Monday, February 8, 2010

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

With a hat tip to Mark Twain, students often have a hard time understanding how the FBI's Uniform Crime Report (UCR) can be controversial. One of the biggest drawbacks of the UCR which we discuss is how police departments can "unfound" reported crimes in order to make their statistics look better.

Just this past weekend, a new crime statistics controversy exploded in Gotham, and the charges are the same: Ex-New York Police Officials Claim Data Fudged.

More than a hundred retired New York Police Department captains and higher-ranking officers said in a survey that the intense pressure to produce annual crime reductions led some supervisors and precinct commanders to manipulate crime statistics, according to two criminologists studying the department.

The retired members of the force reported that they were aware over the years of instances of “ethically inappropriate” changes to complaints of crimes in the seven categories measured by the department’s signature CompStat program, according to a summary of the results of the survey and interviews with the researchers who conducted it.

In interviews with the criminologists, other retired senior officers cited examples of what the researchers believe was a periodic practice among some precinct commanders and supervisors: checking eBay, other Web sites, catalogs or other sources to find prices for items that had been reported stolen that were lower than the value provided by the crime victim. They would then use the lower values to reduce reported grand larcenies — felony thefts valued at more than $1,000, which are recorded as index crimes under CompStat — to misdemeanors, which are not, the researchers said.
The research, while controversial, also has its critics.
The Police Department disputed the survey’s findings, questioned its methodology and pointed to other reviews of the CompStat process that it said supported its position.

The survey has its limitations. It is unclear exactly when the retired senior officers left the department, making it impossible to say whether any alleged manipulations came early on or had developed over years and across more than one mayoral administration. The CompStat approach has been widely replicated across the country and has been credited with improving police work in many cities.

Also, the questionnaires did not set out to measure the frequency of any manipulation. None of the respondents were asked to identify specific acts of misconduct, and none admitted to having done it themselves. In addition, it was unclear whether the officials who said they were aware of unethical conduct had firsthand knowledge.

Unclear up until this former Captain came forward yesterday:

As crime fell, year after year, it could be, he said, cause for both celebration and concern, as the demands intensified for captains to show further declines.

“Every week, we had meetings, and I knew I would be called up to be grilled and embarrassed, if my numbers were not good, in front of my peers and commanders,” said the police officer, a retired precinct commander, speaking of the years 2000 through 2004.

Of course, for those who follow crime stats, this is nothing new. Christian Parenti first documented the police precinct as "mini-police department" concept, set up throughout Gotham during the 1990's, and the intense pressure each precinct Captain was under to disappear crimes for political purposes.

But people "feel safer," and that may be the biggest anti-dote to this controversy (flawed though it might be).

I'd like to see more cross-analysis done between the UCR and both Victimization and self-report surveys for those same periods. That might shed light on just how much the drop in crime stats was manufactured.

No comments: