Police Tactic: Keeping Crime Reports Off the Books
By AL BAKER and JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN
Jill Korber walked into a drab police station in Queens in July to report that a passing bicyclist had groped her two days in a row. She left in tears, frustrated, she said, by the response of the first officer she encountered.
“He told me it would be a waste of time, because I didn’t know who the guy was or where he worked or anything,” said Ms. Korber, 34, a schoolteacher. “His words to me were, ‘These things happen.’ He said those words.”
Crime victims in New York sometimes struggle to persuade the police to write down what happened on an official report. The reasons are varied. Police officers are often busy, and few relish paperwork. But in interviews, more than half a dozen police officers, detectives and commanders also cited departmental pressure to keep crime statistics low.
While it is difficult to say how often crime complaints are not officially recorded, the Police Department is conscious of the potential problem, trying to ferret out unreported crimes through audits of emergency calls and of any resulting paperwork.
As concerns grew about the integrity of the data, the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, appointed a panel of former federal prosecutors in January to study the crime-reporting system. The move was unusual for Mr. Kelly, who is normally reluctant to invite outside scrutiny.
The panel, which has not yet released its findings, was expected to focus on the downgrading of crimes, in which officers improperly classify felonies as misdemeanors.
But of nearly as much concern to people in law enforcement are crimes that officers simply failed to record, which one high-ranking police commander in Manhattan suggested was “the newest evolution in this numbers game.”
It is not unusual for detectives, who handle telephone calls from victims inquiring about the status of their cases, to learn that no paperwork exists. Detectives said it was hard to tell if those were administrative mix-ups or something deliberate. But they noted their skepticism that some complaints could simply vanish in the digital age.
Detective Louis A. Molina, president of the National Latino Officers Association, said that for some officers, the desire of supervisors to keep recorded crime levels low was “going to be on your mind,” and that it “can play a role in your decision making.”
“For police officers,” he added, “it’s gotten to the point of what’s the most diplomatic way to discourage a crime report from being taken.”
Some public officials have said they have received more complaints from constituents that their reports of crime were not being recorded. State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn said his office had to contact “local precincts directly to make sure that criminal complaints were filed and processed appropriately.”
In the case of Ms. Korber, the police did eventually take a report of her being groped, but only after her city councilman, Peter F. Vallone Jr., intervened, she and Mr. Vallone said. In fact, Mr. Vallone said that he had grown so alarmed over how many women were being groped in his district that he contacted the 114th Precinct; his staff then asked Ms. Korber to go there again.
Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said each precinct must audit police responses to radio dispatches four times a month “to assure that crime complaints are taken when necessary and prepared accurately.”
“Alleged failures to take a report of a crime are investigated by the Internal Affairs Bureau and, if corroborated, the officer is subject to disciplinary action,” Mr. Browne said.
Additionally, Mr. Browne said the department conducted frequent audits of written reports to ensure that officers were properly classifying crimes. The most recent of those audits have found an error rate of 1.5 percent, down from 4.4 percent in 2000, he said.
The reasons for not taking a report, police officials said, can vary. Some officers seek to avoid the dull task of preparing reports; others may fear discipline for errors in paperwork. Sometimes officers run out of time because they are directed to another job.
There are certainly calls that do not merit a crime report: a victim’s account of an alleged crime can be deemed dubious, for example.
However, some commanders said, officers sometimes bend to pressure by supervisors to eschew report-taking. “Cops don’t want a bad reputation, and stigma,” one commander said. “They know they have to please the sergeants.” Like several other officers and supervisors, he spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
The sergeants, in turn, are acting on the wishes of higher-ups to keep crime statistics down, a desire that is usually communicated stealthily, the commander said. As an era of low crime continues, and as 2011 draws to a close with felony numbers running virtually even with last year’s figures, any new felony is a significant event in a precinct and a source of consternation to commanders.
On the Upper West Side in July, a man in red shorts climbed through a window into the living room where Katherine Davis, 65, was reading the paper. She ran, a few steps ahead of him, and locked herself in an adjacent apartment, where she watched through the peephole as the man searched for her before he left.
Officers drove her around to look for the intruder, unsuccessfully. Ms. Davis asked if they could take fingerprints. But the officers said, “Oh, no, that’s only if you have a detective, or investigation,” she recalled. She asked for a case number.
“They said, ‘There is no case number,’ ” she said.
No one came to interview her or to seek videotape from the numerous surveillance cameras nearby, she said. That is where things ended.
“I just assumed it was laziness,” Ms. Davis said. “Why bother to take a report?”
Even when New Yorkers follow up, they are sometimes surprised to learn that their complaints were never classified as a crime. In one case, Sandra Ung, 37, went to the Fifth Precinct in Chinatown after her wallet disappeared at a Starbucks.
“I had it and then it was gone,” she said of the Feb. 23 episode. She said she believed her wallet had been stolen, but could not prove it. She assumed the police had recorded it as pickpocketing, but when she retrieved a copy of the report days later, she saw it was recorded not as a crime, but as lost property that had gone “missing in an unknown manner.”
That report also reflects the line of questioning Ms. Ung faced; it noted that “she wasn’t bumped nor jostled.”
In June, the Police Department issued a guidebook that instructed officers how to categorize all imaginable variations of crimes — including 24 situations involving identity theft and 3 types of strangulation. Its section on pickpockets could be viewed as a rebuke to how officers handled Ms. Ung’s case and possibly others like it.
The guidelines focused on the very words that the police used to discount her suspicions: “The victim does not need to have witnessed, felt or otherwise been aware of being bumped or jostled in order to properly record the occurrence as grand larceny.”
Despite the new guidelines, some critics say subtle tweaks in police protocol offer opportunities to avoid taking reports. In 2009, the department came up with a new policy that might seem inconsequential: Robbery victims would have to go to the station house to give their reports directly to a detective or patrol supervisor.
The intent was to get an investigator on the case as quickly as possible, but one police commander said supervisors were aware that another consequence could be that fewer crimes would be reported.
The policy was restored to its original form last year, with uniformed officers once again allowed to take the initial report of a robbery.
“A police report wouldn’t get made because they make you wait in the police station for hours,” one commander said. Eventually, he added, the crime victim would give up and leave.