The Numbers Game: Does the NYPD Manipulate Crime Statistics?

By Sulome Anderson on Nov 30th, 2010

Deborah Nathan

Deborah Nathan stands at the spot in Inwood Hill Park where she was attacked. (Photo by Sulome Anderson)

On the evening of February 17, Deborah Nathan was dragged into the woods of Inwood Hill Park by an unknown assailant who, she said, sexually assaulted her. When her attacker fled the scene, Nathan immediately called 911. She was stunned and disappointed by the response.

A dispatcher told Nathan that the police were busy elsewhere, she said, and she waited for more than two hours before paramedics arrived. When the police finally took her report, according to Nathan, she provided a description of her attacker, as well as a full account of what he said during the attempted assault.

The police told her that the incident would be classified as “forcible touching,” a misdemeanor. Nathan, a 59-year-old freelance journalist, was surprised, believing she’d been the victim of attempted rape, a felony. She was further disappointed when she received a copy of her police report, and discovered that most of the details she’d provided weren’t included.

The next morning, an indignant Nathan posted an account of her experience on an Inwood blog (and subsequently told it to the Village Voice). Her story soon reached Adriano Espaillat, then the district’s state assemblyman, and the same afternoon, Nathan’s police report was changed, the crime upgraded to attempted rape, a felony.

Similar accounts, in which the police have reportedly downgraded felony crimes to misdemeanors in an apparent attempt to keep crime statistics low, have emerged over the past few years. In May, the Village Voice published transcripts of audio recordings by Adrian Schoolcraft, a patrol officer in Brooklyn’s 81st precinct, on which police officers were encouraged by their superiors to manipulate crime statistics by failing to record robberies and other crimes.  The New York Times has also covered the manipulation of crime statistics.

The practice appears to reach beyond the 81st precinct, two academic researchers have concluded.  Eli B. Silverman, professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of CUNY, is one of the directors of a Molloy* College study, “Survey Summary: NYPD Management Speaks Out.”

Silverman and coauthor John A. Eterno of Molloy College administered a survey to more than 309 retired police officers and precinct commanders and reported that “74.3 percent felt high pressure from superiors by way of CompStat to decrease index crime.” On their blog, Unveiling CompStat, Silverman and Eterno say the survey shows that “commanders felt greater pressure to downgrade major crimes to minor crimes from 1995”–  the first full year of CompStat — “to 2008 than they did before CompStat was initiated.

“What we found, to make a long story short, “ said Silverman, “was that there is an underside of the current management system… Numbers are driving the system.”

For example, a police officer at an upper Manhattan precinct, who insisted on anonymity because he feared for his job, said in an interview that the police department frequently misclassifies felony robberies as misdemeanors.

“It comes down to what’s in your purse and how badly you were hurt,” the officer said. “If it wasn’t that bad, they’re going to turn it into a misdemeanor larceny. And you know why that is? Because misdemeanors don’t count” in CompStat’s crime statistics.

Senior officers know about this practice and actively support it, the officer said. “Everything happens from the top down now.”

Four attempts to reach the police department for comment, through phone calls and emails over several weeks, received no response.

CompStat, short for comparative statistics, is a system intended to help the New York Police Department map crime. At weekly meetings, officers from each precinct present a statistical summary of the week’s complaints, arrests and summons. The CompStat unit generates a citywide database and compiles a weekly CompStat report, meant to allow precinct commanders to view emerging crime trends and funnel personnel where needed. The major index crimes are forwarded to the FBI in New York City’s Uniform Crime Report.

Although he feels CompStat was once a valuable tool, the uptown police officer said he’d grown concerned with the way it’s used. “When CompStat came into it, it was a good thing, because you could keep track of what was going on,” he said. “But the NYPD commanders have really bastardized the CompStat system to the point where it’s all about numbers.” Instead of being used to map surges in crime, he believes, CompStat is used to pressure police to hold the numbers down, which can lead to deliberately misclassifying crimes.

The disparity between local hospital data and police crime statistics supports the officer’s statements. In 2009, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital on 113th Street and Amsterdam Avenue treated 210 people for sexual assault, which it describes as rape, said Susan Xenarios of the hospital’s crime victims unit. Of those victims treated, 110 reported their assaults to police, yet the six precincts surrounding St. Luke’s Hospital reported a total of 58 rapes last year.

Through the end of September 2010, St. Luke’s treated 196 victims of sexual assault, 126 of whom filled out police reports. Again, the six surrounding police precincts reported 82 rapes during the same period.

Harlem Hospital, which serves a much smaller area than St. Luke’s, treated 116 rape victims from 2009 through the end of September 2010. The surrounding three precincts reported only 75 rapes for the same period.

Officials from St. Luke’s-Roosevelt and Harlem Hospital stated that although a small number of people come to both hospitals from elsewhere in Manhattan, the vast majority of patients live in the surrounding area. (New York Presbyterian Hospital on West 168th Street declined to provide similar data.)  The New York Times used a similar method in its reporting on CompStat.

Discrepancies in Rape Statistics (Designed by Sulome Anderson, Jason Alcorn and Tahiat Mahboob)

What happened to Nathan is hardly surprising, the police officer said, adding that some members of the Special Victims Unit, which handles crimes like rape and attempted rape, also engage in the practice of downgrading crimes. “They’ll get a rape, and say it’s not a rape,“ he said.

Former police officer Colleen Helly, who retired in September from the 32nd precinct, shares those concerns. She has personally experienced pressure from supervisors to downgrade a crime from a felony to a misdemeanor, she said.  Listening to her fellow officers, Helly said, she learned that the practice has become widespread.

Robberies and sex crimes like Nathan’s are the easiest to manipulate, especially if the victim isn’t visibly hurt, Helly said. “If there’s no penetration, they won’t make it a sex abuse case,” she said. “If there’s no bruising, no injuries, they’re going to drop it down.”

Downgrading begins when responding officers alter or omit information in police reports, in Helly’s experience. “There are cases that do get downgraded,” she said, “and the majority of them are because of how they’re written up.” She blames poor training for some omissions, but says pressure from above prompts most deliberate downgradings. “It’s to make the city look better,” she said.

The way crime victims respond to questions also affects whether a crime is downgraded, Helly said. “They’ll ask you certain questions,” she said of the police. “If you answer those questions the wrong way, they’ll change the report.” Helly clarified by saying that if a victim omits any pertinent information during questioning, or gives an answer that might be construed as suspicious, the police usually downgrade that report. Other times, Helly said, officers are instructed by their superiors to alter reports after they’ve been filed. “It comes from the higher-ups,” she stated. “They’re going to call the cop and have the cop rewrite it.”

Like the unidentified officer, Helly believes that although CompStat was originally a useful instrument, it has begun to take over the department. “It’s a numbers game,” she said. “You’re trying to dictate to the people who are actually out there doing these jobs how they have to do them.”

That’s because the New York Police Department is under enormous public and political pressure to keep crime statistics low, Silverman said, which can lead to misconduct. “Since ’93 and ’94, the crime rate has been going down every year,” he said. “And the public in my view has been sold the goods that crime inevitably will go down, and therefore, no mayor and no police commissioner wants crime going up on his watch.”

The problem is more widespread than has been reported, Silverman added. “It’s very mind-blowing,” he said. ”The mainstream press has only treated it sporadically…My view is, the dots are all there, but no one’s connecting them.” He noted that the police have refused to permit independent analyses of its statistics.

Incidents like Nathan’s are an inevitable product of the current system, Silverman said. “She happens to be an articulate woman,” he said. “How many non-articulate women is this happening to?”

Some community members have similar questions about police practices. “They do not report a lot of that crime,” said Jackie Rowe Adams, the president and co-founder of Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E., an organization for parents who have lost children to gun violence. “They make it look like they’re the good guys and they’re doing their job so well, and the crime is not happening, and they sweep it under the rug.”

Deborah Nathan, former senior editor of the urban affairs magazine City Limits, believes her attempted assault was deliberately downgraded. “I think I was CompStated,” she said. Because key information – including things her assailant said — was omitted from her police report, Nathan said the police department will have a hard time finding similarities if her attacker strikes again. “Since it’s not in my report, because my report was downgraded…how are they going to find a pattern?” So far, there has been no arrest in Nathan’s case.

The police gave Nathan a receipt on the night of her attack; it clearly lists the reporting officer as Rosanna Capellan (she did not respond to two calls and one email seeking comment, relayed through the police department’s public information staff) and the offense as forcible touching. When Nathan got a copy of her police report, the police had already upgraded her crime to felony attempted rape, but had failed to change the language of the report, she said.

The report states that Nathan, the complaining victim (C/V) “stated she went out for a walk inside of Inwood Park, when an unknown perp approached her from behind and grabbed her, stating ‘I want pussy,’ and pushed her into the wooded area. Perp then fled into wooded area. C/V also stated at no time perp grabbed her private area, or tried to remove her clothing. C/V further states perp did not force her to have sex or any sexual activity. Sgt. Duffy on scene, Det. McSherry 34 Sqd. notified, and Sgt. Bach from Special Victims also notified.” Duffy, McSherry, and Bach also did not respond to requests for comment.

Nathan’s account, which she said she shared with police, was very different. “He started humping on me,” Nathan said. “He just started humping his pelvis on my butt, and basically masturbating on me… then he gave this big groan, like he had had an orgasm, and then he jumped off me and he ran off.” None of this appears in the police report.

Nor did police include the description of the attacker Nathan said she supplied; in fact, Nathan said she told police that in response to her questions, the attacker had told her that his name was Michael, that he was 17 and had never had sex.

After her report was changed to a felony, Nathan said, she was contacted by Lisa Friel, chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit. During their conversation, Nathan said Friel acknowledged the district attorney’s office was seeing an increase in such downgradings, and assured Nathan that Friel would meet with the Police Department’s deputy commissioner of operations, Phil T. Pulaski, to discuss the problem. The district attorney’s office declined to comment.*

According to Nathan, Friel said, “I keep telling him, ‘These kinds of problems are going to happen to the wrong person, so why don’t you sit down and deal with them now?’”

“And then she said I was the wrong person,” Nathan said. “It finally happened.”

*The story originally misspelled Molloy College and erroneously reported that the district attorney’s office failed to respond to phone calls seeking comment.

2 Responses for “The Numbers Game: Does the NYPD Manipulate Crime Statistics?”

  1. Liz says:

    Amazing writing and an amazing expose altogether!

  2. It is amazing that there is an apology to the office of the DA for an erroneous report. And lawyers wonder why they are universally disliked. The same office, often by its convenient silence, is prepared to reinforce the criminal justice establishments politicising of law and order. It’s a miracle that any institution this thin skinned can survive in New York.

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