There it was in the national press release the United States Postal Service issued with much ballyhoo on May 15. Seattle was No. 2 in the annual “Dog Attack City Ranking” list, with 42 incidents involving letter-carriers for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2012.
Could it really be true that a city so full of sensitive, loving dog owners could be such an impediment to couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds?
After I wrote about the press release on the day it went out, one neighbor living a few blocks from me in the Magnolia neighborhood posted below my story his doubts. Letter-carriers almost always carry treats and “are our dogs’ favorite people,” he wrote. “With that in mind, I am very skeptical of the survey.”
As it turns out, my neighbor’s misgivings were well-founded.
New To Seattle was determined to, ah, sink its teeth into the truth. I filed an official Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Postal Service for copies of the 42 Seattle dog-attack incident reports. After the lower echelons essentially blew off my request, I sent a formal administrative appeal to the agency’s top lawyer in Washington, D.C. I suggested officials were courting a P.R. debacle by lawlessly not complying with a lawful FOIA request for reports about something as mundane as dog bites. That got someone’s attention. It took nearly six months, but the feds finally coughed up the 42 reports, along with–count ’em–four written apologies for the delay.
Guess what? By my count (much of the data in the reports were redacted on privacy grounds), six of the 42 incidents didn’t even take place in Seattle, but rather in Shoreline or Bainbridge Island–which definitely are not part of Seattle. That means the Postal Service exaggerated the number of dog-attack incidents in Seattle proper by a whopping 17%. A correct count of 36 would have moved Seattle down the list from No. 2 (a tie with Chicago) to No. 5.
A Postal Service spokesperson in the Other Washington told me the statistics on the dog-attack rankings include nearby areas administratively run from a given city. However, there was absolutely no footnote on the press release list stating non-city incidents were counted as taking place in a city. Now I’d call that a wicked P.R. spin, since dog bites are a bête noire of the USPS, which has a long-standing policy of using municipal shaming to make the situation seem as bad as possible. The USPS has been putting out a worst-cities-for-carriers-from-canines list every year for decades.
Nor did the press release make terribly clear that its numbers included dog attacks that didn’t result in bites of humans. Indeed, the statement referenced “National Dog Bite Prevention Week,” “the 4.7 million Americans annually bitten by dogs” and “Dog bites account for more than a third of all homeowners’ insurance liability claims.”
My close reading of the 42 reports attributed to Seattle suggests there were no actual bites of a body part in at least two incidents, both within the city limits. So if you made the plausible assumption from the press release that the USPS was counting dog bites in Seattle, the agency’s exaggeration was not 17%, but an even more significant 24%. Again by my count, no medical treatment was needed in 81% of the reported incidents, another indication of USPS severity exaggeration.
Still, some Seattle carriers did get chomped. In a future post, I’ll share my detailed analysis showing which Seattle neighborhoods were the most iffy for carriers from the standpoint of canines. That will be accompanied by accounts of actual ordeals, including one unfortunate mailman who actually was bitten while still in his truck. Even in the home of “Seattle Nice,” dogs are not always man’s best friend.
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The answer to your question is in the seventh graf of the post: yes. But the only way to sort that out with precision would be to actually look at the reports themselves. There were 5,879 dog incidents in the fiscal year. It took me nearly six months to get the records on just 42 of them. I can only imagine how long it would take me to get the other 5,837, let alone analyze them.
Did you determine whether the totals for the other cities on the list also included incidents from surrounding communities?