Saturday, November 27, 2010

Shazam! New York's crime solution?

For a decade NYPD has claimed credit for lower crime

This week America celebrates Thanksgiving. Among the multitude of things for which to be thankful is lower crime rates than in the 1970s and 1980s. An article in the New York Times says this year the NYPD offer thanks for yet another dip in the annual crime rate. Wonderful. Except for one thing. Crime didn't dip. At least not violent crime.

According to the NYPD 2010 crime stats, murder is up 16% since last year, rapes up 14% and robberies up 5%. Only when combining the violent crime numbers with much more numerous property crime numbers like burglary and larceny, does the crime rate "dip".

Is Thanksgiving the moment when the decade long crime decline finally stalls? It this the turning point for a city once celebrated as poster-child for effective policing? Is this when the Great Recession finally triggers a tidal crime shift from ebb to flow?

The good news? Perspective. Even a 16% increase this year is a light-year away from prior decades. In 1990 New York there were 2,263 murders. In 2009 there were 471. All this in spite of a population increase.

More good news - research from Vera Institute's Michael Jacobson suggests "effective policing in New York has made some difference - even though the statistical effects, if they are there at all, are small." At least some policing strategies have some impact, though it's unclear to what extent NYPD's version of those strategies deserve applause.

The bad news? Cooked books.


One (admittedly narrow) research survey released last month says retired senior officers are now raising questions on the veracity of NYPD crime stats. That's not new. I remember this kind of thing in some Canadian police organizations 20 years ago. Those familiar with police research have for years read the literature about these kinds of shenanigans - literature politicians tend to ignore.

The most notorious tactic is the Great Reclassification Scam: Crime reports in one category get reclassified into a lower category. Last month's study described how theft reports with expensive stolen items were checked against web sites such as e-Bay to find similar items with lower prices. Stolen items in the reports were repriced with lower values in order to reclassify them from felony grand larcenies (thefts over $1000) down to misdemeanors.

Shazam! Lower felony rates!

Granted, some of the retired senior officers surveyed may have had an axe to grind. Some also offered the slippery ethical reasoning that reclassification scams resulted from pressure to keep improving their crime stats each year.

Interestingly, most officers surveyed said New York was now a safer place and the Compstat strategy, the statistics and management system producing those stats, was partly responsible. As well, other research studies contradict the scam allegations and conclude NYPD stats are generally accurate.

Who to believe? Crime up or down?

Perhaps the more important question is, What did police do differently under Compstat to tackle crime?

Next blog: Compstat!