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 News reported. 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.
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?