The Trail of Misinformation About Arizona Kidnappings

A couple of years ago, police, politicians and media claimed loudly that Phoenix, Arizona was quickly becoming the kidnapping capital of America and rivaled Mexico City in kidnappings.

The implications were clear.  The drug war had come north and the government should pour millions of dollars into stopping the violence.

The problem is, the police department’s data is wrong.  This is a great case for teachers to point to as a reason journalists should be skeptical of claims until they have looked at the data for themselves. Neither the FBI nor the U.S. National Central Bureau of Interpol, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice that serves as the United States’ representative to Interpol, could confirm that Phoenix has the second-highest frequency of kidnapping cases worldwide.

Politifact questioned the data in 2010. 

Phoenix, Arizona, I’m told, is now the No. 2 kidnapping capital in the world, right behind Mexico City,” he said. “That’s unacceptable in America. We understand. We in Texas understand the frustrations people feel in Arizona.”

McCain’s office didn’t immediately respond to our query, but he’s made the claim before — and so have at least 20 news organizations, including the Associated Press, The Arizona Republic and United Press International.

Far as we could tell, ABC News broke the story, reporting on Feb. 11, 2009: “Phoenix, Arizona, has become the kidnapping capital of America, with more incidents than any other city in the world outside of Mexico City and over 370 cases last year alone.”

Some media outlets attributed the news to ABC, while others just said Phoenix was “known as” the No. 2 kidnapping capital. The Los Angeles Times more specifically reported that Phoenix “police received 366 kidnapping-for-ransom reports” in 2008 and that they estimate “twice that number go unreported,” according to a Feb. 12, 2009, article.

But there’s a hitch: None of the stories says how the kidnapping ranking was reached. Also, while all the stories specify the number of kidnappings that have occurred in Phoenix since 2008, none says how many kidnappings were reported in other cities.

Over the last year , a Phoenix TV reporter, Dave Biscobing, has found the police department’s own data is wrong.


The police counted cases that were not kidnappings and other cases that didn’t happen in Phoenix.  ABC15 investigation found nearly 40% of cases originally reported as kidnappings in 2008 weren’t kidnappings.

So the police department went back and took a look and, amazingly, said yes the data was wrong, in fact there were MORE kidnappings than they thought. The new count is “668 kidnappings in 2008,” almost double the 358 the city had reported earlier. See police department’s new data.

But given the department’s track record, the TV station says there is reason to believe the cops may be “double dipping” and counting some of the cases on the books more than once.  Eventually the police chief resigned over the controversy.

The unraveling

It all starts with this list .

Provided by Phoenix Police, it’s every report that the department counted as a kidnapping in 2008. Add them up, and there are a total of 358.

Here’s a list of more than 20 of the most questionable kidnapping reports . Every one of these was counted as a kidnapping in 2008. And you can check them yourself. Just look at the report number and date at the top of the page and then find it on the list above.


NBC, ‘Meet the Press’ transcript for June 27, 2010

ABC News, Kidnapping capital of the U.S.A.; Washington too concerned with al Qaeda terrorists to care, officials say, Feb. 11, 2009

The Albuquerque Journal, Phoenix named kidnap capital of U.S., Feb. 11, 2009

Los Angeles Times, Phoenix, kidnap-for-ransom capital, Feb. 12, 2009

Latina, Phoenix, Arizona: Kidnapping capital of the U.S.A., Feb. 18, 2009

The Arizona Republic, Phoenix police battle wave of abductions, Feb. 15, 2009

United Press International, Phoenix police tackle kidnappings, Feb. 15, 2009

Dallas Morning News, Arizona misguided, but fears of residents aren’t, May 4, 2010

The Washington Post, Kidnapped by the cartels, March 22, 2009

The Washington Post, McCain gets political win on border troops, May 25, 2010

Associated Press, Phoenix police fight surge in kidnappings; Most are drug-related, police say, but there is concern that innocent people could become targets, May 9, 2009

E-mail interview with Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence, Stratfor, June 15, 2010

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