Hoover Daily Report

Crime Statistics—the Only Game in Town

Monday, February 18, 2002

The American public likes to believe that police officers are above partisan politics, but is this really the case?

During my more than thirty years as a cop, I produced and sometimes created crime statistics. I started my police career almost half a century ago walking a solo beat in Harlem. My first arrest as a flatfoot was for first-degree murder by virtue of the fact that I bumbled into arresting the perpetrator while the victim lay dying on the sidewalk. During my next ten years in Harlem, I found that cops who were not so lucky but who reported robberies, rapes, burglaries, or other serious felonies with no arrest were unlikely to remain on the force. No official order was ever given to underreport or not report crimes that weren't cleared, but an officer following the rulebook would soon find out from his sergeant that he had an attitude. Once sergeants decided you had a wrong attitude it was time to look for another job. One cop I worked with had an outstanding felony arrest record; eight out of ten of his arrests, however, were for assaulting him after he had created an altercation—crime created by a police officer.

Approximately sixteen years after my first arrest, I had risen to the director of crime analysis for the NYPD. Stationed a few blocks from the World Trade Center with the responsibility for compiling and analyzing crime statistics for the city of New York, I found that things hadn't changed much. The mayor didn't like high crime stats with no arrests. Thus, the police commissioner didn't either. The precinct captains knew their careers depended on the amount of crime reported, and, of course, the sergeants knew quite well what the captains wanted. Consequently, it was a bad idea for a rookie to report a robbery with no arrest—much better to make it an unfounded report. It was not illegal, and we had become cops to avoid working in an office and dealing with paperwork.

So are the 30 and 40 percent crime reductions for which Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani claim credit phony or real? Some analysts credit full employment, additional police, mandatory sentences, maturation of the crack market, and better policing. Neither human nature nor politics, however, has changed through the years. Next time a candidate or "expert" tells us we need to spend more money to reduce crime, remember the old vaudeville joke: First man: "I saw you playing in that crap game last night. Didn't you know it was crooked?" Second man: "Sure, but it was the only game in town." In most towns, local politics is the only game in town when it comes to precisely counting crime.