Cooking the Crime Books?

February 18, 2010
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.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

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”
The numbers are not precisely comparable (the NCVS rate may be based on households rather than population, and the UCR rate includes commercial burglaries as well as residential). But the data in the graph do not support the idea that CompStat increased the fudging of burglary statistics If it had, then starting in 1994, we should see a widening gap between the NCVS line and the UCR line, with the UCR line moving downward much more. But if anything, it’s the Victimization line that descends more steeply.

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.


Bob S. said...

I agree there was a decline in rates recorded by Comp-stat, UCR and the NCVS but the actual raw number does seem to have been cooked by the police.

And that is important.

One of the constant refrains from gun control advocates is "crime is rare".

Well, if the total numbers are higher then what is being reported by the police, crime isn't as rare as the gun control advocates would have us believe.

Jay Livingston said...

Hey Bob, nice to see you again. Unfortunately, the only figures I had for NYC were for burglary. As a rule, victimization surveys give higher numbers in part because they pick up a lot of crimes that people didn’t think were important enough to report to the police. That includes unsuccessful attempts. If you come home, and it looks like someone had tried to jimmy the lock, you might not call the cops. But when the NCVS interviewer asked you if someone had tried to break in and you said yes, that would count in the burglary stats. That higher NCVS figure for New York in 2003 was 0.7%; the rate of victimizations serious enough for calling the cops was 0.45% (both figures are slightly lower today). Whether 3-4 per 1,000 people or 7 per 1,000 is “rare” or “not so rare” is a judgment call.

In any case, it’s about 1/7 the rate in, say, Birmingham, where guns are more prevalent. But the guns argument either way isn’t so relevant for burglary. Most burglars prefer to break in when nobody is home. In burglary, a gun is much more likely to be something that’s stolen than something that prevents the crime.

Josh said...

Peter Moskos gives a superb ethnographic account of the ways police fudge the numbers (in Baltimore) for a number of reasons in his book "Cop in the Hood." I can't recommend it highly enough.

Bob S. said...


I mentioned firearms in relation to gun control laws.

Anti-rights advocates constantly harp on the issue "crime rarely happens" so you don't need a firearm, wouldn't you agree?

Yet time after time we have reports of law enforcement under reporting the crime rate.

If the crime rate is higher then reported -- the justification for stricter gun control laws fails, doesn't it?

The attempts are part of that, I agree that many go unreported. That still doesn't account for known factual crimes going under reported (see United Kingdom for example), it doesn't account for the issue of reporting crimes at a lower severity (like you mentioned Dallas is guilty of doing).

Most burglars prefer to break in when nobody is home.

I agree and ask if you know why that is?

Is it because most criminals don't want to risk a confrontation with a home owner -- because the home owner may be armed?

Compare the rates of hot burglaries in the United Kingdom --effectively firearm free- and in the United States. Compare the rates of home invasion style robberies where there is physical confrontation and violence toward the victims.

Burglars don't want to risk being confronted by armed citizens.
Seems to me a good reason to encourage firearm ownership, not restrict it.

In burglary, a gun is much more likely to be something that’s stolen than something that prevents the crime.

Have any evidence to back up that supposition?

The National Institute of Justice found at least 108,000 defensive gun uses per year. Kleck's survey put it as high as 2.5 million.

How many 'stolen' firearms are nothing of the sort but fabricated reports covering straw purchases?

Jay Livingston said...

Bob, The issue with guns is not whether crime rates are high or low but whether guns prevent victimization. I doubt that guns have any impact on burglary.

The preference of burglars for unoccupied buildings applies to places where there are not guns as well as to places where there might be guns.

As the graph shows, burglary in NYC declined dramatically. I doubt that there was any increase in gun ownership in NYC in that period. I haven't checked the data, but I would bet that the decline of burglary in NYC is greater than the decline in cities where gun laws are much more lax.

As for the UK, burglary rates have risen and fallen but with no changes in gun ownership. US rates of burglary rates may be lower than those of the UK (I haven't checked, but I'll take your word), but also lower than the UK are burglary rates in many European countries that have similarly low rates of gun ownership.

Kleck (though as you know this is going back a ways) estimated that the number of guns stolen was between a half million and 1.8 million a year. I don't know how to estimate the number of burglaries prevented by guns, but
a half million is way more than the low-end estimate, and I'm skeptical that most of those upper-end-end estimate prevented crimes are burglaries.

Bob S. said...


You keep the focus on the wrong issues.

Gun control advocates state that we, the people, don't need guns because the crime rate is low.

Not just guns in the home, but firearms period. That is the claim.

Yet time after time, we see that crime rates are being cooked by the police.

If the crime rates aren't as low as the gun control advocates claim, then the validity of gun control laws is questionable.

Dallas Texas -- my town -- has recently came under scrutiny for classifying felonies as misdemeanors.

This isn't limited to New York City but all across the country.

You also don't discuss the type of burglaries that I'm talking about.

Do you know what a "hot burglary" even is?

It is where the criminals -- who may or may not be armed, who may or may not outnumber the victims -- break into places at times when the victims are home.

United Kingdom has a much higher rate of these types of burglaries than America.


Because the criminals know, not just think, but know by law that victims in the United Kingdom are mostly disarmed.

Their chances of encountering armed resistance is lower.

Therefore they -- the criminals -- are willing to risk and carry out more violence toward their victims.

Looking at it from the prospective of "hot burglaries" and other property crimes where there is little/no interaction with the property owner, you can see that firearms reduce the violence.

Just by their sheer presence.

I'm not claiming that firearms are the sole reason for the reduction in crime but it is demonstrable that they change the nature of crime.

Now, the questions about NYC's crime rate are thus:

1.) Has the rate of crime decreased faster, the same, or slower then places where firearm ownership is not effectively banned.

2.) Is the crime rate of NYC higher, the same, or lower then places where the ownership of firearms isn't effectively banned?

3.)Are there other factors that have more correlation and casuational relationships to the effect on crime rates then firearms?

Don't focus on just property crime but all crime.

It doesn't matter if the property crime rates have dropped if the rate of muggings more then makes up for it.

Wouldn't you agree?

Jay Livingston said...

Bob, I can only repeat what I said: the actual rate of crime (high or low) is relevant to gun laws only if guns have an impact on crime. You start from the assumption that guns prevent crime and that therefore a high crime rate argues against gun control.

As for "hot" burglaries, it's not something I know a lot about, but I think there's not a lot of good data. I would think that there are countries with lower rates of gun ownership than the US that also have lower rates of hot burglaries.

Between 1995 and 2008, the burglary rate in NYC decreased from about 9 per 1000 to 2 per 1000. That's a 75% reduction. I strongly doubt that there was much of an increase in gun ownership or that there was an easing of gun laws.

In Dallas in that same period, the rate of burglary was virtually unchanged. In both years, it was about 16 per 1000 -- that's 8 times the rate of NYC today. I don't know if gun ownership in Dallas increased in those years; I doubt that it decreased. I'm pretty sure it's higher than gun ownership in NYC.

PCM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PCM said...

Thanks, Josh. I couldn't agree more.

But in answer to Bob's questions: 1) crime has decreased faster in NYC, 2) crime is lower in NYC, and 3) of course restrictive gun laws are not the only reason.

But certainly a police focus on guns--specifically getting people to stop carrying guns on the street--was and is a major factor in keeping NYC safe, especially in the early years of the great crime drop.

Bob S. said...


Considering that people carrying firearms in NYC had to be almost exclusively criminal, wouldn't it be a better statement to say the police focused on armed violent -- mostly felony criminals?

PCM said...

No. Because the expressed focus was to get guns off the streets. The criminals we just live with.

You could say the focus was to get *criminals* to stop carrying guns. But that's a semantic quibble that distracts from the greater truth that fewer guns being carried equals safer city streets.

On a macro level, in America (and most places), more guns mean more violence.

Gun violence is caused not just by people who go out wanted to rob and rape. There are a lot of mostly good people who carry a gun "for protection" (legal or not). And then they end up using it. Often that happens because of access to a gun mixed with alcohol and, to use a scientific term, "dumb-ass shit."

Bob S. said...


Want to provide some evidence for your points?

But that's a semantic quibble that distracts from the greater truth that fewer guns being carried equals safer city streets

If what you say is true, then we should be putting less cops, not more on the streets right?

On a macro level, in America (and most places), more guns mean more violence.

Again, let's see some evidence of what you say because the current information doesn't support it.

More concealed carry permits are being issued every year. I don't know of a state that is issuing fewer permits but there could be.

Yet the crime rate -- even firearm related crime rate is going down.

That doesn't jive with your assertions, does it?

Gun violence is caused not just by people who go out wanted to rob and rape.

I will argue that it is caused by the people who want to commit crime.

If I or any other person is legally carrying a firearm, there is no violence until some tries to commit a crime.

If a rapist gets shot, it wasn't because of the actions of the firearm owner -- it was the actions of the rapist.

There is a difference in violence and they shouldn't be confused.

Predatory violence -- that used by criminals is bad.

Protectionary violence -- that used by people to stop crime is good.

It would be nice if people didn't have to use violence to stop crime but criminals don't seem to respect the words "no", "stop", etc.

Are you saying that people should just allow themselves to be raped, robbed or murdered to "reduce gun violence"?

Jay Livingston said...


I think that what PCM means is that a lot of homicides arise out of the circumstances and the flow of a situation. They are not cases where someone deliberately sets out to kill another person. Yes, some murders are caused by “people who want to commit crime.” The FBI classifies these as “Felony Homicides.” Of the roughly 9000 homicides in 2008 where the circumstances were known, 2100 were felony homicides, robbery and drugs accounting for 2/3 of those.

The kind of homicide PCM is talking about is the argument that escalates, often because the people have been drinking. In those circumstances, the presence of a gun makes the situation much more deadly. In 2008, there were 3,750 such homicides plus nearly another 200 that happened in brawls involving alcohol or drugs. That’s nearly double the number of felony homicides. The killers in these cases were not people who deliberately set out to rob and rape. Many of them didn’t even set out with the intention of having an argument (or getting into a brawl).

Not all of those nearly 4000 argument-homicides resulted from firearms. About 900 involved knives, and maybe another 500 kicking and hitting (with or without a blunt instrument). But guns accounted for over 60%.

Bob S. said...


Let's put those numbers into prospective.

I'll do everything that I can to give the other side of the argument the benefit of the doubt.

I'll use 9,000 as the total number of homicides -- instead of 4,000 for "spur of the moment" issues.

I'll use very conservative estimates on firearm ownership.

How many firearms are there in America?

Estimates say around 270,000,000
(since -9,000/270,000,00= 0.00333% of firearms being used in homicides is too small), let's limit it to handguns.

Estimates for handguns say approximately 65,000,000.
9,000 divided by 65,000,000 equals 0.01386 percent of all handguns being used in homicides.

Still too much on the pro-rights side?

How about using 1% of all handguns as a basis for those who carry firearms?
(this completely ignores the fact that many shootings happen at home)

1 percent of handguns would 650,000
9,000 divided by 650,000 = 1.38%

How much of a problem is spur of the moment if the highest possible number is under 1.5%?

Is it worth restricting the rights of millions -- for the criminal actions of a few thousand?

That is what is really being talked about here. Using the criminal actions of a few to limit the rights of the many. And knowing that it will not affect the criminal element as much as the law abiding folks

The gun ban in Washington D.C is a prime example. Since 1976 (until last year) there was an effective ban on the possession of firearms in the city, did it stop firearm related crimes?
Did it reduce overall crime?

Nope, all it did was disarm the law abiding.

Hey, since many of these types of crimes involve alcohol, instead of banning firearms -- why don't we try banning alcohol?

Jay Livingston said...

Bob, Good points, though the same logic could apply to drunk driving. Most people who drive drunk make it home without incident. Only a small fraction of drunk drivers get into accidents, only a tiny percent of those are fatal, and in most of those, the person who dies is the drunken driver. Does that mean we should abandon DUI laws?

Anyway, this thread started out having nothing to do with guns. The question, which I'm still trying to get data on, is whether CompStat caused the police to keep reported crimes off the books. the gun discussion belongs elsewhere. I hope there are other places where reasonable people discuss those questions reasonably. If you know of any, please tell me.

Bob S. said...


I don't think we should abandon drunk driving laws but I really think we should look at what we are punishing people for.

Instead of punishing people for an arbitrary that may or may not have anything to do with their ability to function, why not change the laws to reflect very severe consequences when drunk driving impacts others?

As you say, most drunk drivers make it home safely -- heck most make it home without anyone else on the road knowing they are intoxicated.

Why not make the laws such that if you cause harm to others or to property --while drunk then the penalties are doubled, tripled etc?

It seems to me that having arbitrary limits are punishing people for what might happen.

They might get in an accident.
They might hit a fence.
They might hit a person.

Of course the current laws are so seldom enforced as written they are useless.


Because most of the time drunk driving is a victimless crime, so the system gives the drunk many offenses before even going to jail.

Gun laws are the same way....they are trying to legislate what someone might do.

Can't let college students carry on campus because they might get drunk and they might shoot someone.

Can't let teachers carry on primary school grounds because they might go crazy and hurt others.

Relevant because of the recent shooting in Colorado, notice that the assailant didn't bother to obey the laws keeping guns off campus, did he?

Disarming the teachers meant that the brave teachers had to confront the assailant with only their bodies, why does that make sense?

Gun control advocates point to decreasing crime as a reason we don't need to carry every place.

If we can't trust the crime rates, why should we trust the conclusions anti-rights advocates draw from them?