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New York City’s Crime Drop Is Real

eye on the news

New York City’s Crime Drop Is Real

Longtime Compstat critics Eli Silverman and John Eterno have a problem. December 10, 2014

For the last six years or so, Eli Silverman, a retired professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and John Eterno, a professor at Molloy College and a former NYPD cop, have been promoting the idea that the record-breaking New York City crime drop is a mirage. New York precinct commanders have been forced to doctor their crime statistics, they said, because of excessive pressure from top brass to show a continuous crime decline.

Silverman and Eterno placed the blame for this alleged number-fudging on Compstat—the weekly crime-analysis meetings introduced in 1994 by New York police commissioner William Bratton, then in his first tour of duty in that job. Compstat revolutionized policing by holding precinct commanders ruthlessly accountable for crime patterns on their watch; it led to the longest and steepest crime drop on record. But, according to Silverman and Eterno, Compstat became an inflexible mechanism, especially under Ray Kelly, commissioner from 2002 to 2013. It imposed an insatiable demand for crime improvement that could only be satisfied by cooking the books.

Silverman and Eterno’s thesis, however, rested on a methodologically flawed survey of NYPD captains. It ignored the massive commitment that the department makes to data integrity and the severe punishments it metes out to those commanders who can’t explain suspiciously rosy crime drops. Nor did their charges account for independent measures of crime, such as the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey and auto-insurance claims, which tracked the NYPD’s reported crime data to a T. No matter. The NYPD’s many critics, including the New York Times, embraced Silverman and Eterno as part of a larger campaign to discredit the department’s assertive, data-driven style of policing.

If the crime drop of the Kelly years was in good part the product of data dissembling, that crime drop should have halted or even reversed itself now that we are almost a year into Bratton’s second tenure as New York’s top cop. Bratton has distanced himself from some of Kelly’s policies, such as the alleged pressure on cops to conduct pedestrian stops of suspicious individuals. Bratton would presumably also change the allegedly draconian ethos of Compstat under Kelly. But rather than petering out, the New York crime drop has continued. Felonies are down 4 percent this year; absent a December killing spree, homicides will reach their lowest point in 2014 since the modern era of police record-keeping began in 1956.

If the regime of alleged number fudging under Kelly existed but now has ended, then Bratton’s accomplishment is twice what it appears to be. He would have had to make up for the fake crime decline of the Kelly years merely to keep crime flat, and then go beyond that to register an actual crime decline. Though Bratton is an accomplished manager, it’s unlikely that he has engineered so massive a crime triumph. Instead, he has likely built on the real progress made under Kelly. Perhaps, however, Bratton’s NYPD is merely perpetuating the statistical sleight-of-hand of the Kelly decade. If so, we should expect Silverman and Eterno to lodge their charge of number-fudging against Bratton, as they did against Kelly. I asked Silverman how he accounted for the continuing crime drop this year. He declined to answer.

Unless Silverman and Eterno provide credible evidence that the NYPD is endemically reclassifying and hiding crime, the endurance of New York’s crime decline across different management regimes powerfully suggests that the NYPD’s triumph is real. The moral is clear: commander accountability is a salutary policing innovation. The NYPD’s Compstat-induced urgency about crime-fighting has not only saved thousands of lives, it has also made the city safer in virtually every measure of crime.

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