Why am I not surprised. Bratton and Giuliani were crooks. I never believed in “broken-windows” theory, despite the fawnings it received in faux-social theory best sellers. Compstat was a pop fad, and the validity of the uniform crime index is a joke. Crime ebbs and flows, and law enforcement can do little to influence or deter it. But that never stopped Bloomberg or his predecessors from taken credit for its decline:
More than a hundred retired New York Police Department captains and higher-ranking officers said in a survey that the intense pressure to produce annual crime reductions led some supervisors and precinct commanders to manipulate crime statistics, according to two criminologists studying the department.
James Estrin/The New York Times
The retired members of the force reported that they were aware over the years of instances of “ethically inappropriate” changes to complaints of crimes in the seven categories measured by the department’s signature CompStat program, according to a summary of the results of the survey and interviews with the researchers who conducted it.
The totals for those seven so-called major index crimes are provided to the F.B.I., whose reports on crime trends have been used by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to favorably compare New York to other cities and to portray it as a profoundly safer place, an assessment that the summary does not contradict.
In interviews with the criminologists, other retired senior officers cited examples of what the researchers believe was a periodic practice among some precinct commanders and supervisors: checking eBay, other Web sites, catalogs or other sources to find prices for items that had been reported stolen that were lower than the value provided by the crime victim. They would then use the lower values to reduce reported grand larcenies — felony thefts valued at more than $1,000, which are recorded as index crimes under CompStat — to misdemeanors, which are not, the researchers said.
Others also said that precinct commanders or aides they dispatched sometimes went to crime scenes to persuade victims not to file complaints or to urge them to change their accounts in ways that could result in the downgrading of offenses to lesser crimes, the researchers said.
“Those people in the CompStat era felt enormous pressure to downgrade index crime, which determines the crime rate, and at the same time they felt less pressure to maintain the integrity of the crime statistics,” said John A. Eterno, one of the researchers and a retired New York City police captain.
His colleague, Eli B. Silverman, added, “As one person said, the system provides an incentive for pushing the envelope.”
The Police Department disputed the survey’s findings, questioned its methodology and pointed to other reviews of the CompStat process that it said supported its position.
The survey, which involved an anonymous questionnaire, was done in coordination with the union representing most of the senior officers in the department. The questionnaires were sent to 1,200 retired captains and more-senior officers; 491 responded, including 323 who retired from the department after 1995, the first full year that the agency, then under William J. Bratton, used CompStat. It is based on the scrupulous tracking of crime complaints and a mix of mapping crime trends, identifying trouble spots and holding precinct commanders directly responsible for attacking those problems.
The survey has its limitations. It is unclear exactly when the retired senior officers left the department, making it impossible to say whether any alleged manipulations came early on or had developed over years and across more than one mayoral administration. The CompStat approach has been widely replicated across the country and has been credited with improving police work in many cities.
Also, the questionnaires did not set out to measure the frequency of any manipulation. None of the respondents were asked to identify specific acts of misconduct, and none admitted to having done it themselves. In addition, it was unclear whether the officials who said they were aware of unethical conduct had firsthand knowledge.
But the survey asked provocative questions and clearly elicited disturbing answers. The retired members of the force were asked whether they were aware of changes to crime reports. Of the 160 who indicated that they were, more than three-quarters said the changes were unethical.
Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, who was provided a copy of the survey’s summary Thursday, said that two other significant, independent and more comprehensive studies had been done in recent years analyzing the integrity of the city’s crime statistics — one in 2006 by a New York University professor and another by the state comptroller’s office — and that he had found them to be reliable and sound.
The report by the N.Y.U. professor, Dennis C. Smith, contained this assessment: “We conclude, as did the state comptroller five years ago, that the city and department officials, and the public can be reasonably assured that the N.Y.P.D. data are accurate, complete and reliable.”
The researchers in the new survey emphasized that the responses — the questionnaires were mailed in September 2008 and returned in early 2009 — showed that most of the senior officers believed that CompStat had been a valuable management innovation. And even few department critics would seriously dispute that the city is much safer than it was in the early 1990s, with murders cut by nearly 80 percent and with neighborhoods, from the notoriously violent to the largely affluent, transformed.
The CompStat system was put in place by Mr. Bratton, Mr. Giuliani’s first of three police commissioners. Versions of the system have been franchised to hundreds of police departments. It was adopted, and in some cases modified, by Mr. Bratton’s successors under Mr. Giuliani, Howard Safir and Bernard B. Kerik, and by Mr. Bloomberg’s commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly.
But as the city annually reported reductions in crime, skepticism emerged in certain quarters — several police unions other than the one that assisted with this survey, elected officials, residents in some neighborhoods — about whether the department’s books were being “cooked.”
Concerns over crime statistics are not unique to New York. Police departments have faced accusations of tampering in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, New Orleans and Washington.
Mr. Kelly, for his part, has said that he instituted a rigorous auditing system to maintain the integrity of the crime reporting operation. And Mr. Browne said Friday that every precinct’s books were audited twice a year, “and where errors are discovered, they are corrected and reflected in revised crime statistics.” He added, “In cases where it is determined that the errors were the result of intentional manipulation, the personnel responsible are disciplined.”
Mr. Browne said that Mr. Kelly had meted out discipline in 11 cases, 4 involving precinct commanders. One of them, he said, was demoted and three others lost their commands. Last week the department confirmed in an article in The Daily News that it was investigating whether the commanding officer in the 81st Precinct in Brooklyn downgraded crimes or refused to take complaints from complainants to artificially reduce serious-crime statistics.
Mr. Browne criticized numerous aspects of the survey, suggesting, for instance, that many of the respondents might simply have been repeating what they had heard or learned from news reports about the “relatively rare instances that gained notoriety.”
“The survey’s biggest flaw is that a hundred respondents may be recalling the same lone incident everyone was talking about when they said they knew of instances when crime reports were manipulated,” he said. “Further, anonymously supplied answers are problematic because it’s hard to assess whether they originate from retirees who felt they were unfairly denied promotion or have some other ax to grind.”
Mr. Browne said that only 37 of the 323 retired senior officers surveyed had served as precinct commanders, arguing that only they would have firsthand CompStat experience. But the researchers said the survey included responses from aides to precinct commanders and higher-ranking officers who oversaw the work of the commanders.
Professor Eterno said the suggestion that 100 former officials might be talking about the same incident was “ludicrous,” and Professor Silverman said the department’s criticism of the use of an anonymous survey indicated a limited understanding of social science methodology.
The seven-page summary of the survey certainly indicates that many of the retired officers believe the system has gone significantly wrong.
Indeed, the researchers said the responses supported longstanding concerns voiced by some critics about the potential problems inherent in CompStat. The former officers indicate that it was the intense pressure brought to bear on the commanders of the city’s 76 precincts in twice-weekly CompStat meetings — where they are grilled, and sometimes humiliated, before their peers and subordinates, and where careers and promotions can be made or lost — that drove some to make “unethical” and “highly unethical” alterations to crime reports.
Mr. Browne said that when Mr. Kelly took over the department in 2002, he barred spectators from CompStat meetings in light of complaints from some commanders that they had been ridiculed in the forum in front of outsiders. He said Mr. Kelly believed that the presence of outsiders “demeaned the process and was unprofessional.”
The two researchers are writing a book scheduled for publication this summer based in part on the survey; it is tentatively titled “Unveiling CompStat: The Naked Truth.” They provided a copy of the summary and the survey questions to The New York Times. They declined, however, to provide a full report until the head of the union with which they worked had shared it with the Police Department.
When Professor Eterno retired as a captain from the Police Department in 2004, he was working in its crime analysis and program planning section. He is now the director of graduate criminal justice studies at Molloy College on Long Island, which financed the study. Professor Silverman wrote a book about CompStat in 1999 before retiring from theJohn Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2003.
Roy T. Richter, president of the Captains Endowment Association, which represents the retired officials, said the challenges that his retired members had faced — and his active members still face — were significant, as crime continues to decline and precinct commanders must continue to beat their previous year’s performance despite a force with thousands fewer officers.
He called the survey results “troubling,” and said that while CompStat can be an effective tool, to the extent that it is “used as a sword to subject a commander to humiliation before his peers, I don’t think it’s an effective management tool.”
More than a year before Professor Smith of N.Y.U. published his study praising CompStat in 2006, a city commission created to monitor the Police Department’s effort to fight corruption sought to examine the integrity of the department’s statistics. But while the department cooperated with the professor, it refused to comply with the commission.
And despite the efforts of its chairman, Mark F. Pomerantz, a respected former federal prosecutor, the commission could not win subpoena power, and it was not able to examine allegations that crime complaints were downgraded.
The department had argued that those allegations did not fall under the panel’s mandate because the matters did not constitute corruption.