Taking Less Serious Crime Seriously

November 5, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

City Keeping Minor Crimes Under Radar

That was the headline on a front-page, above-the-fold story Tuesday’s Times. It reported that since 2002, the city and police department have stopped providing the data to the state, or presumably to just about anyone else. The NYPD readily publishes its data on “serious crime” or what the FBI calls Part I crimes.* These are also known as the “Index” offenses because they supposedly serve as an index or indicator of general levels of crime. But in addition to these seven or eight crimes (depending on whether you count arson), cities also keep statistics on Part II crimes. Here’s a page from the Phoenix Police Department report.

(Click on the image for a larger view. Or go here for the original.)

The Times couldn’t find anyone at the NYPD to justify the policy. The story does quote a City Council member who was trying to force the issue. “They basically said the public can’t handle this information.” (Apparently Jack Nicholson was on duty when she asked.)

I myself don’t know what to make of Part II numbers. Some of these less serious crimes are important, not for any direct harm that they cause but for their impact on people’s general sense of fear or safety. That feeling is not much related to rates of serious crime (murder, robbery, car theft, etc.). These crimes usually occur where few people can see them. Our sense of safety is far more affected by visible but less serious crime and even things that are not crimes. Abandoned cars, run-down buildings, street prostitutes, drug dealers, and gangs – we read these as signs of crime. These are the true index offenses – they are our indicator of how safe a neighborhood is.

The trouble is that statistics on these offenses are much more driven by what the police do than by what the offenders do. An increase in drug offenses on the books probably means that the police have decided to crack down on that crime. Look at the Phoenix data. Has there been virtually no illegal gambling in Phoenix in the last decade? Did DUIs really double from 2006 to 2008?

Cracking down on these signs of crime is the whole idea behind the “broken windows” approach. In its original version, the idea was that if the police got tough on “disorder” and “quality of life” offenses, more serious crimes would also decrease. I haven’t kept up with the research on this, but my guess is that “broken windows” enforcement has at best a modest impact on crime, but it goes a long way towards making people feel safer.

* Recently, some researchers have raised doubts about the accuracy of the NYPD’s statistics. See previous posts here and here.

1 comment:

Bob S. said...

How much do you think that the bias toward the "big government" approach has to do with this?

I wonder if there isn't an effort, both in media and government, to keep these numbers quiet so there is more of an attitude of "it's the governments job to handle this".

If people knew how many index crimes were in their neighborhoods, do you think there would be more involvement in handling the issues before governmental interference?