Like most newspapers, The Post and Courier has police scanners in the newsroom that help reporters and photographers keep track of crimes and breaking news.
Tuesday morning, these scanners picked up what sounded like two officers complaining about how the Charleston Police Department was fudging statistics for its Harbor Patrol.
The truth would turn out to be something less nefarious.
Watchdog reporters taped the conversation and later played the recording for Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen and Maj. Tony Elder, who said they would investigate the matter immediately.
"I can promise you this," Mullen said. "By the time you walk out the door, those units will be en route here."
In the end, the conversation exposed problems with the way the department defines activities performed by its Harbor Patrol, not that the department was inflating its data.
"Because you brought this up," Elder told Watchdog on Wednesday, "we're already improving this process."
The overheard conversation took place about 9:20 a.m. Chad Womack, a sergeant who took over the Harbor Patrol unit last year, can be heard grappling with inconsistencies in the unit's data.
"OK," Womack said, "we went from over a thousand safety checks to a hundred. We went from 361 escorts to six. ... I just said I don't know what to tell you man, it's B.S."
A second officer chimed in: "At least you're being pretty much honest with the numbers."
Later, Womack references boat escort numbers again. "And then I said as far as 360 escorts, I said that number is in error. I said there is no way. I said I can tell you that."
In an interview with Watchdog on Wednesday, Womack said he was tallying 2009 statistics for the department's annual report. He is relatively new in the position and didn't know how his predecessor defined unit activities. "The (previous) numbers were so different from my numbers, I immediately thought we had a problem."
For instance, he defined a boat escort as a formal escort of a military or Department of Energy vessel, something that may have happened a few times in 2009. The department's 2008 annual report said the unit performed 367 escorts. He later learned that the department previously lumped other activities into this category, particularly tasks involving Project Seahawk, a federal program to protect U.S. ports that was scaled back last fall.
At one point in Tuesday's overheard radio discussion, Womack tells the other officer he sent an e-mail to another officer questioning the data. "So if he wants me to come to CompStat, I will tell them they're all full of crap. They're obviously not going to want me to come."
Charleston police meet on a weekly basis to discuss crime statistics and computer analyses of data, a process known as CompStat.
Womack explained Wednesday that his comments were about how he would have to explain the discrepancies in his data and those collected by the department in the past.
Elder thanked Watchdog for raising the issue. "One thing that we've clearly determined is that we need to establish clear definitions for the Harbor Patrol, what a number actually means, so when we transition between supervisors, it means the same to everyone."