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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

N.Y. City Violent Crimes Spike Even as Overall Rate Falls .

Even as New York City's overall crime rate drops for the 22nd straight year, murders, rapes and robberies are all on pace to show increases.

The New York Police Department and many outside experts say this one-year spike in violent crimes is well within natural statistical fluctuations.

Eli Silverman, a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and co-author of a study challenging the accuracy of the NYPD's statistics, has a different explanation. He believes the police department is manipulating statistics by downgrading many property crimes to minor offenses that don't show up in the official crime rate. Violent crimes are much harder to downgrade and may be being reported more accurately, he says.

"They've made it [low crime] symbolic for all their achievements," said Mr. Silverman, "They've made it a selling point for tourism and business….They made it a narrative, a story and they can't deviate from that story. They're stuck in that story."

The NYPD emphatically rejects that notion. It says Mr. Silverman's study is flawed because it relies on an anonymous survey of past police officials to support its allegation of data manipulation.

Despite the spikes in violent crime, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly recently said he believes "in general that our strategies have continued to work."

Figuring out if the jump in violent crime is a blip or a turning point isn't easy. Michael Rand, a statistician with the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, considers one-year spikes statistically insignificant. "A 15% increase is only important if it's the beginning of an upturn," he said. "And unfortunately we won't know that for many years."

.As of Nov. 7, New York City's overall crime rate—calculated by totaling seven so-called index crimes: murders, rapes, robberies, felony assaults, burglaries, grand larcenies and auto thefts—dropped 1.26% from a year earlier. The drop is attributable to a reduction in property-crime complaints, most notably fewer grand larcenies. Meanwhile, all four violent crimes are projected to show increases at year's end, including 15% hikes in both murders and rapes.

Henry Brownstein, the former chief of statistical services for the New York State's Division of Criminal Justice Services, said the most useful information to be gleaned from a one-year spike is if a discernible trend emerges about "what's driving the increase." However, police say no such trends can be found.

In 1988, the last year that crime went up in the city, there were about 720,000 index crimes, including 1,895 homicides. Last year there were about 105,000 index crimes and 466 murders. A New York University law professor and criminologist, Jerome Skolnick, said that because crime in 2009 was so low it distorts this year's violent-crime spikes.

"If you look at Derek Jeter's batting average this past season, you can't measure it against the highest year Derek Jeter ever had," he explained. A fairer comparison is to use a multi-year average and see if the crime rate this year deviates from that.

The Wall Street Journal tallied the index-crime average during Mr. Kelly's previous eight years as police commissioner. From 2002 through 2009, there was a yearly average of 547 homicides, 1,581 rapes, 23,462 robberies, 17,778 felony assaults, 24,477 burglaries, 45,466 grand larcenies and 17,474 auto thefts.

Despite the increase in violent crimes this year, they are down from their eight-year average. Based on crime projections for 2010, murders would end at 536, down 2% compared to the eight-year average. Rapes, also up 15% this year, would be about 12% lower than that eight-year average. Robberies are projected to increase by more than 5% this year, but would be down by 17% compared to the average.

New York has heavily marketed its declining crime rate. It's become a ritual in recent years for city officials to declare New York the "Safest Big City" based on the annual release by the FBI of its national crime statistics.

But John Jay College's Mr. Silverman and John Eterno, associate dean of graduate studies in criminal justice at Molloy College, believe pressure to keep the crime rate dropping, even as the NYPD has seen its number of officers shrink by about 5,000 in recent years, has led to statistical manipulation.

A study by the professors released this past winter reported that 168 of 323 retired captains and supervisors who returned questionnaires said they were aware of crime reports that were changed—either corrected or distorted. More than half found the changes to be troubling.

The professors say their study shows that NYPD's crime statistics are manipulated. They point to the audio tapes that Brooklyn police officer Adrian Schoolcraft secretly recorded which led to a deputy inspector, two sergeants and two officers being charged administratively by the NYPD last month for charges related to failing to take crime reports.

Paul Browne, an NYPD spokesman, denies that statistics have been manipulated. He discredits Messrs. Eterno and Silverman's study, saying there's no way of knowing whether the anonymous respondents had any firsthand knowledge of the supposed changed crime reports or were repeating what they had heard about a few well-publicized incidents.

Police point to a 2006 study by Dennis Smith, an associate professor of public policy at New York University, and Robert Purtell, a professor at State University at Albany. That study found no significant deviation in the rates of grand larcenies, an index crime, and petit larceny, the nonindex crime a police officer fudging statistics would most likely downgrade a grand larceny to. The study concluded that the "public can be reasonably assured that the NYPD data are accurate, complete and reliable."

Critics have questioned the methodology of his study, too. So, Mr. Smith offered a much less scientific test. "If it says on a weather report it's raining and you think they're fudging, walk outside," Mr. Smith said. "You don't need a criminologist or a statistician to know that crime has come down remarkably in the city in the past 20 years."

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