Is Chicago fudging crime stats?

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Despite the daily reports of shooting deaths and violent crime in Chicago, we are constantly reassured by the Chicago Police Department of one thing: crime is down. Even though several people perceive crime to be higher, officials tell us to take comfort in the statistics that show that crime rates are falling.

My police beat has even taken to emailing out statistics monthly,
and I have to admit that reading them gives me a little relief. Why
worry about getting mugged when muggings are down?

Until I heard this story from the Village Voice and This American Life about police officer Adrian Schoolcraft out of New York City's 81st police district in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.

Schoolcraft is suing the NYPD after how they treated him when they
realized he was documenting alleged corruption within the department,
specifically that cops in the 81st were both wrongly arresting
law-abiding citizens to meet department quotas and simultaneously
downplaying serious crimes that were happening.

The story is harrowing. For months, Schoolcraft made recordings of his
fellow officers and superiors talking about how they needed to get their
numbers up. According to Schoolcraft, there were strict quotas about
how many arrests you had to make per month or face disciplinary action. 

In one recording, an officer in charge of Schoolcraft instructs him to
arrest a group of teenagers sitting on a stoop in Bed-Stuy, just for
cursing at him, and make up something to charge them with. Citizens talk
about their run-ins with police in the 81st, saying they were arrested
for absolutely nothing at all. A woman had her wrists broken during an
arrest where she was taken in for not having her ID card
while standing on her stoop. Around the end of the month, officers
would arrest just about anyone for anything, just to make their quotas.

The entire story is incredibly disturbing, but one idea caught my eye.
Experts on police behavior say these incidents where officers are
expected to meet numerical arrest quotas are on the rise, even though
they're illegal, because of increased use of computers
to analyze and keep track of where crimes are happening. Basically,
because cops have to report statistics, they have incentive to make more
arrests to show the public they're working hard to serve and protect
and also downgrade more serious crime as to not alarm the public.

Former policeman and researcher on police behavior John Eterno says it's not just a problem in New York.

"There's evidence of the same kind of distortion in other places we've
done research. People have written in our blogs from other countries -
the United Kingdom, Australia, attesting to the same phenomenon. This is
not unique to New York," says Eterno.

When the Second City Cop posted this story on his blog, there were a number of comments that suggested Chicago isn't immune from this problem. Take a look:

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I suppose these stories really wouldn't be a surprise to communities of
color in Chicago. Officer Zane Seipler came forward in The Chicago Reporter's 2009 investigation
of police targeting Latinos for traffic stops in order to catch
undocumented immigrants. To the McHenry County Sheriff, immigrants were
"cash crops" for the department. When Seipler began keeping track of
arrests and spoke out about it, he was fired for "violating rules and
regulations."

Schoolcraft met a similar fate. After he tried to report what was
happening to internal affairs, he was pushed into a desk job. Then, when
he went home sick one afternoon, cops from the 81st came to his
apartment and hauled him off to a mental institution, trying to claim he
was emotionally disturbed. Schoolcraft taped the encounter where his
supervisors surround him in his bedroom, badgering and threatening him.

My first thought was, "This can't be happening. Shouldn't he call someone?" But who would he call? The police?

This was Schoolcraft's biggest argument against quotas: it hurt
good police work. People would trust him when he used his power for
good, giving him information and leads. But no one trusted a cop who
just might turn on you come the 31st and haul you off on a made up
charge.

The dozens of stories I've heard of police intimidation and aggression
in Chicago lead me to believe that Eterno might be onto something- this isn't just a
NYC phenomenon. Whether it's corruption or just plain aggressive
violence, bad police work hurts public safety.

And by that, I mean actual public safety - not the charts and graphs were getting from CPD this month.

Photo credit: Tripp

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  • Something else to remember is the fact that police stats only measure reported crimes. There has always been a significant gap between crimes rates as reflected in the National Crime Survey as opposed to what shows up in the FBI Uniform Crime Reports. I've personally seen cases where crime spikes up in a neighborhood, and for every 2 or 3 reported incidents there are another 5-10 that went unreported. This helps to explain why perceived crime can seem so much worse than what official statistics reflect.

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