July 18, 2015

The NYPD and Fudged Figures

What happens when police officers are both evaluated based on a statistical analysis of criminal activity taking place in their precinct and given primary responsibility for keeping track of said activity? Give yourself a gold star if you guessed that some officers might play a little fast and loose with the figures.

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It was reported yesterday that NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has announced the transfer of the commanding officer of the 40th precinct in the Bronx, along with a lieutenant, eight sergeants, nine officers, and one detective, as a result of under reporting of criminal complaints. This statistical manipulation serves a multitude of purposes, the most obvious of which is to show an artificial decline in the crime rate within the precinct.

Statistics are a critical component of crime fighting in the NYPD, which relies heavily on its CompStat program to track criminal activity throughout the city with great specificity. These analytics allow the NYPD to adjust its tactics and personnel deployment in sync with the activity it is seeking to suppress. Speaking generally, analytics are a useful tool for gaining insight into whatever business you are in, and policing is no exception, providing of course that your statistics are accurate.

As a side note, such a heavy emphasis on statistics comes with a price. The NYPD, understandably, wants its officers to meet certain numerical requirements. Yes, I know the department routinely denies that there are "quotas" but the evidence of required "activity levels" is compelling. By requiring numbers, quality is often sacrificed for quantity. Whether it's patrol officers scrambling to meet their monthly summons and arrest figures or detectives looking for informants to sign up, search warrants to write, or bodies to arrest, the need to create a statistical body of work often pushes officers into making baseless arrests or engaging in related misconduct. 

In this regard, it is not surprising that the NYPD rewards arrest numbers without regard for what happens to those arrested. In many cases -- say, a search warrant execution by a narcotics team -- a small amount of drugs may be found on someone's person, but the officers proceed to arrest everybody in sight. Prosecutors often decline those prosecutions or dismiss the cases shortly thereafter (which sometimes results in civil lawsuits). Such outcomes matter not to the NYPD, which does not distinguish between arrests that lead to felony convictions and those that prosecutors summarily reject without bothering to charge anyone. That is to say, it is the arrest numbers that matter most, not their validity.

All of this means that the bottom line numbers offered up by the NYPD should be treated with no small amount of skepticism. Whether it is the amount of crimes supposedly taking place, or the number of arrests being made, these numbers often lie.

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