Investigation reviews FWPD’s crime reporting

Shortage of records staff and an imperfect system lead to errors in how crimes are tracked and coded in Federal Way.

A group of Federal Way citizens has been accusing the police department of collusion with the mayor to downgrade crimes in order to make the city appear safer than it is.

An investigation into the allegations from an outside law firm found that although crime coding is an inherently complicated and imperfect system, and errors do happen, no intentional downgrading of crimes has been occurring in Federal Way.

An understaffed records department in 2021 didn’t help, but overall, the investigation concluded that the Federal Way Police Department’s crime coding practices and the city’s crime statistics have been consistent with other local precincts.


Two years ago, a Federal Way citizen submitted a CD to the city containing a 178-page unsigned report that included what Mayor Jim Ferrell referred to as “serious accusations.”

The report alleged misconduct and collusion between the Federal Way Police Department and city leadership centered on the misclassification of crimes. Specifically, the group focused on NIBRS coding and alleged that crimes were being downgraded.

NIBRS stands for National Incident-Based Reporting System, a national standardization tool for tracking crimes across the country between states with different local codes. Beginning in January 2021, the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) became the national standard for law enforcement crime data reporting in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Ferrell told the Mirror that city leadership gave the report to legal counsel, which decided to hire an independent law firm to investigate the allegations.

This investigation cost Federal Way taxpayers $51,000 and concluded by February 2023, according to the city.

The investigation concluded that there “is not a preponderance of evidence to support a finding that the City of Federal Way is intentionally underreporting Aggravated Assaults or that it intentionally underreported any of the incidents in the cases that were sampled.”

The investigation did show that “the Records staff have made some errors in classifying cases for NIBRS reporting,” but found no evidence that this was due to any concerted effort to underreport crimes.

Instead, the errors were found to be from a lack of staff and nuances in the language that caused misunderstandings around how to properly describe crimes. The report also stated that the department “made changes in how some of the cases are classified to address coding errors that were identified as part of the investigation.”

Despite these findings, a group calling themselves “EyesOnCrimeFW” continues to share concerns about crime coding practices.

In an emailed response from EyesOnCrimeFW to city leadership about the investigation, they stated that “while the report indicates that the limited number of officers interviewed were not instructed to downgrade anything, it does expose a lack of training and competency in the area of crime coding and reporting.”

This led to a more recent community conversation on May 15, 2024, where several Federal Way community members met with representatives of the Federal Way Police Department to discuss concerns about how crimes are coded in Federal Way.

In a post on social media, local resident Anna Patrick summarized the meeting.

“The meeting lasted longer than scheduled, and we appreciated the staff’s willingness to engage. However, we disagreed that the problem had been addressed and emphasized the importance of accurate crime reporting, as it drives policy decisions,” the post reads. “The records department offered to address new cases, but past errors and data inconsistencies raise ongoing concerns about crime reporting accuracy in Federal Way.”

Deputy Chief Kyle Sumpter said the meeting with citizens was scheduled for an hour, but went 40 minutes over. While he brought the NIBRS specialist to hear from the people directly, Sumpter said they couldn’t get to that portion of the agenda because so many questions were asked during the presentation. He also shared that they invited the EyesOnCrimeFW group to send up to one incident per week to be reviewed by the FWPD for coding accuracy as concerns came up.

In their complaints, EyesOnCrimeFW group members frequently refer to how crimes show up on an online community crime map that shows real time updates on incidents.

Civilian Operations Manager Diane Shines and Crime Analyst/Prevention Coordinator Jen McNeill in the records department of the FWPD explained in an email to the Mirror: “The community crime map is fed and updated hourly regardless if the report has gone through the approval process, so [NIBRS] coding can change. The crime map is a fully automated service that runs without any user input and is not dependent on a specific staff member.”

When it comes to these accusations about intentionally downgrading crime, Deputy Chief Sumpter told the Mirror that, bottom line, the police department and EyesOnCrimeFW share the same values.

“We’re really talking about very many of the same things, but there’s this understanding gap between seeing what’s on the page and the experience of being in law enforcement,” said Sumpter, emphasizing that the problem seems to be a core misunderstanding at the heart of the issue.

How crime coding works

Federal Way police officers write reports and code incidents using descriptive narratives and drop-down menus in their internal Spillman software. As they fill out reports, officers are focused on details relavant to the local city, county and state law.

These reports go through a supervisor, then to the records department within the FWPD, where they are assigned NIBRS codes by civilian staff, who then ultimately send them to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC).

The investigation into FWPD found that there were only five full-time records staff, although the department was budgeted for 12, leading to a high workload for report review and crime coding. As the investigation concluded, it stated that “FWPD recently hired five additional records staff.” As of publication, the FWPD shared that they are now fully staffed with 12 full-time employees in the department.

The challenge lies in the fact that “Officers code reports by the crime they are going to charge” while “Records needs to report the crime that was committed,” as Records Supervisor Tami Parker stated in an email to records staff in July 2020.

The significance of the differences in officer reporting via Spillman versus the final NIBRS codes depends on who you ask.

“The drop-down menus in Spillman do not align with the NIBRS definitions, which means that the NIBRS data reporting is reliant in part on the records staff reading the narratives and case reports to determine what to input for NIBRS reporting,” the investigation summarized.

In an email from the FWPD records staff, they stated that “The NIBRS codes are built into our records management system (Spillman) and the officer can select the appropriate crime codes.”

To help officers correct errors or clarify best practices, current records staff at the FWPD said that “general reminders and discussions continue to occur.”

One of these nuances in the numbers led to a 364% increase of the reporting of intimidation crimes in NIBRS during the investigation. This highlighted the challenge of aligning on-the-ground reports by officers with national standards.

In Washington state, “we do not have an ‘intimidation’ revised code in Washington, we only have ‘harassment,’” FWPD Cmdr. Kurt Schwan was quoted as explaining in the investigation.

In NIBRS coding, harassment is only captured as an offense if an arrest occurs, and then just the arrest is captured. After realizing that they may have missed coding some of these harassment cases as intimidation, the FWPD records team went back and reviewed them, resulting in the tripling of that statistic.

To help with this issue at the time of the investigation, the department was considering “revising the harm codes for the database so that the officers don’t have it to select from,” and are forced to select a threat code instead, “but there are times when harassment is appropriate to use based on the RCW (Revised Code of Washington).”

Errors and gray areas

The investigation include a random selection of five cases, reviewed in-depth, that were alleged to be coded incorrectly by the citizen complainant, interviewing officers and records staff involved. The complaint included 90-plus incidents.

Each of these examples highlighted different gray areas that can cause slight differences in crime coding, except for at least one where the citizen complainants simply read a case number incorrectly. There were errors in some of the cases reviewed, but the investigation concluded these were due to misinterpretations of details or definitions, rather than any intentional manipulation.

In a 2020 email from one of the records supervisors, coding on approximately one-third of aggravated assaults in a three-month period had to be corrected. The supervisor highlighted in red in the email that “aggravated means more than just pain and redness” and detailed how and when to identify something with that code.

In an email in July 2020, the supervisor clarified the issue again, saying “we still seem to be having problems coding ‘aggravated assaults’ most commonly coded as ANAI or AWOP” and that the “confusion seems to be what qualifies as an aggravated assault to Records and what to Officers.”

In an example highlighting these challenges, officers responded to a report of an attack with a hammer at the Federal Way Transit Station. When officers arrived, they found an individual who initially “reported being struck by the hammer in his right shoulder, not in the head as originally reported” then “declined aid and refused to prosecute.”

The person with the hammer walked from the bus platform to the front of a nearby Walmart entrance, where he punched an officer in the face and spit on the officer.

This incident alone brought up coding nuances including: how to define “same time and place,” the level of evidence needed to determine whether an incident actually occurred at all, definitions around level of injury to classify as an aggravated assault, the role of intent in evaluating an incident, and the question of whether an assault was completed.

The report states that the officers on duty “did not consider this sequence of events to be a single incident,” however, a records staff member did consider it to be one incident, according to NIBRS standards.

The EyesOnCrimeFW group included several criticisms of the investigation, even saying that there was a “refusal to at all compare per capita statistics with neighboring Tacoma,” but it is unclear why the comparisons with nearby Kent, Auburn and Renton were not considered adequate to the group.

When the subject matter expert from WASPC (Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs) reviewed these practices and statistics compared to other cities, they found that as one example, in 2021, Federal Way’s aggravated assaults totaled 292, Renton had 200, Auburn had 184, and Kent was at 244.

Police priorities

Chief Andy Hwang and Deputy Chief Kyle Sumpter expressed frustration with the focus on crime coding when there are more impactful ways that community members can participate in reducing violence and crime in their community.

While they said that accurate coding and in-depth reporting are important to them, they also highlighted balancing that with other priorities, both in training and in time allocation.

“The reality is we don’t want our officers doing nothing but writing reports,” Hwang said, adding that they would rather have police out doing patrols or doing something positive and proactive within the community than spending all their time writing long reports on calls that turn out to be nothing.

In 2021, the FWPD reported 8,243 offenses and received approximately 70,000 calls for service.

Hwang stated that “this ongoing allegation that our officers are miscoding and misclassifying crime, it’s grossly inaccurate. It’s simply untrue.”

“The right thing to do is to call it what it is and let the numbers be what they are,” Sumpter said.

Hwang and Sumpter also encouraged community members who care about violence and crime in their communities to put energy toward the areas that can have the most impact, saying that they need help on the ground.

“There’s a lot of people in the community that believe violence is the police problem. Well, finding offenders and arresting them is the police duty, but in terms of mitigating violence, that is the problem and the demand of the entire community, the whole society,” Hwang said. “Police departments cannot go chase the actual offenders and come on the backside with a whole menu of programs to prevent it from happening in the future. Other pockets of the community have to pick that up.”

“I’m amazed every time how many people say this is the only time I talked to the people on my street during National Night Out,” Hwang said. “Imagine if they talked to each other weekly or monthly or something over just an informal barbecue or hello at the mailbox … how much less crime there would be in that neighborhood because everyone will be watching out for each other.”