The social costs of crime are hard to quantify when the police knowingly refuse to report crime.
Crime victims in New York sometimes struggle to persuade the police to write down what happened on an official report. The reasons are varied. Police officers are often busy, and few relish paperwork. But in interviews, more than half a dozen police officers, detectives and commanders also cited departmental pressure to keep crime statistics low.
While it is difficult to say how often crime complaints are not officially recorded, the Police Department is conscious of the potential problem, trying to ferret out unreported crimes through audits of emergency calls and of any resulting paperwork.
As concerns grew about the integrity of the data, the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, appointed a panel of former federal prosecutors in January to study the crime-reporting system. The move was unusual for Mr. Kelly, who is normally reluctant to invite outside scrutiny.
The panel, which has not yet released its findings, was expected to focus on the downgrading of crimes, in which officers improperly classify felonies as misdemeanors.
But of nearly as much concern to people in law enforcement are crimes that officers simply failed to record, which one high-ranking police commander in Manhattan suggested was “the newest evolution in this numbers game.”
Quantifying social cost is very difficult when a perverse incentive exists for the state not to quantify social costs.
Detective Louis A. Molina, president of the National Latino Officers Association, said that for some officers, the desire of supervisors to keep recorded crime levels low was “going to be on your mind,” and that it “can play a role in your decision making.”
“For police officers,” he added, “it’s gotten to the point of what’s the most diplomatic way to discourage a crime report from being taken.”
However, some commanders said, officers sometimes bend to pressure by supervisors to eschew report-taking. “Cops don’t want a bad reputation, and stigma,” one commander said. “They know they have to please the sergeants.” Like several other officers and supervisors, he spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
The sergeants, in turn, are acting on the wishes of higher-ups to keep crime statistics down, a desire that is usually communicated stealthily, the commander said. As an era of low crime continues, and as 2011 draws to a close with felony numbers running virtually even with last year’s figures, any new felony is a significant event in a precinct and a source of consternation to commanders.
Never forget what is unseen.
The state loves creating a false sense of security, and failing to report that crimes occurred is a very easy, and undetectable way of doing so.