01/06/2011

Do NYPD cops feel pressure to downgrade crimes?

The department has appointed a panel to do a six-month study on how they track crime

By Colleen Long
Associated Press

NEW YORK — Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced Wednesday that a group of former federal prosecutors will examine how the New York City Police Department records crimes, amid allegations that higher-level offenses have been downgraded.

Police officials say that happens rarely, if at all, but a recent study by two criminologists said officers felt pressure to downgrade crimes. The committee will review the department's CompStat crime reporting system and look at how the department audits itself, NYPD officials told The Associated Press. The work is expected to take six months.

"I hope to establish the overall reliability of our statistics and identify any areas in need of improvement," Kelly said.

The announcement was the department's second major effort in recent weeks to show there is nothing phony about the city's historic crime drop. Since 2002, on Kelly's watch, the city has seen the four lowest annual murder totals since the department started keeping comparable statistics in 1962.

Part of the formula for success has been CompStat — a computer program that tracks crimes to squash spikes before they get out of control. Patrols are deployed based on where and when criminals are most active. Precinct commanders are judged mercilessly on the results at CompStat meetings at police headquarters.

Critics say the accountability has created the temptation to record felonies as misdemeanors — or sometimes not to record them at all. In recent years, a handful of commanders have been demoted or transferred amid allegations of cooking the books. The NYPD does not report lower-level offenses to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, though most other departments do.

The NYPD still stands by its numbers, saying the instances of manipulating stats are minute in a city where more than 2,000 serious crimes are reported each week. Just before Christmas, a decade's worth of misdemeanor data was released, and department officials said it showed there were no trends that reflect downgrading. A special unit regularly audits the figures to protect accuracy, and Kelly reiterated Wednesday it does good work.

"Nevertheless, every system can be improved, and our goal is a misclassification rate of zero," Kelly said.

But officers insist the fudging exists. A police officer in the 81st Precinct in Brooklyn, Adrian Schoolcraft, claimed that he was hauled off to a psychiatric ward for days after his superiors found out he had been secretly recording their discussions on downgrading crime and filling quotas through false summonses and arrests.

Criminologist Eli Silverman and a fellow researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, John Eterno, earlier this year published a study based on 491 surveys of former NYPD captains that said they felt pressure to downgrade crimes and put off reports — anything to keep the stats down.

The two have been calling for an independent audit of CompStat and the misdemeanor data, which they say shows crimes are clearly being downgraded. The researchers said Wednesday that a committee chosen by the NYPD is not independent.

"It's the exact opposite of what we called for," Eterno said.

He cited the NYPD figures for criminal trespass, a misdemeanor. He said reports of criminal trespass increased nearly 70 percent during the past decade, while more serious burglary reports declined 49 percent in the same period.

However, police officials noted that petit larcenies decreased, while grand larcenies increased, which show there is no misclassification.

The New York Times has also filed a civil suit against the department over claims it was withholding many forms of information.

Even critics agree that regardless of these issues, New York is a safer place now than it was, especially compared to other large cities with smaller, more strapped departments. Kelly said reliable statistics are essential to keeping the city's confidence and necessary for effective policing strategy, especially as the nation's largest department grapples with a shrinking headcount.

"The integrity of our crime reporting system is of the utmost importance to the department," Kelly said.

The committee will attend CompStat meetings and visit police commanders to understand better how the system operates. Members will also review documents on how crimes are classified.

The group is made up of attorneys David Kelly, Sharon McCarthy and Robert Morvillo, lawyers who have worked as assistant U.S. attorneys in New York, as well as in private practice.

McCarthy was on a team that investigated whether the New York State Police acted improperly in connection with allegations of domestic violence against an aide to former Gov. David Paterson. Kelly was a police officer in East Hampton, N.Y., and Morvillo specialized in prosecuting fraud.

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