'We knew the numbers were bad': Law enforcement staff raised concerns about Ron DeSantis' top crime talking point

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida’s top law enforcement officials were repeatedly warned by their own staff that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ claim that the state’s crime rate is at a 50-year low — a message he often uses as part of his presidential campaign — was based on incomplete data that makes the accuracy of the claim impossible to verify.

Despite those warnings, DeSantis continued to promote the numbers on the campaign trail, three former officials with Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) familiar with the matter told NBC News.

“The ethics of what we were reporting, we knew the numbers were bad,” a former FDLE employee told NBC News. “We foot-stomped it to leadership over and over again; they did not care. They did not care.”

“We were soldiers, though,” the person said, adding that the department's bosses asked staff members to produce numbers even though the staff members had doubts about them — still, “we did it.”

Each of the former FLDE employees said there was a pervasive sense among agency staff that the numbers needed to say what their leadership wanted — and that those demands were coming from the governor’s office for political reasons.

NBC News granted all three anonymity to speak freely due to concerns about professional retribution.

“The numbers gave the governor and the [executive office of governor] what they wanted,” one of the former FDLE staffers said. “They were looking for a particular narrative.”

More exclusive coverage of DeSantis’ crime data on Hallie Jackson NOW, 5 p.m. ET on NBC News Now.

Rank-and-file staffers raised objections on more than one occasion.

“The governor’s office wanted to say outright that we were at a 50-year crime low and we told department leadership, verbally and in writing, that was not accurate because of the deficiencies in the data,” one of the former staffers said. “We went back and forth several times and we agreed, after being heavily pushed, to say we were trending in that direction.”

FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger defended the 50-year low crime rate statistic.

“Florida’s crime rate is indeed at a 50-year low, and criticism about FDLE’s robust data collection methods is unfounded,” Plessinger said. “Despite your assertions, no current or former employee has ever expressed concerns to FDLE leadership regarding the calculations.”

The incomplete data stems from Florida’s attempts to transition how it reports crime stats to comply with federal standards. Since the 1970s, the state has reported on a “summary” basis, which means that if one incident produced multiple crimes, only the most serious was reported as part of Florida’s Uniform Crime Report. Starting in 2021, the federal government stopped accepting summary data, forcing every state to transition to “incident-based” reporting, which captured dozens of additional crimes.

“As a result of the change in reporting methodology, we gain a greater visibility into crimes that have been occurring but have not previously been included in summary reports, such as, drug offenses, fraud, gambling, or human trafficking,” read department documents from 2022 offering an internal explanation of the changes.

The changes required a lot more technical reporting from Florida’s more than 400 local law enforcement agencies, some of which remain unable to produce that level of detail until they get costly technology upgrades.

As a result, many are not yet reporting. Law enforcement agencies representing just 57 percent of the state’s population initially reported under the new system, FDLE records reviewed by NBC News show, meaning law enforcement agencies representing more than 40 percent of the state are not reporting specific data. For those agencies, the state uses “imputed data” — an algorithm to estimate what the crime statistics would show, based on mathematical modeling that considers things like past performance.

“It is used because a larger percentage of law enforcement agencies do not submit crime stats,” said Richard Boylan, an economics professor at Rice University who has studied the use of imputed data, which is commonly used across the country in crime statistics reporting.

Despite the incomplete data, DeSantis has widely, without any context, used the numbers as part of his political speeches — both as governor and a presidential candidate — to bolster his tough-on-crime résumé, even as officials were warning that the data did not necessarily reflect what he was claiming it did.

“Crime is at a 50-year low in Florida,” DeSantis said during the first GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee in a back-and-forth with Fox News moderator Bret Baier.

He also cited the statistic during his presidential campaign launch in May.

The governor’s staff “wanted us to pull the data to try and justify that stuff, and FDLE originally pushed back saying ‘we really could not do that,’” said one of the former FDLE staffers. “We argued it should not be done.”

Despite their objections, the data made its way into DeSantis' public comments.

Boylan said that Florida’s numbers should be viewed with a skeptical eye because both a large percentage of the crime data is based on imputed data, and because there is no legal requirement for local agencies to report crime data to the state.

“Crime goes up once states require the reporting,” Boylan said. “Florida does not have a law requiring reporting, so I would think that is an additional reason to be skeptical about the Florida data.”

DeSantis has faced public criticism for his crime data as well. In July, Brookings Metro researchers Hanna Love and Tracy Hadden Loh wrote in Time Magazine that the governor could not credibly say the state was at a 50-year crime rate low because of the reporting issues. The Marshall Project has also pointed out that DeSantis is relying on “patchy, incomplete crime data” and that the state’s participation rate “is the lowest of any state in the country.”

“DeSantis can’t be sure that Florida has achieved 50-year crime rate lows because the state itself doesn’t know what its crime trends are, due to flawed data,” they wrote.

“These methodological clashes in Florida’s crime reporting create gaps in information that make it difficult to definitively claim any statewide crime trends — let alone that the state has reached ‘50-year-crime rate lows,’” they added.

In other words, the crime rate could be what DeSantis is saying it is — but there’s no way to know that definitively based on currently available data.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests seeking comment.

In June, FDLE defended its method for filling in data gaps.

“The methodology used by FDLE statisticians is statistically sound and accurately represents the trend of the crime rate in Florida,” a department spokesperson told the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization focused on criminal justice. “The methodology used by FDLE is similar to that used by the FBI.”

The use of incomplete crime statistics on the campaign trail is the latest example of what some former and current FDLE officials see as the overt politicization of the state’s top law enforcement agency.

In June, NBC News reported that FDLE was diverting a large amount of additional resources toward DeSantis, including spending millions of dollars more on his security as he increased national travel ahead of announcing his run for president in late May.

At that time, DeSantis’ office said the increase had nothing to do with the governor preparing to run for president and blamed past leadership at the agency for having “failed to request” the “necessary additional resources.”

Just months later, however, an annual report showed that spending to protect the governor had jumped to $10 million — a $3 million increase from the previous fiscal year. The governor’s office attributed the increased resources to the need to protect DeSantis.

“His record as the most effective conservative governor in American history has also earned him an elevated threat profile and FDLE has increased the number of protective agents to ensure the governor and his family remain safe,” his office said at the time.

FDLE has also played a central role in enforcing DeSantis’ immigration policies, which have been a key part of his political identity and something he has regularly used to attack President Joe Biden’s administration.

FDLE agents have been dispatched to the southern border to help Texas with migrants coming into the country illegally, and they were also part of a mission in the Florida Keys to try to head off migrants coming mostly from Cuba.

NBC News reported in August that the Florida Keys mission in particular drew pushback from FDLE agents in the department’s aviation unit because, as part of that mission, they were being asked to fly just 1,000 feet off the water many miles off the coast, according to internal records reviewed by NBC News. Those flights were both against FDLE’s own policies, according to internal documents, and put agents’ lives in danger.

“It is an unacceptable level of risk for a pilot,” John Cox, an aviation expert, told NBC News at the time.

Based on those pilot concerns, FDLE has since leased a larger plane more suited for the Key West immigration missions, NBC News reported in August, but there remains an overwhelming sense from some that the FDLE has become far too politicized under DeSantis.

“There has been a push of trying to get FDLE to focus on topics the governor has highlighted, specifically immigration as the primary one,” Jim Madden, a retired FDLE assistant commissioner, told NBC News in June. “It is sad. We have fought those battles over the years about agency priorities and where it should focus, but right now in my mind, leadership there is just wholly inadequate."

“There is no solid independence with the agency,” he added.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com