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Consistently insensitive and wrong about Compstats – Heather Mac Donald

Heather Mac Donald’s dismissive attitude about the concerns of people of color who experience “a disparate impact” as a result of law enforcement or social policies is a norm for her. As with her enthusiastic defense of Compstats (the use of technology to: clarify a police department’s mission; facilitate internal accountability; influence the geographic organization of operational command; promote organizational flexibility; encourage data-driven analysis of problems and assessment of a department’s problem-solving efforts; and to engage in innovative problem-solving tactics)[i], Mac Donald has consistently blamed the victim with little or no acknowledgment of the social and or criminogenic factors that contribute to the circumstances victims find themselves in or the decisions they make. Her perspective has remained unchanged on a range of issues including racial profiling as it relates to immigration policies[ii], the extent poor people depend on food stamps to sustain themselves[iii], student centered learning[iv], and racist remarks about African runners[v]. Earlier this year, MacDonald wrote in the Wall Street Journal (A Crime Theory Demolished, January 4, 2010) that “the idea that the root cause of crimes lies in income inequality and social injustice” is a myth.[vi] Mac Donald’s latest op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Fighting Crime Where the Criminal Are” (June 25, 2010), is just another example of her consistent insensitivity and arrogance shown toward people of color and those with ideas that differ from her own.[vii]

The truth is always somewhere in the middle as has been evidenced by less vitriolic researchers who suggest that matter of fact claims touted by MacDonald and her like should be viewed with suspicion and not be blindly embraced. Writing for the Cato Institute in 1994 (Crime, Police, and Root Causes, Cato Policy Analysis No. 218), William A. Niskanen reported that crime reporting rates are rarely consistent over time or across jurisdictions and may not correlate with actual crime data because such data is rarely available, particularly “for state and local jurisdictions.”[viii]

Contrary to MacDonald’s views, Niskanen did find that:

An increase in legal economic opportunities reduces the crime rate. An increase in average annual income appears to reduce both violent crime and property crime by a roughly proportionate amount;

Crime rates are especially high in metropolitan areas (an increase in the population in an urban area appears to increase both the violent and property crime rates . . . even when controlled for other characteristics of the population);
The violent crime rate . . . appears to be strongly dependent on the composition of the population; for example, an “increase in births to single mothers appears to increase the violent crime rate;”
More police appear to increase the reported crime rate;
Over time, the two conditions most strongly correlated with the increase in reported crime are the unemployment rate for teenage males and the percentage of infants born to single mothers.
Researchers, old and new, have puzzled over the relationships between the police, reported, and actual crime. Niskanen observed that “more police . . . probably increase the reported crime rate even if they reduced the actual crime rate.” Moreover, the “Compstat” program and the police tactics Heather MacDonald supports as an effective crime program for controlling crime have come under fire by prominent members of the Policeman Benevolent Association. Robert Zink, PBA Recording Secretary, writes about the “fudge factor” when discussing Compstats. He suggests “local commanders (tend) to make it look like crime has dropped when it has in fact increased” by not filing “reports, misclassify(ing) crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, under-valu(ing) the property lost to crime so it’s not a felony, and report(ing) a series of crimes as a single event” to get the numbers they need.[ix] Zink reports that:

A particularly insidious way to fudge the numbers is to make it difficult or impossible for people to report crimes — in other words, make the victims feel like criminals so they walk away just to spare themselves further pain and suffering.

Some commanders even persecute the victims so they stop reporting crimes.[x]

Michael Murray, the PBA General Counsel, suggests that the Compstat program is responsible for arrest quotas, partly to blame for an increase, in recent years, in the “negative police-citizen contacts,” and erodes citizen support integral to effecting community policing.[xi] Moreover, the Village Voice reported that “Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch had said that officers ‘are forced to falsify stats in order to maintain the appearance of a drastic reduction in crime’.”[xii] John Eterno and Eli Silversan recently warned, as reported in the Daily News, that problems with the Compstat program may not be ignored. During the period their research covered, they found that “a combination of pressure to downgrade index crime combined with lesser pressure to maintain crime data integrity has contributed to manipulation of crime statistics,” calling into question the results and tactics used to support the program in its current form.

Despite evidence suggesting that the program deserves a second look, MacDonald calls those with no apparent reason to assail the NYPD, its “foes” and those who, “intentionally or not, cast doubt on all accountability systems.”[xiii] It is difficult to view MacDonald as an advocate for justice and public safety rather than as a bigot with a sharp pen. No doubt she has labeled even the police on the street who are breaking the blue code of silence and “speaking out about manipulation of crime reports”[xiv] and “arresting citizens for doing no more than standing on certain street corners and building stoops” as part of an aggressive stop and frisk policy as disgruntled employees.[xv] That these tactics affect people of color more than others is of little concern to MacDonald, who has concluded that the “vast majority of violent crime occurs” in communities of color because that’s what they do despite the mountain of evidence that more than actual crime influences crime reporting.[xvi] MacDonald is wrong to assume that questioning related to stop-and-frisk tactics, rather than the data, are not based on the perception that communities of color are being criminalized, that they are being relegated to a permanent underclass as a result of the consequences of questionable arrest and convictions, and that they are being targeted.

Objective observers know that the arrest and convictions of people of color have rarely rested solely upon the commission of a crime. Historically, these have related to the manner in which the criminal justice system has dispensed “justice,” particularly as it is applied to African American males. Hamid Reza Kusha characterizes this “black male disappearance syndrome,” resulting in part from these tactics, as the product of a “multifactor rather than monist nature.” [xvii] If nothing else, the questioning by people of color and others is based upon the perceptions of a people who feel powerless as new systems of social control evolve.[xviii]

No matter how described, people in every community want the police there. It is admirable that the police are using tools provided by the social sciences to combat crime. However, all must be certain that the uses of new tools are not necessarily accompanied by changes in the human factor. Historically, as technologies influence human culture, human beings influence how they are used. None is infallible. “The impact of Compsat, like that of previous technology, is contingent on how it interacts with the existing technical capacities, work practices, management styles, and cultural values of police departments. Its future value also hinges on its compatibility with community policing, a deeply entrenched movement in law enforcement and one that stresses the human face of policing.”[xix] Moreover, the impact that this practice has on those it is to serve must also be included in the equation.