‘Cheerful News’ on Crime Data and the Integrity ThereofBy AL BAKER
The three panelists Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly tapped to evaluate the integrity of his department’s crime-recording system will be visited on Friday by a longtime academic, author and criminologist: Prof. Franklin E. Zimring of the University of California, Berkeley.
Why — some right-leaning law and order types might wonder — would a trio of Kelly appointees, former federal prosecutors all, seek out the wisdom of an academic from the West Coast? Simple: The professor has already carried out what one police official called “a pretty remarkable” analysis of the city’s historic crime decline. A draft of his findings (see also below) will be published in Scientific American in the fall, with a book to follow.
(The 38-page draft of the article was distributed by the New York Police Department’s public relations arm, which tickled the professor, who voted in 1972 for Senator George S. McGovern for president.)
The book — working title: “The City That Became Safe: What New York Can Teach America About Crime Control” (Oxford University Press) — has been years in the works. Professor Zimring relied on police statistics, and he had cooperation from the department’s hierarchy. He studied crime in three categories: homicides, robberies and automobile thefts. And he compared data from across the last two decades.
In a nutshell, his findings are that the crime drops depicted in the police statistics are, as Professor Zimring put it, “real.”
“The crime trends you get off the official data are trustworthy in the three cases where we could check them,” he said. “What that does not mean is that the number of thefts the New York City Police Department reports is the number of thefts that citizens have experienced in the city. There is not a ‘CompStat-effect’ that makes the problem much worse than 1994.”
He added: “The degree of underreporting, which I regard as a chronic condition in all police-generated data, is no greater now than it was 20 years ago, and probably, if you look at the robbery indicators, a little better now than it was then — and not measurably greater in this city than in other cities.”
Translation of Professor Zimring’s findings: Police data are always a bit loose, but no more so in New York than elsewhere or at other times; the department’s CompStat program, a computerized mapping system that tracks crime patterns, created tensions right from its inception, with police commanders ridiculing underlings at the twice-weekly sessions at the department’s 1 Police Plaza headquarters in Lower Manhattan. The overall news about crime being down is “not only big news,” Professor Zimring said, “but enormously cheerful news.”
The professor also concluded from his research that large numbers of criminals have stopped committing serious crimes. And he looked deeply at how the police in New York have successfully fought the war on drugs — essentially, by going into the “harm-reduction business,” where a principal aim was to make the streets safer and increase people’s confidence in using agencies.
So successful has the effort been, Professor Zimring said, that the narcotics squads in the city that were beefed up through the 1990s now have smaller staffs than in 1990.
As his paper says, one surprise from the city’s experience is that “the city made giant strides toward solving its crime problem without either winning its war on illicit drug use or massive increases in incarceration.”
“So,” it continues, “the great success in this city is a challenge to the two dominant assumptions of crime control policy in modern America.”
With regard to numbers, Professor Zimring truth-tested the police statistics with independent data. He compared the Police Department’s murder rates with municipal health records. He compared the department’s reporting of a “spectacular drop” in auto theft over the last two decades with theft loss reports from insurance-industry data bureaus.
“So the biggest decrease (auto theft) and the most important decrease (homicide) are both confirmed by independent sources,” Professor Zimring wrote. “And, there is confirmation as well for the big drop in robbery, because the number of killings from robberies dropped more than the 84 percent decline in non-fatal robberies.”
In an interview, Mr. Zimring expanded on his methodology of using independent sources — data the police could “not have fudged” — to confirm police crime statistics. “In all three cases, on the size of the decline and when it happened, I confirmed it,” he said. “I was a little bit surprised with that.”
He added: “That does not say there is no fudging; of course, there is fudging. There is fudging everywhere.” However, he added, the statistical measures of the declines in the three areas he studied seem clearly to survive an audit.
So, what does Professor Zimring plan to tell Mr. Kelly’s panel?
“First of all, I am going to tell them what I am not an expert on is the mechanics of the crime-reporting phenomenon,” he said. “I will then take them through what I did to assess trends and talk about what that does say and what it does not say.” And then, talk to them about what some of the dilemmas in crime reporting are.
That includes a discussion of what he called a “completely garbage category” — larceny — and “a second junk category,” assault.
“I think that police accountability is a very good thing,” Professor Zimring said. “And I don’t think the police should be in a ‘Love us or leave us’ position: ‘If anything we do works, then you have to approve of everything we do.’ That is not the way we run democracies and not the way we should run police departments. But what concerns me is, people should focus on the enormously important changes that have taken place.”...Zimring Journal Article
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