Detective Can

December 31, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The NYPD doesn’t record all the crimes that victims report.  That’s the shocking news on the front page of this morning’s Times (here).

A bit of history.  In 1950, the number of burglaries in New York jumped by 1400% 1300%.  The entire increase was attributable to one man, and he wasn’t a burglar.  He was the chief of police.  We’re not talking here about actual  burglaries, of course, just burglaries recorded by the police.

Prior to 1949, the policy on most reported burglaries was “canning.”  The victim would report the crime, the police would listen, and then “refer the case to Lieutenant Can.”  For reasons I cannot remember, the chief of police issued an order ending, or greatly reducing, that policy. As a result, the next year, New York had fifteen fourteen times as many burglaries.  (Something similar happened with robberies in Chicago in the 1980s thanks to pressure form the FBI, which gathers statistics for the Uniform Crime Reports.)

What if a similar directive were issued today?  The official numbers will rise, but everyone will know that this reflects a change in policy, not a change in safety. The trouble is that in the long run, there’s a sort of law of thermodynamics entropy eroding full reporting.  Police reap no rewards for reporting more crime.  Precincts or cities that report more crime may feel the wrath of the brass, the media, or the citizens.  Rewards flow to areas with less crime, and NYPD chiefs will compare precinct with precinct, and they will compare this month with last month.  Under these conditions, precinct commanders feel pressure to have lower crime numbers, and if the criminals and victims won’t cooperate in that effort, theres always Detective Can or his current equivalent.

Honesty and accuracy are nice in principle, but Compstat is what matters.


PCM said...
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PCM said...

Jay, Do you have a source for Lt. Can? I've never heard about that.

As to taking reports, and this has nothing to do with suppressing crime, but why do people somehow feel so obligated to tell police about things police can do nothing about? The groped woman wasn't blown off to suppress crime (misdemeanor crimes aren't worth suppressing); she was blown off because the cop didn't want to waste his or her time by filling a form that would serve no purpose.

I mean, what would you do, as a desk cop, if a woman said, for instance, she was grouped 30 minutes ago by a 20-30 year-old light-skinned hispanic man on a bike wearing a t-shirt and jeans?

Part of the problem, from a police perspective, is you really *do* want to help, but then people come to you with a story about which you can do absolutely nothing.

Let's say I, as the cop, do fill out the form. And in 30 minutes you have a report number for §130.52 Forcible touching. A "class A" misdemeanor.

Happy now? Why?

Even if the guy were to roll into the 114 precinct and you were to point and say, "He did it!" I couldn't really do anything.

Sometimes police aren't the answer.

What would help, once again, is if there were a beat officer who cared about that block. He or she might know if this was a known person/problem. But we don't have that because police are waiting to answer your 911 call.

Police can be part of the solution. But this would require a shift in patrol and departmental organization.

Filling out a form doesn't do anybody any good. And the cop knew that. And maybe he actually did have something better to do.

Jay Livingston said...

Peter, I was doing this entirely from memory. I had put it in my textbook decades ago, but I don't have a copy of it at hand. I finally dug up an old computer file the publisher had sent me and managed to open it (it was in their printing format, not word-processor).

I had one thing wrong. It was a 1300% increase, not 1400%. The footnote that goes with the story is (I think) as follows:

Institute of Public Management (1952), Crime Records in Police Management: New York City, New York,excerpted in Marvin E. Wolfgang, Leonard Savitz, and Norman Johnson (1970), The Sociology of Crime and Delinquency(2nd ed.), New York: Wiley,pp. 114-116.

Jay Livingston said...

Yes, the NYT example you cite is not so convincing, but there were others. "Filling out a form doesn't do anybody any good." Maybe not, but it does give us a more accurate idea of how much and what kinds of crime. Back in the previous century, a friend went to the local precinct to report a crime. "Someone smashed my car window and too some stuff out of the back seat." To which the guy at the desk responded, "So what do you want me to do about it?"

Filling out the form wouldn't have done any good for my friend (unless he was going to make an insurance claim -- he wasn't) or for the two-oh. The same is true of most crimes with a zero or low chance of clearance, including muggings and other robberies, for example. Should the police can those too?

PCM said...

There is something to be said for record keeping. And accurate record keeping at that.

Personally the only stat I trust without question is homicide.

As to the report issue, I don't know what the answer is. And certainly a report, even without expected clearance, can yield clues to other crimes (like description and M.O. of a mugger, for instance).

But as a former cop, I still say there is something a bit funny about the public's desire to "get a report." The world needs less paperwork, not more.

One of the things I rather enjoyed as a police officer was telling people, "No, you can't have a report" when I would show up at minor car crashes. The police job was only to make sure nobody was hurt and then facilitate the exchange of information.

Everything else was between you and your insurance company. You didn't need and wouldn't get "a report."