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by Peter Moskos

September 24, 2015

Crime is/isn't up!

Jarret Murphy over at City Limits points out that crime has increased plenty of times in NYC in the past 15 years. And nobody really raised an alarm. This year it's not even clear that crime is up, despite news accounts saying so. So there's this a narrative of crime being out of control: Murders are up 5 percent!!! (Maybe a bit more after a bloody weekend.) But 5 percent is pretty statistically minor. And we are coming off a record low year.
Do you remember the bloody year of 1999? I don't. But the FBI says the number of murders in New York City rose 6 percent that year. How about scary 2006, when the number of killings jumped 10.6 percent? Do you recall the fear with which we all tiptoed through 2008, when the city saw a 5 percent rise in slayings? Don't get that mixed up with 2010, when the city reported a 14 percent increase in murders.

Somehow, "Bloody Ninety-Nine" didn't smudge Rudy Giuliani's reputation as America's greatest crimefighter. Nor did the four increases in the annual murder count during Michael Bloomberg's 12 years in office dent his image as a cool and competent manager. In fact, none of these significant spikes in bloodshed triggered the kind of public concern about crime now gripping columnists and some elected officials.
Indeed, if de Blasio is guilty of politicizing the actual crime statistics, it's mainly because his opponents are guilty of politicizing the imaginary crime stats they derive from news headlines, gut instinct and their pre-written narrative that de Blasio is really just John Lindsay standing on his tip-toes.
Maybe it's good we've become less tolerant of crime increases. And maybe the sky will start to fall. But it's not falling yet.


john mosby said...

Prof, I am always stumped by the real meaning of ups/downs in crime-report stats. There is just so much that goes on between the commission of a crime and someone picking up the phone to report it, that I question if any valid conclusions can ever be drawn.


- Reported crimes go up. Is it because more crimes happened, or because people have more confidence in the police and are picking up the phone more often, rather than letting some crimes go? Sort of a macro Kitty Genovese effect.

- Reported crimes go down. Did fewer crimes really happen, or did the PD make it more difficult to report crimes, by simple passive-aggressive methods like letting the phone ring longer?

And of course this doesn't even take into account the classification games that can be played once a crime is called in.

I am thinking that maybe the only possible trustworthy crime stats are deaths, because it's difficult (tho not impossible) to sweep dead bodies under the rug. Not murders or even homicides - just plain deaths. Maybe cross-referenced by age, so that the neighborhood with an old-folks home doesn't get tarred as a crime pit...


Peter Moskos said...

I couldn't agree more.
You'll see I rarely if ever use any crime stat but murders or shootings. That's all I trust.