Parading While Black

After the arrest of a City Councilman, isn't it time to question the NYPD's crooked math?

Seeing what appeared to be the needless arrest at the West Indian Day parade of two black men, Councilman Jumaane Williams and Kirsten John Foy, an aide to the public advocate, the question came to mind: Is it time for the crime numbers to go up?

To keep those numbers down—despite a force that's lost 8,500 officers from its peak of about 42,000, and precincts further depleted by terror assignments and other special details—the Police Department has taken a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, as has been well documented now by the Voice and others, the pressure from top brass to keep the numbers down has led to precinct commanders fudging the numbers by downgrading reports of more serious crimes to misdemeanors. The second strategy is an explosion of so-called stop-and-frisks, disproportionately aimed at young black and Latino men, that ramp up tensions on all sides despite only a small percentage of these stops resulting in arrests for serious crimes.

While Mayor Michael Bloomberg's bogus claims of "historic" schools gains for black and Latino students finally boiled over into public skepticism and some scandal, the lid has so far stayed on the NYPD's righteous self-assessments. With crime in fact down from its early-90s peak (though the trend line has flattened out over the last several years) and no successful terror attack in 10 years, Commissioner Ray Kelly has remained one of the city's most popular officials. Despite press reports about the department’s aggressive use of collar and ticket quotas and its tightly controlled trickle of public information that often fails to correspond to other public indicators—like when assault numbers plummet even as the number of assaulted people needing hospitalization spikes—no outside monitor has stepped in to examine the city’s numbers.

John MacConnell

With its newly developed reputation over the past two decades for safety central to the city's public image – and thus to its tourism, real estate, tax and investment revenues – neither the administration nor the Police Department has an incentive to look too closely under the hood.

The administration's cooked books have been an open secret for years, with high-ranking teachers and cops scoffing at the accomplishments the city has claimed on their behalf, at least at those moments when public workers' interests have diverged from those of the administration. In 2009, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew mocked Bloomberg's "Tweed tales" of "Lake Woebogone" stats that he joked showed 97 percent of students were above average. "How do we know all this?" Mulgrew continued, fairly dripping sarcasm. "The data tell us so. Let us praise the data."

Likewise, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association has questioned the integrity of the department's crime stats. In 2004, PBA Recording Secretary Robert Zink ripped the city's "phony numbers," writing in the PBA Magazine: "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. No mayor or police commissioner wants to be the one holding the bag when crime starts climbing."

The ever-pessimistic, sometimes brilliant TV show The Wire made the connection between the school system and the crime system in an episode where a not-very-good cop who’d left the force to become a pretty good public school teacher was instructed to stop actually teaching his students math, in order to prepare them for the math test. "I get it," he said. "The cops call that juking the stats."

A fancier name for it is Campbell's Law, coined in the 1970s by famed social scientist Donald Campbell: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor." In other words, if you look too closely at the numbers, it's easy to lost sight of the streets.

Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD cop and prosecutor who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, credited the department for making the politically courageous choice to aggressively police high-crime areas, "the communities where people are getting killed," in spite of the grievances about policing that inevitably come with that policy.

O'Donnell questioned, though, the increased number of stops even as the crime rate has stayed down: "Every frisk that's not needed, above what is needed, is a major concern. There's no scientific way to determine the number that should take place but my concern is that there's a certain amount of municipal bean counting going here… Somewhere along the line, more became better. There's a blind call just to do more. To top least year's numbers. With stop and frisk and really actually everything. The cops will tell you they're under stress to bring up arrest numbers, parking tickets, moving violations, whatever we did last year lets add to it.'"

Of course, no one is calling for more crime, or claiming anyone has tampered with the murder rate, but right now the Department's focus appears to be on the crime numbers. While crime rates have dropped from their early 90s peaks around much of the country, though less dramatically than in New York City, the NYPD is going after petty offenses like there was a war on. The number of stop-and-frisks has skyrocketed: up more than 600 percent from less than 100,000 in 2002 to more than 600,000 in 2010.

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