It’s been a year now since an extraordinary event occurred in local police annals: The heads of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the Sergeants Benevolent Association charged publicly that the police department had cooked the books on crime statistics. Maybe you missed the news about the outcry that followed—the hasty audits, the City Council investigations, the criminal probes, the corruption commission hearings. But if you’ve missed all that, it’s not your fault: There hasn’t been any outcry. No comptroller audits. No City Council investigation. Nothing to date from the city’s Commission to Combat Police Corruption.
Police brass turned the story their way by contending that the police unions advanced the charge to gain advantage in contract negotiations. Or, if you can’t figure out how cops would benefit from showing they’re not as successful as everyone thinks, then it’s because they want to show that more police are needed. Either way, that has become the conventional wisdom, and as a result, nothing’s happened.
But I heard something different when PBA president Patrick Lynch and Ed Mullins, president of the sergeants’ union, spoke up. Their charges matched what I’d been told for a number of years by people who were well positioned within the police department. These weren’t union officials; they were simply good cops disgusted at what they saw.
The basic complaint is that police commanders have forced cops to turn crimes that once would have been reported as felony assaults and grand larcenies into lesser offenses. The goal, accordingly, is to drive down the number of offenses included in a closely watched “index” of seven major crimes.
Such numbers have long been used in law enforcement, but reducing them acquired new urgency when the police department implemented the acclaimed CompStat system in 1994. Commanding officers were hauled into headquarters to be humiliated if their “index” figures in periodic computerized crime data reports weren’t dropping swiftly enough.
Huge reputations were made on the ensuing crime reductions—Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s, in particular. And no one knew how long it would last.
“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,” PBA recording secretary Ron Zink wrote in the union’s magazine last summer.
He continued: “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.”
I don’t doubt that crime has dropped substantially. But if crime data are being falsified in the way described by the union and the police I’ve spoken with, that’s a form of corruption—one that breeds cynicism among rank-and-file cops and in the public. It’s hard to believe that New York City officialdom can get away with shrugging off such allegations, no matter what the union officials’ motives may be.
The police department has made it difficult to find out if there’s any truth to such allegations. Nine days after Giuliani left office at the end of 2001, I filed a freedom-of-information request to get a precinct-by-precinct breakdown for complaints in all categories of crimes, both index and non-index. The goal was to spot precincts where crimes were being shifted into non-index categories—in broad terms, where misdemeanor complaints were rising even as felonies dropped. I had somehow gotten the idea that the Freedom of Information Law would get more respect in Michael Bloomberg’s police department than in Giuliani’s.
More than three years later, I finally got some statistical information—but not what I asked for. Others, I’ve since found out, also have tried to pry the truth out of the NYPD by using the Freedom of Information Law, and with similar non-results.
Some numbers are available from the State Division of Criminal Justice Services, though. These numbers, the same as those used in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (but different from the police department’s CompStat numbers), show that while the “index” crime of aggravated assault dropped in New York City by a third between 1995 and 2002, the non-index category of simple assault stayed roughly the same from that point on. The latter moved from 87,596 complaints in 1995 to 85,241 in 2002, a drop of 2.7 percent.
It would take more detailed data to conclude there is a pattern of manipulation, but this is at least consistent with what the police unions have alleged—that after initial success with CompStat, felonies were downgraded to lesser charges to keep pushing the number of index crimes downward.
When CompStat first was introduced, all assaults dropped sharply. Simple assaults, at 108,550 in 1994, dropped 19 percent the following year, but then leveled off. Aggravated assaults dropped 14 percent in 1995 and continued to plummet.
Deputy Police Commissioner Michael Farrell said in an e-mail interview that there was nothing “untoward” in those numbers. Given the strategy to get weapons off the street, he said, it wasn’t surprising that there were steeper declines in aggravated assault than in simple assault. “At the same time,” he wrote, “greater attention to domestic violence and state mandatory-arrest laws have likely increased reporting of simple assaults.”
Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne said in a telephone interview that with two audits a year in each precinct, the crime data can be trusted. Any isolated instances of wrongdoing are dealt with swiftly, he said, adding that the unions were just miffed over contract talks.
Others in officialdom seem to see it his way.
“I have a lot of sources in the police department, and I have not heard this is a problem,” said the council’s Public Safety Committee chairman, Peter Vallone Jr., who has the authority to investigate. He added: “This is a charge that seems to happen during union negotiations.”
But I don’t think the issue will go away after a new police contract is finally inked. There have been scandals over crime statistics around the country—in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Atlanta, where an audit found that crime numbers were fudged as part of an effort to land the 1996 Olympics. An audit in Baltimore found that police there underreported crime by 14.5 percent in 1999, according to the Associated Press. In the 10th Precinct in Chelsea, a commanding officer was transferred in 2002 after the police department found that felonies had been reduced improperly to misdemeanors. When that happened, “index” crime went up 45.7 percent in 2003. There were 307 grand larcenies recorded in the 10th Precinct at the end of 2002—and 789 last year.
Are there other precincts like the 10th?
If the NYPD wants to clear the air, there are some steps it can take right away. First, release all the crime data, for all charges, precinct by precinct, annually since at least 1993—not just the numbers for “index” crimes. Second, release all audits on its crime reporting system and disclose all available information on lost-property reports (to indicate whether missing goods once likely to have been considered stolen are now being listed as lost). Third, cooperate with any investigation by the Commission to Combat Police Corruption, the mayoral panel set up in 1995 to monitor the NYPD. Doing that, of course, would mean acknowledging a fudged crime number for what it is—a form of corruption.