Year in and year out, the New York Police Department proudly broadcasts its statistics for major crimes. And each year for more than a decade, its numbers have showed how reports of murder, rape, robbery, serious assault and theft have hit historic lows.
But since the end of 2002, the department, the nation’s largest, has not made public its statistics on reports of lower-level crimes: a vast trove of complaints about matters like misdemeanor thefts and assaults, marijuana possession and sex offenses other than rape.
As a result, residents across New York have gone without a full understanding of the quality of life in their corners of the city. It has also complicated the efforts of some to examine fully the department’s reductions in major crimes.
Major crimes are called “index crimes” because they are an indicator of all crime, according to experts. If major crimes are falling, so, typically, should lower-level crimes. Having both sets of data, some criminologists assert, would allow for a sort of truth testing.
…The integrity of the department’s crime statistics has been questioned recently. In an academic survey released this year, more than 100 retired captains and higher-ranking officers indicated they were aware of instances of “ethically inappropriate” changes to crime complaints in the seven major felony categories measured by the department.
The issue here isn’t just the police department’s mendacity; it also means criminal complaints in certain neighborhoods are trivialized and dangerous offenders aren’t dealt with properly. In a deeply disturbing recent episode of This American Life, a reporter told the story of how a Brooklyn neighborhood had been terrorized by a serial rapist that the precinct’s detectives never knew about, since every time the suspect was arrested, the charges against him were downgraded from sexual assault, burglary and first-degree robbery to criminal trespassing or criminal possession of a weapon. And so you have the CompStat system, which was meant to illuminate and track criminal activity, being used as a way to obfuscate it.