On Sept. 30, Police Chief Mike Reese stood before TV cameras and journalists to release troubling new findings about how often people commit suicide in Portland.
It didn’t take reporters long to zero in on the Police Bureau’s most shocking claim: Portland’s suicide rate had shot up to nearly three times the national average.
“The number of people committing suicide in our area is appalling,” Reese said.
“Portland’s Suicide Rate Three Times National Average, Portland Police Say,” WW reported on its website. Similar accounts ran in The Oregonian, The Portland Mercury, The (Vancouver) Columbian and the Portland Tribune. The story also aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting, Fox 12, KATU-TV and KGW-TV.
But the way the bureau had calculated its numbers was wrong, resulting in a report that greatly exaggerated an already serious problem.
To its credit, The Oregonian quoted a state public health expert in the next day’s edition who questioned the Police Bureau’s math. The Mercury, OPB and KGW, among others, later ran corrections. But many news outlets, including WW, let the misinformation stand.
Suicide rates, like other statistics, are almost always reported on a yearly basis. But the Police Bureau tallied up 27 months of suicides in Portland, from April 2011 to June 2013, and compared those figures—34.4 suicides per 100,000 residents—to annual numbers across the U.S.
When adjusting the bureau statistics, the city’s annual suicide rate is actually closer to 15.3 per 100,000 residents during that period. The latest available national rate is 12.4 per 100,000—but that’s for 2010, making a direct comparison flawed.
Lisa Millet, manager of the Injury and Violence Prevention section of the Oregon Public Health Division, says the Police Bureau tried to compare “two incomparable numbers.”
Millet—who was the first to publicly call out the bureau’s mistake—says it’s not even clear how Portland police defined suicides in their report.
“Talking about the issue is a great step forward,” Millet says.
The Police Bureau recently formed a Behavioral Health Unit in response to the U.S. Department of Justice’s findings that the bureau had displayed a pattern of using excessive force against the mentally ill.
Police officials have defended their agency by arguing it has been overwhelmed by the number of people with mental illness, and the new unit’s September report on suicide seemed to support that argument.
Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson tells WW the report was intended to draw attention to suicide in Portland.
“There’s no intent to manipulate the information,” Simpson says. “It’s us saying, ‘Here are the numbers, now get help.’”
Frank Silva, the bureau crime analyst who wrote the report, says it was difficult to find national suicide statistics for a period comparable to the numbers he had for Portland.
“The media’s predominant takeaway was that suicide in Portland is higher than the national average,” Silva tells WW in an email. “This is accurate. Unfortunately, we made an oversight in the rate comparison.”
Scott Maier, an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, says his research shows statistics frequently trip up reporters.
“Journalists tend to be very skeptical of reports from government sources,” Maier says. “But the exception to that is numbers. Reporters tend to see them as absolute. And they may not have the confidence to question the math.”
WW’s post on its website drew the attention of Heather Hays, a pharmacist at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center, who says she’s trying to form a suicide prevention nonprofit.
“It makes Portland look like a wildly suicidal city, rather than just slightly above average,” she says.
WW has updated its post—belatedly. Simpson told WW on Nov. 21 the bureau stood by its report.
But a few days later, the bureau deleted the inaccurate comparisons included in the report.
“The bureau decided to edit the report,” Silva tells WW, “to provide more consistency and less confusion.”