“Rapes are skyrocketing in New York City,” the New York Post headlined July 14.
“In the week ending Sunday, rapes skyrocketed a staggering 105.9 percent compared to the same period last year, and are up 22 percent over the past 28 days, the statistics show,” according to the story.
A One-Month Surge
At a press conference the following day, Deputy Police Commissioner for Operations Dermot Shea gave a more-measured picture.
“When you look at the year-to-date in New York City...we have a 6-percent increase in rapes,” he said. “It comes out to 44 rapes. What we’ve seen recently is half that increase—an increase of 22—occurred just in the last month.”
This back-and-forth illustrates a trend criticized by criminologists: reporting crime in bite-sized chunks rather than longer periods, and drawing unwarranted conclusions from periods as short as a week.
“It’s misleading to do it, particularly in homicides and shootings,” said Eli Silverman, a Professor Emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has consulted for police departments around the world. “The publicity attended to it is misleading. It does a disservice to the public.”
In an interview, Mr. Silverman said that periods of three months, six months or a year will give a truer picture of how crime patterns are changing.
Police Commissioner William J. Bratton expressed agreement. Ironically, he and Mr. Shea were speaking at a press conference at which Mayor de Blasio trumpeted the effect of Summer All Out, which puts 330 normally desk-bound police officers on patrol during the season, in reducing shootings 30 percent in the 15 participating precincts.
“I know there’s an incredible fascination on the part of the media with the spikes up or down over a two-week period, one-week period, one-month period,” Mr. Bratton said. “...The police have to be on it every hour of the day. It’s important that we are able to put our cops very quickly where we are seeing spikes and increases.
“But for your purposes, the reality is, you have to look at these things over an extended period of time...Any of the experts that look at these things—criminologists, etc.—will tell you you need to be working in quarters, in semi-annual, or annual to get a true perspective of what’s going on.”
“Crime is cyclical,” Mr. Silverman said. But, he added, “it’s really a crime-numbers game in terms of what the press and the politicians are doing with it.”
Can’t Charge on ‘Snapshots’
He agreed with Mr. Bratton that the NYPD needs to look at numbers on a daily basis to drive its staffing decisions. But, he added, it’s one thing for the police to track crime on a short-term basis but “it’s another thing to ascribe long-term trends and significant changes based on that short a term.”
“It’s just a snapshot,” Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who teaches at John Jay, said of short-term crime comparisons.
Such reporting “is driven by politicians and the media,” Mr. Silverman said. And, he said, “you know certain media is going to present more of one side than the other.” Opponents of Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Bratton use such short-term reports as sticks to beat them, doing the online equivalent of muttering darkly about a return to the high-crime era of the early 1990s.
“You have some media that are more closely allied with [former Police Commissioner Raymond W.] Kelly and more willing to publicize what they can portray as negative crime statistics,” Mr. Silverman said.
‘Like Watching Pinball’
Reading the constant reports about crime going up or down “is like watching a pinball in a machine,” he said.
The Daily News—whose editorial pages praised Mr. Kelly and his now-discredited stop-and-frisk program—reported in March that “the murder rate in New York City has spiked an alarming 20 percent in the first two months of the year.”
Crime statistics on the NYPD website last week showed that murders were up 5.5 percent from Jan. 1 through July 12. That amounted to nine additional killings, from 165 in the same period last year to 174. The city’s population is 8.5 million.
“It’s very easy with numbers as low as we have in the city, fortunately, to have something seem way out of proportion, because the numbers are so small a few numbers, all of the sudden, percentage-wise, throw it off,” Mr. Bratton said.
A Long Hot Spring?
Under the headline “City’s Crime Rate Rising Along With the Temperature,” the website DNAinfo said in May that 16 of the city’s 76 precincts had reported an increase in crime between April 13 and May 10. The article blamed the trend on the warming weather; law-enforcement officials have observed that for years.
“The city is super-safe right now,” Mr. O’Donnell said in an interview. “Although there are pockets where that’s not the case.”
Mr. de Blasio’s two predecessors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, focused so much on crime going down, Mr. Silverman said. “Now, de Blasio is doing the same thing,” he added.
At this point, halfway through the summer, Mr. Bratton said, “in all likelihood we’ll end this year with the lowest number of index crimes in the last 20-some-odd years overall.”