Monday, July 16, 2012

Fudging the numbers: Crime reporting in NYC

New York City police officials are under scrutiny for manipulating crime reports to make it appear that crime rates continue to fall when in fact they are not falling. An anonymous survey of nearly 2,000 retired officers found that the manipulation of crime reports — downgrading crimes to lesser offenses and discouraging victims from filing complaints to make crime statistics look better — has long been part of the culture, according to the New York Times.

In the early 1990s violent crime was ravaging the NYC. According to Robert Zink of the NYC police union, the Compstat program was started when crime was at an all-time high, with over 2,000 homicides a year and countless felonies.

The program called for the immediate tracking of crime, swift deployment of police resources to problem areas and what Compstat’s creator Jack Maple called relentless follow-up.

The only problem is, it didn’t anticipate the “fudge factor.” That’s the characteristic that allows local commanders to make it look like crime has dropped when it has in fact increased.

In the early days, it was easy for a precinct commander to benefit from Compstat. He or she had crime-ridden neighborhoods where rudimentary policing techniques could bring crime down. Add the increased resources from the Safe Streets/Safe City program, and just paying attention to patterns and putting cops where crime was happening caused stats to fall dramatically. Then add to that the benefit of the gun control effort by the street-crime teams and we’ve made some real and honest impact on crime in New York City, reported Zink.

Of course, when you finally get a real handle on crime, you eventually hit a wall where you can’t push it down any more. Compstat does not recognize that wall so the commanders have to get “creative” to keep their numbers going down. Zink suggests, no mayor or police commissioner wants to be the one holding the bag when crime starts climbing, and no precinct commander wants to be the one to deliver the bad news that he or she doesn’t have enough cops to do the job.

So the fudging begins.  The police manipulate the reporting and citizens get a false impression of what is actually going on in their communities.  The problem is not unique to NYC, similar issues have plagued Baltimore, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Atlanta.

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