These Stats Are a Crime

While Bloomberg boasts of crime drop, the hospitals' work on assault victims is booming

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been free to spend his fortune on campaign advertisements touting the continued drop in crimes police have reported. His campaign website declares that, under Bloomberg, "the neighborhoods of New York have become safer than ever."

Tell that to the people in the emergency rooms.

The number of people who went to New York City hospitals because they were assaulted jumped sharply in four of the last five years for which figures are available—a direct contrast to the plunging number of assaults the NYPD reported.

These hospital visits are numbered in official statistics of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Bureau of Injury Epidemiology—every bit as official as the heavily publicized police department data showing fewer and fewer serious assaults "known to the police" during the same years.

This continued drop in reported crimes is a cornerstone of Bloomberg's re-election drive, ever present in the advertising he's bought for what's likely the most expensive municipal election campaign in U.S. history. He's made it his own.

But the stark contrast between these two sets of official statistics demonstrates again the need for a thorough, independent probe of the police department's crime reports. And it shows how wrong it was for the Bloomberg administration to have allowed the NYPD to thwart a probe earlier this year of the crime statistics.

According to health statistics on the city government's website, more and more assault victims flocked to emergency rooms for four years in a row. In 2002, the last year for which data is available and Bloomberg's first year in office, the number of assault victims either hospitalized or treated in emergency rooms shot up 6 percent from the year before.

Not to worry: The police department reported a 10 percent drop in aggravated assaults, according to FBI records.

No matter how much money is poured into touting these numbers, there is ample reason to question them.

That's what the city's Commission to Combat Police Corruption, a panel of mayoral appointees, wanted to do. It was a reasonable move, given that the leaders of the police officers' and sergeants' unions had charged publicly that the books were cooked.

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch had said that officers "are forced to falsify stats in order to maintain the appearance of a drastic reduction in crime," the Daily Newsreported. And Sergeants Benevolent Association president Ed Mullins said his sergeants had witnessed assaults being downgraded to harassment cases.

How could the commission have overlooked that and at the same time enforced high standards of ethics for rank-and-file cops?

But the police department refused to cooperate with the commission's investigation.

When two mayoral agencies clash, it's the job of the mayor to make sure they do the right thing. Instead, the commission's chairman, former federal prosecutor Mark Pomerantz, was left to air his grievances before the City Council's Public Safety Committee, where he testified that he needed the power to subpoena records from the police department.

The committee's chairman, Queens Democrat Peter Vallone Jr., was unsympathetic. He has since endorsed Bloomberg for re-election. Shortly after his testimony, Pomerantz decided he had better things to do with his time and resigned after just 18 months at the corruption commission.

So Bloomberg was free to advertise the plunging crime statistics— numbers in which spokesman Jordan Barowitz said the campaign has the "utmost confidence." (He referred questions about the corruption commission episode to the mayor's City Hall press office, which did not offer a response.)

But here is some equal time for the city's forgotten assault statistics.

In 1993, the last year of David Dinkins's administration, health department officials created an "injury surveillance system," hoping to monitor weapons-related assaults against young men. At first, they surveyed only hospitalizations. With the decline in shootings in the city, the number of hospitalizations caused by assaults dropped sharply, right through 1999, but then leveled off.

In the meantime, seeking better information on assaults against women, health department officials expanded the survey in 1997 to include emergency room visits in addition to hospitalizations.

From then until 2002, the number of assault victims who were either hospitalized or treated in emergency rooms in the city went up in every year but one for a total increase of 19 percent.

This trend is the direct opposite of the continued slide in the number of assaults the police department reported to the FBI for the Uniform Crime Reports—the police department's bottom line, its version of the school system's standardized reading test scores.

Those figures, which focus on seven major "index" crimes, showed that assaults dropped every year but one during that same period for a decrease of 24 percent.

In fairness, it must be said that this compares two entirely different sets of numbers—"the proverbial apples and oranges," in the words of NYPD deputy commissioner Michael Farrell.

It's true that the comparison is imperfect. But it also must be said that the police department has made sure its own relevant numbers remain secret. The department has stonewalled Freedom of Information Law requests for its data and, as Pomerantz testified in April, refused to hand over information even to a mayoral commission responsible for policing the police.


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