A recent survey of retired police commanders in New York City has been causing a stir in the news media and the blogsphere this week, including this article in the New York Times:
More than a hundred retired New York Police Department captains and higher-ranking officers said in a survey that the intense pressure to produce annual crime reductions led some supervisors and precinct commanders to manipulate crime statistics, according to two criminologists studying the department.
The retired members of the force reported that they were aware over the years of instances of “ethically inappropriate” changes to complaints of crimes in the seven categories measured by the department’s signature CompStat program, according to a summary of the results of the survey and interviews with the researchers who conducted it.
In interviews with the criminologists, other retired senior officers cited examples of what the researchers believe was a periodic practice among some precinct commanders and supervisors: checking eBay, other Web sites, catalogs or other sources to find prices for items that had been reported stolen that were lower than the value provided by the crime victim. They would then use the lower values to reduce reported grand larcenies — felony thefts valued at more than $1,000, which are recorded as index crimes under CompStat — to misdemeanors, which are not, the researchers said.
Others also said that precinct commanders or aides they dispatched sometimes went to crime scenes to persuade victims not to file complaints or to urge them to change their accounts in ways that could result in the downgrading of offenses to lesser crimes, the researchers said.
“Those people in the CompStat era felt enormous pressure to downgrade index crime, which determines the crime rate, and at the same time they felt less pressure to maintain the integrity of the crime statistics,” said John A. Eterno, one of the researchers and a retired New York City police captain.
His colleague, Eli B. Silverman, added, “As one person said, the system provides an incentive for pushing the envelope.”
The research has been criticized roundly by some, including former police commissioner William Bratton in an op-ed response yesterday:
The notion that there has been widespread downgrading of felony crime under CompStat is way off base. First, categories of crime that are nearly impossible to downgrade, notably homicide and auto theft, have declined much more than the categories that might be more readily manipulated. Auto thefts, which must be reported accurately because victims need crime reports to make insurance claims, are down 90 percent since 1993, the year before CompStat was inaugurated. In contrast, grand larceny, the category that can be most readily downgraded (by reducing the value of the property stolen), has declined only about 55 percent. Homicides, which generally report themselves when the body is discovered, are down about 76 percent, from 1,951 in 1993 to 471 in 2009.
Sociologist Jay Livingston also provides an alternative look at victimization data for burglary over the same time period in NYC that would appear to back Bratton up.
So, who to believe? Again, from the New York Times article:
The seven-page summary of the survey certainly indicates that many of the retired officers believe the system has gone significantly wrong.
Indeed, the researchers said the responses supported longstanding concerns voiced by some critics about the potential problems inherent in CompStat. The former officers indicate that it was the intense pressure brought to bear on the commanders of the city’s 76 precincts in twice-weekly CompStat meetings — where they are grilled, and sometimes humiliated, before their peers and subordinates, and where careers and promotions can be made or lost — that drove some to make “unethical” and “highly unethical” alterations to crime reports.
Given that concern over crime and crime numbers are not unique to New York, this is undoubtedly not the last we’ll hear on this topic for a long time to come.