These Stats Are a Crime

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

When the commission sought records, police officials responded that alleged falsifying of crime statistics is outside the corruption commission's jurisdiction because it is not a form of corruption. But the police department's critics in the unions had alleged a blatant fraud—one involving government records used to make vital decisions about public safety. That's a corruption allegation.

So the health department records are a chink in the secrecy that police officials have used to wall in the full array of crime data collected.

In an e-mail, Farrell said there are many reasons these two sets of numbers "should not be expected to move in lockstep." Among them: About half of assaults are not reported to the police; most assault victims decline hospital treatment; people do not necessarily go to the hospital in the same jurisdiction where they are assaulted. He also said that the police count each case while the health department does an estimate based on a survey of hospitals.

No, the numbers might not move in "lockstep." But that still leaves the question of why the two sets of figures for assaults reported in the same city in the same year trend in opposite directions.

Farrell said the Voice "selectively" chose trend numbers with the aim of reaching a pre-determined result. For example, he pointed out, assaults and hospital stays (not including emergency room treatment) declined by the exact same percentage—45.3—between 1993 and 2002.

That works out very neatly, but it excludes the thousands of battered people reported to have gone to emergency rooms starting in 1997.

More importantly, it also misses a key shift. In the early years of the police department's CompStat program—in which the police brass comes down hard on any precinct commander whose crime numbers fail to fall—both hospitalizations for assaults and the police tally for assaults fell sharply.

But then that started to change. Police continued to record a downward trend in serious assaults, but in recent years, hospitalizations for assaults leveled off and emergency room visits increased sharply. Also, the number of "simple assaults"—lesser offenses not included in the FBI's index of serious crimes—dropped sharply at first, but, with some ups and downs, leveled off.

1995 was a banner year for reducing assaults: Police tallied a 14 percent drop in aggravated assaults and the health department would later report that the number of people hospitalized for assault fell 15 percent.

That didn't continue. The patterns are consistent with what the police unions have charged: The impressive crime reductions through the middle 1990s were real, but afterward, a "fudge factor" began to emerge because police commanders felt pressured to manipulate crime reports for the seven "index" crimes reported to the FBI.

As the Voice reported in March, a PBA official explained it this way in the organization's magazine:

"You eventually hit a wall where you can't push [crime] down any more. . . . So how do you fake a crime decrease? It's pretty simple. Don't file reports, misclassify crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, undervalue the property lost to crime so it's not a felony, and report a series of crimes as a single event. A particularly insidious way to fudge the numbers is to make it difficult or impossible for people to report crimes—in other words, make the victims feel like criminals so they walk away just to spare themselves further pain and suffering" (The Fine Print, "Corruption? It Figures," March 30–April 5).

It doesn't mean that the drops in every category of crime are questionable. It doesn't mean that the city is radically more dangerous than thought. But it could mean that the more recent crime drops are not as great as the public has been led to believe. Reports for some offenses, such as grand larceny or assault, are more easily manipulated than others. Assaults can be taken off the books by downgrading them from felonies to misdemeanors, or recording them under another charge, such as harassment.

But people still go to the hospital if they're beaten badly enough.

Once again: If the NYPD wants to show the continuing drop in major crimes is real, it can start by releasing the mass of crime complaint data on its computers for all charges, precinct by precinct, annually since at least 1993—and not just the "index" crimes. That would show whether there is a pattern of downgrading complaints to lower the numbers for the seven major index crimes. It can release the audits police officials say are done twice a year in all precincts, instead of withholding them, as the department does now. It can disclose whatever data it has for the categories that might allow a reported crime to be turned into something else—lost property, say. And it can grant access to the records that officers submit in their precincts when a crime is reported.

Without such information, it's difficult to determine whether or not crime statistics have been fudged in New York, as they have been in other major cities. But the information already available suggests the need for investigation.

As long as the "index" crime tally falls, there will be headlines for politicians to advertise. But it is clear that the NYPD's crime stats don't tell the whole story. What good is it if crime drops when more people are sent to the hospital because of it?

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