Something’s Missing


Here is yet another indication that the city’s falling crime rate may be crime fiction: The number of lost-property reports filed with police jumped by 44 percent from 1997 to 2004, according to a document the NYPD released to the Voice in response to a freedom-of-information request. Nearly half of that increase occurred in the last two years of that period. And 2005 was on pace, as of November 1, to beat out the previous year.

Why? The most obvious suspect in the lineup: Police are taking complaints that once would have been treated as grand larceny or another property crime and reporting them as “lost property.”

“This would be what’s known in the business as ‘unfounding,’ ” said Samuel Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and author of The New World of Police Accountability (Sage, 2005). “They’re not making out a crime report when a crime may have been committed.”

Grand larceny is one of the closely watched seven major “index” crimes monitored in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the basis for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s claim that New York is the nation’s safest large city. It makes up nearly 60 percent of the reported index offenses, so police commanders know that if they are going to get their numbers down, they have to report fewer thefts.

According to the police department’s Crime Complaint Reporting System Reference Guide, a larceny—and not a lost-property case—should be recorded “if the complainant claims that an item was left at a specific location and upon return to the location within a reasonable time thereafter, it is discovered that the property is missing.” It adds that “a complete and thorough interview should be done,” including questions about whether the property owner believes the goods were lost or stolen.

As a retired police officer told me, the questioning easily can be tilted to shift a complaint into the lost-property column.

For that reason, the number of lost- property complaints is often used as an integrity check on other crime data. In his 1999 book NYPD Battles Crime, Eli Silverman, of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, reported that the police department had improved its monitoring of crime statistics by keeping closer track of such categories as
lost property and petty larceny. “They are especially sensitive to downgrading of crimes,” wrote Silverman, whose book praised the police department’s number-driven CompStat approach to mapping and fighting crime.

Asked by the Voice on December 12 about the sharp increase in lost-property reports, police officials have not yet offered an explanation. Deputy Commissioner Michael Farrell, who oversees crime reporting, said on December 16 that he wasn’t prepared to respond. During a conference that day at John Jay College, he defended the police crime data and rejected criticism from academics who said the department had become too secretive with its numbers.

Others say that putting such intense focus on making the numbers—in the case of CompStat, pushing commanders to lower the tally for the seven major felonies—invites trouble. “The problem is that when you develop a system (like CompStat) that applies a lot of pressure on people to accomplish something that is difficult, some people (and sometimes quite a few) will take the easy route to show that they are meeting the new performance expectation,” Stephen Mastrofski, director of the Administration of Justice Program at George Mason University, said in an e-mail. “Same with body counts in the military in time of war. And cooking the books in the private sector.”

Evidence is building to support the contention of two police unions that such pressure has led to widespread fudging of the numbers: Other indicators conflict with the argument that index crimes keep falling.

As reported earlier (“These Stats Are a Crime,” November 1), city health department data showed more people seeking hospital treatment for assaults even as the NYPD reported a sharp drop in aggravated assaults, one of the index crimes. At the same time, simple assaults, misdemeanor offenses, stayed roughly the same instead of plunging along with the number of aggravated assaults. This was consistent with police union officials’ charges that felony assaults were downgraded to misdemean
ors. The skyrocketing number of lost- property reports is a further indication of the need for an independent probe of the stats.

Skip this paragraph if you’d like, but for the record, here are the annual lost-property numbers:

1997: 82,406;

1998: 86,406;

1999: 93,433;

2000: 103,482;

2001: 102,803;

2002: 101,081;

2003: 106,925;

2004: 118,385.

This rise contrasts with the city’s drop in reported grand larcenies. As veteran police reporter Len Levitt noted in his November 18 column, “Revising the Numbers,” at New York City, without its low rate for property crime, would lose the spot Bloomberg has claimed for it as the nation’s safest large city.

Maybe we’re just the most oblivious.