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Safety in numbers: Authors of book assailing police stats say it’s for the NYPD’s own good

Authors John Eterno and Eli Silverman scrutinize COMPSTAT and raise sharp questions about its accuracy

Eli Silverman and John Eterno — career John Jay College criminologist and former New York City police captain — don’t hate the NYPD. In fact, they’re effusive with praise for the world’s largest municipal force. But after years of research, the two professors have concluded that the system driving crime reporting in New York has malfunctioned and public safety is suffering.

Known as Compstat, the NYPD tracking system aggregates information recorded by front-line police officers on every criminal incident they encounter. Precinct commanders then package data on the most serious crimes into reports to a panel of citywide officials.

Eli Silverman

John Eterno

Two years ago, Silverman and Eterno first revealed the results of their investigation in a journal article that caused an uproar at the NYPD. Relying on interviews with retired senior officers ranked captain or higher, Silverman and Eterno alleged that police supervisors and commanders in New York City have manipulated crime statistics and underreported serious incidents under pressure from superiors.

Now Eterno and Silverman have expanded that research into a new book out this week, The Crime Numbers Game: Management by Manipulation (Taylor and Francis). With the help of the Captain’s Endowment Association, the union for supervising officers, they administered a survey to nearly 500 retired NYPD officers, most of whom were still on the force when the Giuliani administration first introduced Compstat in 1994.

To their survey results the authors added interviews with officers still in the line of duty as well and retirees. What emerges is a picture of police culture in which quotas to reduce crime numbers for the seven major crimes tracked by Compstat — murder, rape, robbery, felonious assault, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft – have promoted manipulation of numbers and especially the widespread downgrading of reports of serious crimes into lesser offenses.

“It’s intolerable that the numbers go up,” said Silverman, “so officers on the ground often downgrade incidents.”

In one example cited in the book, a detective investigating a rape case in Upper Manhattan’s 33rd precinct had the perpetrator, under interrogation, admit to seven other assaults. Upon looking up the perpetrator’s file and re interviewing victims, the detective found that seven other rapes acknowledged by the same man had been downgraded to criminal trespass by investigating officers.

“Why were they downgraded? Because the officers were under pressure to fill their quotas,” posited Silverman. “Just think, had they not been downgraded, some of those women could have been spared.”

In other instances, interviewees revealed instances of precinct commanders dispatching officers to crime scenes to convince victims to alter their complaints so that offenses could later be downgraded.

In what Eterno and Silverman describe as the “game of keeping up appearances,” the pressure, they allege, comes from the top — the Commissioner, and the Mayor. The city has committed itself to a declining crime rate, “and given that mandate to look good, commanders need to push the envelope,” says Silverman, with sympathy for lower-ranked officers. “The police on the street don’t want to be doing this!”

In the book, Eterno and Silverman quote anonymous officer saying, “My job is to make sure we don’t take a hit on a number unless we have to.”

The authors detail how precinct commanders deliver reports to a citywide Compstat panel. They describe a confrontational environment where commanders are often verbally abused in front of their colleagues.

Another interviewee says, “Eventually Compstat became a way to just generate numbers. We even got pressure from City Hall.… Upper echelon just wanted more and more …”

They write, “Indeed, even the most dedicated NYPD commanders and former commanders that we interviewed indicated that they were aware of and witnessed their brother and sister commanders often being unnecessarily berated because they were not articulate or savvy enough to have an immediate response to a question.”

The professors have faced their own assaults from critics – including the mayor’s office, other criminologists, and the NYPD. When the survey results were initially released two years ago, Police Department spokesman Paul Browne dismissed them, asserting that two more comprehensive studies of the system – one of which compared Compstat results to numbers in the National Crime Victimization Survey – had shown the police crime statistics to be reliable.

Others, notably Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, have disputed the study in its entirety, calling the evidence presented by the professors meager.

The survey at the heart of Silverman and Eterno’s book has some clear limitations. It was administered by a police union, and responses were completely anonymous; not even the borough in which the officer served is disclosed. It’s unclear when the senior officers interviewed actually retired from the force, and it is therefore difficult to determine exactly when various instances of alleged number doctoring took place.

Survey respondents weren’t made to recount specifics about incidents, or even whether they’d seen them first-hand or had simply heard about them. Finally, there is no way of determining the frequency of complaints, so it’s not clear whether any given response asserting numbers were altered reflected one incident or many.

The authors say that these all reflect concessions they had to make in order to get the data in the first place, while providing complete anonymity to their respondents.

“This is the first time primary evidence like this has ever been gathered to examine Compstat,” said Eterno. “We do not need exact timeframes for our research, only pre-post Compstat. Knowing more than this can threaten anonymity and therefore validity or truthfulness of the responses.”

Eterno, still revealing a certain policeman-like stiffness when he speaks, says that he has felt bullied by some of the NYPD top brass displeased with his work. “We’re not activists or anarchists” he said. “That’s not our background. When we first did this survey and got the results we were shocked.”

Indeed, Eterno says he supports the Compstat system for tracking crime. The trouble, he says, lies in the NYPD’s reliance on the system as a political tool for public relations.

Eterno says he believes better transparency is a solution, and that with greater public scrutiny will come more accountability for the numbers.

The pair decided to collaborate on the project around 2007, after independently hearing repeated anecdotal reports the downgrading of serious crime and an increase in minor misdemeanors. They compared information on several specific cases they had been studying through their field research and realized that they were seeing a pattern.

“It just got the point where we were ignoring the obvious story,” said Silverman.

“We’re not doing this in the spirit of malice,” he added, pointing to more than a dozen recommendations in the book to reform Compstat. They include more public auditing of police practices, less emphasis on complying with numbers that comply with political ends, Compstat, and more direct community involvement.

“With no transparency, there is no scrutiny,” said Silverman. “With no scrutiny, how can we determine whether what they’re giving us is accurate?”

The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment from The New York World. But in other venues, the department has responded to the questions raised by Silverman and Eterno’s research.

Acknowledging criticism leveled against the NYPD reporting system, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced in January the formation of a new Crime Reporting Review Committee to scrutinize the integrity of the department’s crime statistics.

The committee, which is headed by three former federal prosecutors, is yet to deliver its findings.

“There’s been a lot of false, or unfair, accusations against the Police Department,” NYPD spokesman Browne said in explaining why the department moved to create the panel. He didn’t specify Eterno and Silverman’s study but their work is a clear target of the review.

Silverman characterizes the NYPD’s attempts to discredit the findings as self-defeating. “We’re trying to get the Police Department out of a funk,” he said. “We’re not enemies. We just think they’re stuck in a numbers game and they need a circuit breaker.”