One of the big successes in US policing over the past three decades was the push to make law enforcement more data-driven. The big crime-tracking system that came out of this, CompStat, has been widely credited with helping cut crime in the US.
But what if this approach has also led police to be too focused on data, turning policing into a numbers game in which cops try to make as many arrests as possible and manipulate the figures to look good?
John Eterno, a retired New York City Police Department captain and associate dean and director of graduate studies in criminal justice at Molloy College, explained the problem in a new documentary by FiveThirtyEight:
Initially, I think it was easier to bring down crime, because crime was so high. It's kind of like squeezing a lemon — when you squeeze a lemon, the juice is easy to come out initially. But over time, it's more and more difficult.… Commanders are under enormous pressures to make sure that the crime numbers go down. And then the message filters down to the lower rank: If the captain's not doing well, or the inspector's not doing well, we're not doing well.
This creates a perverse incentive at some police departments to make crime and policing numbers look favorable to the department at almost any cost. Officers could achieve this by, for example, purposely misinterpreting some crimes as non-serious offenses or not counting them altogether. That way, the mayor and police chief can claim that serious crimes are dropping when, in reality, some serious offenses are just being defined as non-serious or not counted at all.
The numbers game also increases demand on cops to look like they're doing more to prevent crime. So officers are sometimes encouraged to stop or arrest as many people as possible so they can appear as if they're staying busy while on duty.
And if some cops don't play along, commanders will try to make their lives harder — by, for instance, putting them on the graveyard shift or denying them promotions. Or, in one whistleblower's case, something much worse.
One NYPD officer tried to expose his colleagues' misconduct — and the police department retaliated
The numbers game became a huge focus for the NYPD over the past few decades. And when officer Adrian Schoolcraft tried to expose the abuse, the NYPD retaliated — placing Schoolcraft in a psychiatric institution against his will for six days.
Schoolcraft used a tape recorder to capture several examples of officers massaging the numbers at the NYPD. Here are some examples:
- One officer admitted to Schoolcraft that he didn't count an auto theft after a higher-up suggested to blame "karma" for taking the car, because the additional theft could look bad for the department's numbers. The officer told Schoolcraft, "When he was telling me not to take it, I was looking at him, 'cause we had the same thing happen with Harris the week before."
- An NYPD lieutenant mentioned the consequences of not playing along with the numbers game: "I told you guys last month: They are looking at those numbers. People are going to be moved. I mean, it ain't about losing your job. They can make your job real uncomfortable, and we all know what that means."
- A sergeant told officers, using the term "250" for stop-and-frisk searches, to carry out as many searches as possible just to look active: "And if y'all try to do a canvas or something, try to get at least a couple of 250s, and put robbery down, just to say that we was out there. If you stop somebody, get a 250. Go over, let them see that y'all doing something about it or whatever."
But Schoolcraft's colleagues found out what he was up to. One day, when he got off work early, an emergency service unit came to his apartment, abducted him, and forcibly admitted him to a psychiatric ward.
As they detained him, police discovered the recorder in Schoolcraft's pocket. One high-ranking official, Deputy Chief Michael Marino, couldn't believe it. "Absolutely amazing," he said, according to the recording. "When I came on the job, a cop would never dream of doing that to another cop for all the money in the world."
Schoolcraft later got the recordings to the Village Voice, a news weekly that broke the story. He is now suing the hospital that held him, as well as New York City and the NYPD.
The story shows just how deeply ingrained the numbers game can be in some police departments: Officers are willing to take down their peers and sometimes friends just to avoid getting caught.
"I believe they couldn't afford to have someone expose the behavior so bad, so criminal it would threaten their careers," Schoolcraft told New York City's ABC 7 in 2010. "They reacted out of fear."