City officials seem more skeptical than concerned over charges that some police commanders may have downgraded or simply not reported crimes in order to meet numerical targets set by top police department officials for reducing crime. The suspicions were brought forward last month by Newsday for one precinct and repeated forcefully by a major police union alleging a department-wide problem.
But the allegations -- along with the silence over another set of numbers, the substantial increase in documented and substantiated complaints about police misconduct -- show how numbers can add up to more, or less, than one might expect when trying to size up the quality of policing in New York.
A Case Study?
Though long whispered about among skeptics with little faith in the police department to begin with, the most recent allegations about underreporting crime surfaced with a report by Newsday examining the 50th precinct, in the Bronx.
That story noted that while crime had decreased nearly 26 percent during the three-year leadership of Deputy Inspector Thomas DiRusso, there was an 11 percent increase in crime since the January departure of DiRusso to head one of two the narcotics divisions in Brooklyn.
Newsday pointed to several incidents that occurred on DiRusso’s watch to suggest an underreporting of crimes: an officer disciplined for allegedly forging a complainant’s name in order to downgrade a grand larceny to a petit larceny (the complainant later disputed this characterization) ; interviews with two people who said police responded to their complaints in person but did not write a report; and, after a rash of reports from delivery drivers that they were targets for robbery led to a stationhouse meeting, the way DiRusso threatened the delivery drivers with summonses for riding their bicycles on the sidewalk.
Two days after the story was published, leaders for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association called a press conference. Union president Patrick Lynch asserted that the problem was endemic to the department, and called on Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly to conduct a thorough investigation.
“It is a truth that is widely known by members of the department," Lynch reportedly said, "and now we have to see if the police commissioner has the courage to face the truth and do what is right for the City of New York."
Police regularly subject crime reports to an internal audit, and last June admitted that 203 crimes had been improperly downgraded in Manhattan’s 10th precinct. But in this case, police officials have sharply denied the accusations, pointing to audits that showed no wrongdoing. Police officials instead have accused Lynch of targeting DiRusso because the deputy inspector had transferred a union delegate. Meanwhile, the union claims that that officer was transferred after taking a stand against the underreporting of crime in the precinct.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg also scoffed at the comments by Lynch, calling them outrageous. “You can’t have it both ways,” said Bloomberg reportedly. “You can’t have a billboard in Times Square claiming you’re doing such a great job and therefore need a raise, and thenâ€¦claim that the success of the NYPD is inflated.”
An Ever-Moving Target
The union has been fighting Kelly and the Bloomberg administration for months, publicly calling for the resignation of Kelly for the way he publicly said the shooting of unarmed teen Timothy Stansbury Jr. was “apparently unjustified” before a departmental investigation could be conducted.
In their latest criticism of top department officials, the PBA are seeking to highlight shrinking police department personnel, which since 2000 have dipped by about 4,000 officers to 37,000.
“We’ve reached a point today where because of a significant loss of personnel in our department we are unable to fight crime successfully, and yet the bureaucracy doesn’t want to admit this,” said Albert O’Leary, communications director of the police union.
The controversy also highlights possible shortcomings of the Compstat system for tracking crime, which, despite its ubiquity, is not without its detractors.
O’Leary said that precinct commanders were under “tremendous pressure” to reach managerial targets for reducing crime. Compstat simply doesn’t take into account the law diminishing returns, said O’Leary, something top departmental officials have failed to incorporate when evaluating department performance.
“I honestly believe, if [former Commissioner William Bratton] was still commissionerâ€¦there would be adjustments made,” said O’Leary.
O’Leary promised that the story is not going to go away, with the union continuing to speak out on the issue “over the next few weeks, as our officers come out with hard and incontrovertible evidence.”
And as for residents or those thinking of moving into a new neighborhood using Compstat numbers to gauge safety, O’Leary had this to say: “Don’t live your life based on numbers like the police department does.”
More Complaints Meansâ€¦Well, More Complaints
If fewer crimes reported may not mean fewer crimes, what does an increase in complaints about police misconduct mean? According to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, just about anything.
Despite releasing a report in January that showed 5,581 people filed complaints against police officers, an increase of 969 from the previous year, the review board maintains that the numbers don’t necessarily point to widespread police misconduct.
“It’s not a proportional equation.” said Ray Patterson, noting that specific incidents can lead to spikes in complaints, such as anti-war rallies last February. Commissioners on the board have also noted that the introduction of the 311 system for reporting complaints may have also contributed to the increase in complaints.
Christopher Dunn, associate legal director the New York Civil Liberties Union, disagrees. “When complaints over the course of three years increase significantly, that certainly suggests something significant is happening.” Substantiation rates have also increased from year to year.
But Bill Kuntz, a commissioner for the review board, noted during a February meeting (In PDF Format) that during the 1992 “Dirty 30” scandal in which more than 30 officers from the 30th Precinct in Harlem were accused of stealing drugs and cash and taking bribes, complaints about police misconduct were actually going down, citywide and in that precinct.
Kuntz railed against both the police and those from the civil liberties communities who seek to use the numbers as proof of either widespread problems or exemplary performance.
“Life is more complicated than that,” Kuntz said. Of course, the department is currently facing a corruption inquiry focusing on as many as 10 officers accused of taking drug money
Patterson said that the review board simply doesn’t have the resources to undertake the “social science” project to analyze its own data.
So why release the data publicly?
“We’re duty bound by law to report to the mayor,” Patterson said flatly.