s email, though written three days before the end of the year, cited no data from 2023.

Seeking the most accurate information, The Roanoke Star emailed Cowell and Deputy Chief Stokes at noon on Jan. 11, 2024: “Can you please A. give us the total number of murders in Roanoke City for 2023? And also B. the breakdown, how many were gun-related vs other weapons were used?”

With no new response from City Hall, the murder data from 2003-2022, including percentage changes from the previous year and who was mayor then, was published here on Jan. 13, 2024. Moreover, this story outlining City leaders’ seeming inability to get a grip on the murder crisis was submitted for publication on Jan. 15.

On Jan. 16, Deputy Chief Stokes sent this terse email: “Chief Booth provided the attached information to City Council on 1/2/2024, it should answer your questions.”

The PowerPoint title slide stated it was for the Roanoke City Council/Gun Violence Prevention Commission (GVPC). (The GVPC is no stranger to controversy. The longer it is in existence, the higher Roanoke’s murder rate goes. Also, as reported here in Oct. 2022, a scandal broke involving the questionable use of $658 GVPC funds when City Council member and now mayoral-candidate Democrat Joe Cobb treated himself and 16 still-unnamed other people to a steak and seafood dinner.)

The PowerPoint Presentation (PPT) was labeled “2023 Part 1 Crime Statistics.” However, the data as presented is unclear to a layman audience.

On Slide 2 of the PPT, “Crimes” were listed along the left side, and next to “Homicide” under the 2022 column was “18,” under 2023 was “26,” and under “% Change” was “44.44%.”

Slide 3 was labeled “Gun-related Homicides — Case Status.” It claims “22 total incidents.” Slide 4 says “31 total murder investigations.”

Based on information from involved community leaders and as reported in other news media, The Roanoke Star had already published the 2023 murder total as 31. However, based on Stokes’ Jan. 16 email and the seemingly contradictory data in the PPT, The Roanoke Star updated the stories to claim Roanoke had had 26 murders and that the RPD was asked for clarification. As it turned out, that number was false too.

At that point, the question “What was the murder rate in Roanoke City?” seemingly had no clear answer. Was it 22, 26, 28, or 31? Or more?

Seeking clarification, we asked the following questions by email on Jan. 16 and Deputy Chief Stokes’ responded on that same day.

TRS Q. 1: If there are 26 murders reported for 2023, why are there 31 murder investigations?

Stokes: “26 incidents, not victims, there were more than one victim in two incidents. We don’t investigate separately because there are two or more victims. We have provided media information on the incidents with more than one victim already.”

TRS Q. 2: Are 2 involving children, and it’s not clear if they were murder victims? If they were not murdered, what other cause of death does the police dept. suspect in those tragic cases?

Stokes: “The child deaths were initially investigated as a homicide so they are carried in that overall number of investigations we have done, but the cases have been moved to a death investigation due to autopsies results, specific case facts, etc. We aren’t going to provide additional comment on those cases at this time as they are still being investigated. If further information makes the status change we’ll update our numbers.”

TRS Q. 3: Can you tell us any details about the 1 case that involves Bedford Co.? Was that a Bedford resident killed in Roanoke City? Or a City resident killed in Bedford?

Stokes: “The Bedford case has been well reported in the media, perhaps you didn’t see it, here’s one local media report. It is not our case, I suggest you reach out to the Virginia State Police for any further comment as I cannot comment for them.”

TRS Q. 4: Even with the above 3 victims, that makes a total of 29. Please explain for our readers how the total of 31 was reached; it’s my understanding some other news platforms and residents who keep a close eye on the numbers also claimed 31 total.

Stokes: “Refer to above.”

The RPD’s information, although helpful, was still confusing. For example, the PPT for “homicides 2023” had “26.” The word “incidents” did not appear on that chart or even that slide.

A careful reader will see, among Stokes’ four answers above, there is still no clear answer to the question The Roanoke Star began asking Mayor Lea and Cowell almost one month earlier.

Thus, on Jan. 16 we emailed Stokes again:

TRS Q. 5: When you wrote “there were more than one victim in two incidents…”

If we do NOT count the deaths of the 2 children, which is still under investigation, and we do NOT count the Bedford Co. case, as State Police are on that case, what is the total number of murder victims in the City for 2023? In other words, not looking for # of incidents, but total number of Victims, since some incidents took more than one life, what is that total number of murder victims for 2023?

Stokes: “Slide 4 indicates that there are 28 total murders being worked by Major Crime Unit detectives. Slide 2 (Part 1 Crime Statistics) reports 26 homicide incidents (not number of victims). We have had two homicide incidents involving two victims each (which, when combined with the other homicide incidents, represents a total of 28 murders). If you add the 2 suspicious child deaths, and the incident being investigated primarily by VSP in Bedford County, that brings the total number of murder victim deaths being investigated to 31 in 2023. When we do our report to the VSP on 2023 crime, RPD will indicate 28 victims of homicide. VSP will add one, for a total of 29. The two child deaths, while initially investigated as a homicide will not be reported as homicide victims because the case details indicated they are not, to this point, murders.”

The total number of murders not only represents the tragedy of lives lost and loved ones left to grieve, but on a statistical level, the percentage change of a growing crisis.

Seeking clarification about the unclear way the data was presented, The Roanoke Star emailed Stokes again on Jan. 16.

TRS: “I double and triple checked that [PPT] page, and nowhere does it say any reference to “incident or investigation.”  Why does Slide 2 not identify those as incidents or investigations?

“As you pointed out, Slide 4 I think goes into greater detail about 28 actual victims, but that fact is buried deeper into the PPT, and it was not obvious to me, until you pointed it out.

“If a layman or outside observer read the crime table on page 1, and concluded that the 26 was referring to “26 people in Roanoke City who were killed in 2023,” they would draw a false conclusion. Moreover, the 44.4% reflects the change from 18 to 26, not from 18 to 28, which is 55%.  An observer may read the chart and conclude there were 26 murder victims for 2023, which was 44% higher than in 2022.

“In that case, the observer would draw the wrong conclusions.

“At the least, the data appears unclear or misleading.

“A charitable observer may attribute the confusion to unclear wording or presentation in the PPT. A more skeptical person may conclude the lower number (26) and percentage (44%) were deliberately cited in the PPT, in order to present a more favorable impression than reality. What statement or explanation do you or the RPD have if an observer found the data as presented in the PPT to be misleading?”

No further responses were ever received from Stokes, Cowell, or anyone else with the City.

At least this time, the City did provide some information. A few years ago, this writer called the RPD and asked the murder rate for that year. The person who took the call was pleasant but made it clear they were not allowed to divulge that exact number. Seeking to be the helpful, the employee directed this writer to a website and explained, if one inputs certain geographic boundaries, date ranges, crime codes, etc., one could figure out the murder rate. However, the process was so cumbersome, no answer was found.

From 1999-2010, this writer taught honors history at Roanoke City’s Patrick Henry High School. Teachers are supposed to present information that is clear, accurate, and easily understandable, and when students are asked to do presentations, speeches or projects, the same is expected. Honest mistakes are one thing, but to deliberately skew data as to mislead the audience is another.

Thankfully, no murders have been reported in Roanoke City so far in 2024. Moreover, City voters will have elections for mayor and city council this fall so they can help chart the city’s future direction.

–Scott Dreyer


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