Last Friday the New York Times reported that a New York City police commander and four officers are facing internal charges stemming from their alleged failure to record criminal complaints. These charges are just one piece of a larger story about the reliability of information fed into NYC’s Compstat program. In a study released earlier this year, more than 100 retired high-ranking officers reported that they were aware of “ethically inappropriate” changes to crime complaints that fell into the seven major felony categories tracked by Compstat. A patrol officer in Brooklyn’s 81st precinct has also reported widespread manipulation of crime statistics in 2008 and 2009. (You can hear a This American Life episode about that officer here, along with excerpts from surreptitious recordings the officer made on the job.)
These recent revelations raise questions about the extent to which crime has actually fallen in New York City. But the focus on crime reduction obscures another important issue about the occupational subculture. For decades, police reformers have written about the importance of bringing down the “blue curtain,” that is, an occupational subculture in which a code of loyalty and secretiveness reign. This subculture is widely believed to contribute to an “us and them” mentality which, among other harms, encourages police officers to do whatever is necessary to protect themselves and their fellow officers from criticism and administrative and legal penalties. This mentality ultimately poses risks to those caught up in the criminal justice system and undermines public confidence in police work.
When success is measured according to statistics, the temptation to manipulate is near irresistible. Couple this with the dominant occupational subculture and almost anyone could have predicted that the data being fed into Compstat was unreliable. The more important question is whether Compstat and its progeny are counterproductive to police reform over the long-term because they have the effect of reinforcing the dominant occupational subculture instead of remaking it.