Rosy crime stats spark questions

Falling crime statistics are practically ubiquitous in Brooklyn, but if you’ve ever suspected that the plummeting figures delivered monthly at your local police community council meeting are just a little bit too rosy, you are not alone.

While many agree that the city has become a safer place over the years, the question remains: do police stats accurately reflect the number of crimes actually occurring in the neighborhood?

“People can misinterpret or misuse statistics all the time,” City Councilmember Lew Fidler told this newspaper. “It just strikes me that the crime statistics we hear are too good to be true.”

Last week, a cop from the 81st Precinct in Bedford-Stuyvesant charged that his bosses regularly manipulated crime stats by downgrading certain crimes and ignoring others.

City Councilmember Peter F. Vallone, Jr., chair of the Public Safety Committee, has called for a special hearing as a result of the allegations.

Anthony Borgese, a teacher at Kingsborough Community College, says that cops from the 63rd Precinct in Marine Park actively dissuaded him from filing a crime report when he became a victim of identity theft in 2008.

“I just laugh [when I hear about falling crime stats],” Borgese said. “Inmy opinion they’re only down because they’re making it difficult for people to make a report.”

Fidler, who represents constituents from Sheepshead Bay to Starrett City, says cops are doing a good job, but nevertheless believes that precinct commanders are under “inordinate pressure” to make sure their crime stats “look good.”

“There is human nature involved here when we elevate statistics to the holy grail,” Fidler said. “It’s like the progress report cards – the fantasy baseball of the Department of Education.”

Fidler supports Vallone’s calls for hearings and thinks an audit by the comptroller’s office might not be a bad idea either.

Former police officer Eugene O’Donnell worked in both East Flatbush and Crown Heights during his career. These days he’s a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

While O’Donnell says you can be almost sure that the numbers for things like homicide are accurate – “you just can’t hide the bodies” – he says there is “room at the margins to play around with the numbers.”

“Any time that you have a commander under pressure for numbers, the temptation has to be to drive the numbers down by hook or by crook,” O’Donnell says.

Ed Jaworski, longtime homeowner and vice president of the Madison-Marine-Homecrest Civic Association, says that crime has definitely dropped in his community over the last 35 years. But problems still persist.

“One of the current types of crimes we often hear about at our meetings from the police is car break-ins resulting in the theft of small items – sometimes just pocket change,” Jaworski said.“Some neighbors who experienced such incidents neglect to call the police.Others say they were dissuaded by an officer from filing a report because it was a small amount taken.In either case, besides keeping stats low, it means there is no record that bad guys are lurking on a specific block.”

City Councilmember Domenic Recchia, whose District encompasses the 60th, 61st and 62nd precincts, dismisses the notion that police crime stats are misleading and says that the city has become safer since the NYPD started using its CompStat system to track crime.

“When there is a [crime] spike [precinct commanders] they tell us,” Recchia said. “Why would these inspectors and captains put their careers on the on the line?”

City Councilmember Vincent Gentile, one of two Brooklynites on the Public Safety Committee, said that he believes the NYPD is “investigating the allegations responsibly.”

The NYPD points to a 2006 study by Dennis Smith of the Wagner School of Public Service and Robert Purtell of the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at SUNY Albany that found, among other things, “the NYPD system, especially as compared to the quality-control practices of eight other large departments, is by far the most robust and systematic quality-control approach in current use.”

“The problem is you can lose your command if your numbers go up,” O’Donnell said.“The bigger point is that integrity flows downward. Cops see what’s going on at the top. It’s important for the [Police] Department to say that when we certify the numbers they are right. The Department has to send the message that we don’t care where the numbers take us.”

Boroughwide, overall crime stats -as measured by the seven major felony crime categories of murder, rape, robbery felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and grand larceny auto – continued to fall last year, despite almost half of the city’s homicides occurring here.

In Coney Island, neighbors began organizing an ambitious new coalition involving schools, churches, civic organizations and other community stakeholders in response to the rising tide in shootings and murders in their neighborhood. All this, at a time when the 60th Precinct reported an overall drop in major felony crime for 2009.

“As long as people are reporting the crime it’s in the statistics,” 60th Precinct Community Council President Judd Fischler said. “Major crimes like car thefts are pretty legit. I think in general we’re not doing so bad.”

O’Donnell says there has been a “sea change” of accountability within the NYPD.

“When I was a cop in the 80’s there’s no pressure on anybody to do anything,” O’Donnell said. “You could be out to lunch. Now captains know the names of the crime victims. They really get into the details.”

According to Fidler, there is a danger in “deluding ourselves” about the veracity of crime stats.

“If we delude ourselves into thinking there’s less crime, we might delude ourselves into thinking we might need fewer cops,” Fidler said.