Justice

What Happens When People Panic About Crime Rates

CREDIT: Andrew Breiner/Shutterstock

If you’ve read a newspaper or watched cable news recently, you might have heard that crime is exploding in many U.S. cities this summer. Based mainly on interviews with law enforcement, many media reports have asserted crime is spiking in response to demoralized police forces, who are hesitant to do their jobs as massive protests draw national attention to police abuses and excessive force across the country.

In Baltimore, homicides surged in the wake of Freddie Gray protests because police “feel a newfound reluctance and are stepping back, questioning whether they will be prosecuted for actions they take on the job.”

In Los Angeles, crime is rising in part because of “a ballot measure passed in November that reduced felony drug possession and thefts to misdemeanors,” a move that led to the release of 3,000 drug offenders who had been stuck in prison for years.

St. Louis, meanwhile, was hit by a crime wave because of the so-called “Ferguson effect,” where police are feeling so targeted by protesters that the “criminal element is feeling empowered.”

New York is suffering a homicide spike because police are less often practicing “stop-and-frisk,” a racially skewed tactic deemed unconstitutional, which has in turn “emboldened criminals and made cops more reluctant to take proactive police action.”

But the scary headlines are less grounded in reality than in a particular agenda. “To a great extent, these police statistics are manipulable for political purposes,” Clayton Mosher, a professor at Washington State University who focuses on criminology and drug policy, told ThinkProgress. Mosher wrote a 2010 edition textbook called The Mismeasure of Crime, which details the many ways crime rates are manipulated and misinterpreted — often with devastating results for people stuck in the criminal justice system.

Where Does Crime Data Come From?

Crime is extremely tricky to track consistently. Police departments are usually the sole sources of this information, and, as Mosher and his co-authors Terance Miethe and Timothy C. Hart explain, a lot can get lost in translation. Sometimes that’s because of clerical errors or sloppy paperwork — “diligence in paperwork is not among the skills most valued by police officers,” the book notes. Other times, crime data is subject to political manipulation.

It might sound crazy, but it wouldn’t be the first time police departments have played with crime rates — though usually the goal is to make crime seem lower than it actually is. For decades, politicians and police chiefs alike have been under enormous pressure to keep crime rates falling or face the wrath of their residents, who consistently — and incorrectly — believe that crime is rising. That pressure creates a powerful incentive to lower the statistics by whatever means necessary.

For instance, “New York City has a long history of manipulation of data,” Mosher noted. Hundreds of retired New York precinct heads and officers have recounted severe pressure from the top to cook their books during Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s first stint with the NYPD in the 1990s. CompStat, a popular real-time crime data collection tool launched in 1995, put the focus on a precinct’s statistics over all else. It was so effective in bringing crime rates down (on paper) that police forces all over the country adopted the program.

Even in more recent years, precinct after precinct has been caught under-reporting or misrepresenting crimes. Researchers, commentators, and even auditors have suggested the department’s zealous devotion to numbers has made data manipulation a common practice.

There are a lot of tricks in the book police can use to skew short-term crime rates in their favor. Homicide and violent crime rates are harder to fudge, but they too have been vulnerable to manipulation. An investigation into Chicago police last year detailed how the department routinely downgraded assaults to minor crimes, reclassified murders as death investigations, and redefined “index crimes,” or more serious crimes that must be reported to the FBI.

Deliberate hijinks are not the only problem with relying too much on police statistics. The way crimes are coded and classified can routinely create serious discrepancies that render the data virtually meaningless. For instance, past incidents like an assault or shooting are commonly re-coded as homicides if a victim of a past crime dies later, yet still show up as “new” murders in the data.

Mosher recalled a similar crime spike in 2006 in New York City, when it seemed like homicides had exploded over the past year for no apparent reason. Mosher and his co-authors determined the supposed spike included 25 new homicides that did not actually occur that year — a significant sum that can skew results when making a short-term comparison. About half of these 25 homicides were related to incidents that had occurred at least 14 years ago, Mosher found.

In one particularly egregious example, “there was a 72-year-old guy who was shot in 1974, and he died in 2006 of pneumonia. They counted that as a homicide,” he said. “That’s only one case but there’s a lot of this sort of post-coding that goes on.”

The problem arises when you’re looking at such narrow slivers of time in a limited number of cities. Mosher found that some of the cities under scrutiny actually saw higher homicide counts two years ago, a data point that gets missed when reports are confined to year-to-year comparisons. “It makes absolutely no sense to make year-to-year comparisons in crime data. And that’s true of homicide as well,” Mosher said.

And when dealing with just one or two months of data, drastic percentage increases mask a relatively small number of homicides that can be easily skewed by one anomaly.

That’s why criminologists generally look at longer term trends rather than focus on season-to-season or year-to-year fluctuations, which are virtually meaningless. “Most criminologists agree that monthly crime totals are the wrong unit of observation to draw broad inference from,” Matthew Friedman of the Brennan Center pointed out. “Doing so will very often lead to spurious conclusions because such data is highly variable and allows people with a specific agenda to cherry pick the most favorable statistics.”

It’s less common for police to game statistics to exaggerate crime, as it’s usually not in their interests to make it seem like they’re not doing their jobs effectively. But over the past year, things have changed for police forces all over the country. Suddenly, the general public is asking questions about police departments’ respect for civil rights, whether or not a shooting was justified, why people of a certain race are being arrested more than another. People are starting to question if such tactics are truly necessary to fight crime.

And now, officers, police chiefs and union heads are lamenting to reporters that the recent scrutiny is getting in the way of their commitment to their jobs. “For that political purpose and presumably to remove some of that pressure, it may be useful for them to show that there’s been increases in crime,” Mosher said.

‘Softer, Less Aggressive Police’

Soon after the death of Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured in police custody, brought national attention to Baltimore in April, city police officers began telling journalists violent crime was rising because cops were being forced to be “less aggressive.”

“The criminal element feels as though that we’re not going to run the risk of chasing them if they are armed with a gun, and they’re using this opportunity to settle old beefs, or scores, with people that they have conflict with,” an anonymous officer told CNN. “I think the public really, really sees that they asked for a softer, less aggressive police department, and we have given them that, and now they are realizing that their way of thinking does not work.”

Similarly, “officers are afraid of doing their job,” Gene Ryan, head of the Baltimore police union, told Time Magazine. “They’re more afraid of going to jail than getting shot and killed right now.”

The Baltimore Police Department reported that May was the deadliest month in nearly 40 years, with 43 homicides. While it’s hard to say definitively if violent crime is or is not rising in the city, Mosher said there could be an agenda behind reporting the sudden spike in murders weeks after Gray’s death.

“I would argue that maybe what’s happening right now…it’s coming from the rank and file,” Mosher said. Simply by reporting homicides more quickly than they typically would, officers could easily make it seem like a rush of homicides occurred all at once.

“There’s always some sort of investigation, so when that’s officially recorded as a homicide, there’s a fair bit of wiggle room that they have available to them over what period to report that,” Mosher said. “I don’t know this, but it’s quite possible that that’s what could be happening here, that they’re just reporting things more quickly to make it look like all hell is breaking loose.”

Baltimore police have been accused of manipulating crime data before. David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire and longtime crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, has repeatedly explained how his experience reporting on the police taught him never to trust official crime statistics. In a recent interview, he explained how former mayor Martin O’Malley (D) “needed to show crime reduction stats that were not only improbable, but unsustainable without manipulation.” That pressure led to certain quick fix tactics that lowered the crime rate on paper. Dozens of murders were routinely swept under the rug and violent assaults were often reclassified as more minor, nonviolent offenses, creating what Simon calls “statistical dishonesties.”

Soon after headlines blared that the city was experiencing its deadliest month in nearly 40 years, former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts — deeply unpopular with the officers he oversaw and generally touted as a “reform-minded chief” — was ousted from his position, in part due to the swelling murder numbers. Batts’ unceremonious firing came hours after the police union released a harsh report on his leadership, which city officials initially called a “trumped up political document full of baseless accusations, finger pointing and personal attacks.”

The Creation Of Crime ‘Epidemics’

The media obsession with the tiniest crime rate fluctuations can have real consequences. As Mismeasure of Crime points out, a flurry of serial killer coverage in the 1980s whipped up a panic that created new opportunities for law enforcement. There was little hard evidence for a “serial killer epidemic” of the proportions news outlets were claiming, yet the Justice Department released a report claiming as many as 4,000 people were murdered by serial killers. But one researcher found that officials had dramatically overstated their numbers by assuming that most murders classified as “motiveless/offender unknown” were carried out by serial killers. In reality, he estimated about 350 to 400 people were killed by serial killers each year at most.

“The manipulation of official crime data to create the image of a serial killer epidemic served several organizational goals for the Justice Department,” Mosher and his co-authors wrote. “Specifically, this apparent epidemic provided an immediate justification for a new Violent Criminal Apprehension Program at a new center for the study of violent crime at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. The dramatic rise in the popularity of crime profiling was also initially based on this alleged serial killer epidemic.”

Since the early days of the War on Drugs, the media has been especially fascinated with drug epidemics. Each swarm of coverage compels lawmakers to broaden the reasons the criminal justice system can use to imprison people.

Take the “ecstasy epidemic” of the early 2000s. Mosher documented hundreds of news reports in 2000 and 2001 insisting that the club drug MDMA, or ecstasy, was becoming worryingly popular with young people. These reports relied largely on an informal survey of law enforcement officers who asserted that ecstasy was suddenly more available than ever.

As a result, the U.S. Sentencing Commission created new penalties for ecstasy that were even tougher than the guidelines for cocaine offenders. “These legislative changes were enacted despite the opposition of many medical experts and researchers, who argued that the use of the substance was far less likely to cause violence than drugs such as alcohol and was less addictive than cocaine or tobacco,” the book explains. “Advocates of the increased penalties argued that these were necessary to curb ecstasy use by teenagers and young adults.”

Exaggerating crime can also be lucrative for local police departments. Phoenix police were caught vastly overstating kidnapping statistics, arguing that 358 kidnappings in 2008 were part of a “border crime wave” that threatened to spread across the country if the city did not get more federal money to fight the problem. “We need federal funding so that we can staff the squads and teams to deal with these violent and deadly crimes,” Police Chief Jack Harris testified before Congress in 2009.

Only later did an investigation discover that the actual number of kidnappings in 2008 was closer to 50 than 350. A police department whistleblower asserted this was an intentional scheme to get special federal funding, though a Justice Department probe could not find evidence of this. Regardless, Phoenix received $2.4 million in grants to address border-related crime based on its newfound reputation as “the Kidnapping Capital of the U.S.”

Now, many police departments are using media reports of a new nationwide crime wave to push for more funding and more officers on the streets. The NYPD has deployed an additional 330 police officers to patrol the streets in response to recent uproar over a perceived crime spike. Dallas patrol officers are getting access to a new pool of money for overtime pay to fight the uptick in violent crime rates, and the department is considering adding more “boots on the ground.” The DC police union points to understaffing as the reason for the capital’s alleged crime wave, calling for the reinstatement of vice units that focused on crimes like drugs and prostitution until they were reduced earlier this year. And in a particularly extreme measure, Cincinnati’s police chief is combating crime by enforcing a city curfew, under which any children found out on the street at night will be taken to a juvenile justice center and their parents will be fined.

Toward A More Meaningful Measurement Of Crime

The fluidity of crime statistics doesn’t mean the media should simply refrain from reporting on criminal activity. But there are far more responsible ways to document trends in crime. Long-term crime trends are much more reliable and less susceptible to manipulation or error, for instance. Criminologists are largely in agreement that crime has declined over the past few decades, though there are many competing theories for the cause.

One of the major elements that gets lost in the fixation on statistics is the people involved in the crime — victims and suspects alike. That erasure helped spur the creation of Homicide Watch, which gained acclaim over its four-year lifespan for its methodical tracking of murder cases in Washington, DC. Journalists Chris and Laura Amico founded the community-driven project in order to create a resource “for the people who need it most: victim’s families, suspects’ families, and all others affected by violent crime in D.C.”

As an unemployed crime reporter in D.C., Laura Amico was told by an editor that most homicides in the city were simply “drug deals gone bad.” Amico decided to probe that assumption and examine why the media judged certain homicides to be more worthy of coverage than others.

The blog started as a comprehensive database compiling crime reports, court dates and police investigations, but quickly became a gathering place for people to share their stories of loss. “We ask things of our audience, too: share with us your memories, your photos, your stories. Help us understand who you’ve lost to death or prison. And many people do,” Laura Amico wrote in the Guardian last year.

Homicide Watch shut down in December 2014 after the founders failed to find a media outlet willing to adopt the ambitious project.

Other projects, such as KilledByPolice, have begun tracking deaths by police, which have historically been some of the toughest murders to find in the official statistics. Killed By Police refrains from drawing conclusions about its subject matter, simply presenting and naming the victims in daily crime reports. Yet even this simple service has created significant implications for police accountability.

Police departments are not required to report homicides by their officers to the FBI, and those that do often submit incomplete or incorrect records, making it nearly impossible to track any kind of information about police killings accurately. And after years of under-reporting, data compiled by citizen projects like KilledByPolice is proving to be very interesting to media outlets that have recently awakened to America’s police brutality problem.

In fact, if the media chose to approach the new information on police killings the same way news outlets have recently looked at crime rates, they might say there’s been an alarming spike in police killing civilians in recent years. By the FBI’s count, 461 people were killed by police in “justifiable homicides” in 2013, the latest available year of data. According to Killed By Police, the number of homicides by police surged in 2014 to more than 1,000 deaths, and this year is on track to outpace last year’s sum. The data clearly reveals an epidemic of homicidal police that surely requires drastic action.