Posted by Jay Livingston
“Crimes known to the police” is the official count of Crime in the United States – the annual report published by the FBI, which compiles data from local police departments. It’s also known as the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR).
Many years ago, a friend of mine found that his car had been broken into and wanted to report the crime to the police. He went to the local precinct, and when the desk sergeant finally acknowledged him, he said, “Someone broke into my car and stole my stuff.”
“So what do you want me to do?” said the sergeant.
That was one larceny that never became “known to the police,” at least not on the books of the 20th precinct.
The problem of uncounted crime has been around a long time. In the late 1940s, New York’s burglary rate grew by 1300% in a single year, a huge increase but entirely attributable to changes in bookkeeping. Word had gone out that burglaries should no longer be routinely assigned to “Detective Can.”
In the 1980s, Chicago’s robbery rate rose after the FBI threatened the city that it wouldn’t include their data because the numbers were so suspect. Atlanta kept its numbers artificially low prior to the Olympics. This week, the Dallas police chief is under attack for the way his department reports crimes.
Now two criminologists, John Eterno and Eli Silverman, are claiming that New York’s crime data have been fudged consistently for the last 15 years, and they point to CompStat as the culprit (NY Times article here.) CompStat is the system that William Bratton brought to New York when he became police commissioner in 1994. It required commanders to report every week on statistics and patterns of crime in their areas.
Eterno and Silverman gave anonymous surveys to retired precinct commanders, Under pressure to appear effective in the war on crime, precinct commanders might stretch the facts. The value of a theft might be creatively investigated to keep the total under the $1000 threshold for “grand larceny.” Felonies look worse than misdemeanors.
A purse snatch might get recorded as a theft instead of a robbery because robberies fall into the broader category of “violent” crimes. Or victims, like my friend in the old days, might be persuaded not to bother reporting the crime.
In an op-ed in the Times yesterday William Bratton, who brought CompStat to New York when he became police commissioner in 1994, vigorously defended the NYPD numbers. Although he provided no data, he might have.
Since 1973, the US has had an alternate count of crime, the National Crime Victimization Survey. Most of the data are for the US, but Rick Rosenfeld and Janet Lauritsen were able to get three-year averages for New York City, and they have looked at the data for burglary.
The graph shows the rate (percents) of
- people who told the NCVS they had been victims of a burglary
- people who say they reported the burglary to the police
- the official rate of burglaries “known to the police”
In the decade following CompStat, both sources of data show a 68% decrease in burglary. So if commanders were cooking the books, they weren't including burglary in the recipe.