New York Times: Data Elusive on Low-Level Crime in New York City
By Ray Rivera and Al Baker
November 1, 2010
Year in and year out, the New York Police Department proudly broadcasts its statistics for major crimes. And each year for more than a decade, its numbers have showed how reports of murder, rape, robbery, serious assault and theft have hit historic lows.
But since the end of 2002, the department, the nation’s largest, has not made public its statistics on reports of lower-level crimes: a vast trove of complaints about matters like misdemeanor thefts and assaults, marijuana possession and sex offenses other than rape.
As a result, residents across New York have gone without a full understanding of the quality of life in their corners of the city. It has also complicated the efforts of some to examine fully the department’s reductions in major crimes.
Major crimes are called “index crimes” because they are an indicator of all crime, according to experts. If major crimes are falling, so, typically, should lower-level crimes. Having both sets of data, some criminologists assert, would allow for a sort of truth testing.
Of the more than 500 police agencies in the state, the city’s Police Department is one of only two that do not voluntarily disclose data on lower-level crimes to the state.
In several other major cities, like Los Angeles and Phoenix, such information is easily accessible on police department Web sites or via routine requests.
Since 1978, long before data analysis was so heavy a staple of crime fighting, the city’s Police Department reported lesser crime data to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services. Journalists used them. So did policy makers, neighborhood leaders, academics and others.
But not long after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg appointed Raymond W. Kelly as the police commissioner in 2002, the department stopped providing the information to the state.
Police officials, who often boast of the department’s technological capabilities in programs like its Real Time Crime Center, blame computer problems. They say that when the department introduced its new OmniForm records management system in 2002, the priority was to make sure it could accurately track and extract major felonies. Those crimes are used in the department’s CompStat system to deploy officers and are also reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman, said that the department also had other things to add to OmniForm first, including the automated reporting of summons data, and had setbacks fixing errors in its nonindex crime reporting system.
“I.B.M. thought they had a solution, and it did not work,” Mr. Browne said last week. “And now they’re back to the drawing board.”
The integrity of the department’s crime statistics has been questioned recently. In an academic survey released this year, more than 100 retired captains and higher-ranking officers indicated they were aware of instances of “ethically inappropriate” changes to crime complaints in the seven major felony categories measured by the department.
The survey was conducted by the criminologists Eli B. Silverman, of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and John A. Eterno, a former New York police captain, now at Molloy College. One of the issues being investigated was whether pressure to reduce major crime further had led some precinct commanders and supervisors to reclassify serious crimes into the lesser categories that are now difficult to analyze.
Their research has examined whether a system of incentives, as well as a desire to avoid being excoriated by department leaders in weekly CompStat meetings, have led some precinct commanders to downgrade crime reports. Crime reduction is a key to promotion and more desirable assignments, and some current and former officers say that pressure sometimes trickles down to frontline supervisors and officers on the street.
The department has issued penalties in a dozen cases of officers manipulating crime reports since 2002, Mr. Browne said. Last month, in the 81st Precinct, in Brooklyn, a whistle-blower officer’s claims of complaints being downgraded led to internal charges against five officers, including the former commander.
Department leaders say they have rigid quality controls, including semiannual audits of every precinct, to prevent widespread manipulation of crime statistics, and that any episodes of tampering have been isolated. Two researchers, Dennis C. Smith of New York University and Robert Purtell of the State University of New York at Albany, concluded in a 2006 study that these controls were among the best in the country, and looking at raw data on grand larcenies and petty larcenies, found no statistical evidence of downgrading.
But frustration over reporting crime statistics is not the only source of concern about how forthcoming the department has been with information.
For instance, this year, Jessica S. Lappin, a City Council member, pushed a bill to require the Police Department to post weekly on its Web site numbers, broken down by precinct, on traffic deaths, injuries and summonses.
James Tuller, the department’s chief of transportation, said it would take up to an additional 23 workers to post the data, “which, at best, would serve no purpose and, at worst, would mislead the public.” But the department’s longtime chief of transportation, Michael J. Scagnelli, who retired in 2009, told the Council in written testimony in April that the information “already exists” and could easily be made public. Nonetheless, without the department’s support, the proposed bill died.
“They basically said the public can’t handle this information,” said Ms. Lappin, who has since re-introduced the bill, this time requiring the Transportation Department to provide the data.
As well, the department for years failed to abide by a city law requiring it to turn over quarterly data on its controversial “stop, question and frisk” policy. From 2003 to 2007, the department provided street-stop data to the Council only sporadically and often in incomplete chunks. Not until February 2007 did it begin to comply on a steady basis — but it still did not turn over the raw data, which social scientists and others said was necessary to understand trends.
“I do think that the N.Y.P.D. is a very strong department, and they’ve done an incredible job over the years of driving down crime,” said Richard M. Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission, which monitors crime and police policies. “But I think they would benefit themselves by being more transparent, because transparency builds confidence in policing.”
Mr. Browne said the department “does far more than any other” to inform the public, and the Bloomberg administration apparently agrees. The department and the administration point to a range of online data the department makes available, including domestic violence statistics and incident response times.
The department’s policy on lower-level crime statistics is among the most vexing issues for scholars, legislators and others seeking clarity on the true state of life in the city. Janine A. Kava, a spokeswoman for the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, said of the statistics the city once provided: “The purpose is really to identify trends and inform public policy.”
Ms. Kava said she was unsure why the department had ceased providing the data.
Today, among the state’s law-enforcement agencies, only New York City and Newburgh do not report such data, Ms. Kava said.
Professors Eterno and Silverman, whose studies have raised questions about the integrity of New York City crime statistics, said the failure to report low-level crime to the state had implications for more than just academics.
“These statistics are used to make policy decisions,” Professor Eterno said. “And shouldn’t we in the public know these statistics in order to make decisions? Hiring officers, for example; countless studies rely on them as well, so these are not just esoteric statistics.”
Peter F. Vallone Jr., the chairman of the Council’s public safety committee, said last week that getting information from the police was “one of the biggest problems, consistently,” he had faced. He said part of the problem was that the department, though one of the most technologically advanced police agencies in fighting terrorism, was still backward when it came to filling basic data requests.
“No one can get a straight answer on how many cops are patrolling the streets,” Mr. Vallone said.
In other cases, he added: “They just don’t want to provide the statistics. I don’t understand why, because when they do, it always shows the N.Y.P.D. is doing what they are supposed to do.”