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Keeping Track of the Numbers: VPD and CompStat

This week at the Vancouver Police Board hearing where I presented on our service and policy complaint regarding the use of the VPD dog squad (more to come on that later this week), there was much discussion about the recent drop in property and violent crime across almost every district in the city. A small splattering of media was there to report on the numbers and to ask the Chief and Mayor whether or not they could attribute the drop to something definite like a drop in homelessness or the city’s policies on increasing the social housing stock. The positive numbers gave the Mayor a chance to pat his department on the back, as he told the press he viewed the numbers as evidence that over the past 5 years the VPD’s crime strategy has been working.

The NPA’s response to the numbers has been muted, albeit with a palpable shrug on how property crime could have possibly decreased last year given it included a day when hundreds of shop windows and cars were destroyed in a matter of hours, but how can you really attack a set of numbers? Sometimes what really matters is not what the numbers say, but how the numbers are collected, and all of this begs an increasingly important question: Should we really be trusting the police department to tell us whether or not the crime rate in our city has been going down?

In September of 2010 a radio program based out of Chicago called ‘This America Life’ profiled a shocking story from New York City on what can happen when statistics become driven by the need to show an infinite decline in crime for political reasons. Adrian Schoolcraft, an eight-year veteran of the NYPD, began recording every aspect of police life out of concern for his own reputation and the way they were being instructed to manipulate stats. The tapes speak for themselves: officers were encouraged to increase their level of activity by stopping and frisking citizens, while simultaneously being discouraged from filing reports that would indicate a robbery or sexual assault had taken place. Anything that would indicate an increase in crime is better off buried.

The program runs roughly an hour and can be streamed here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/414/right-to-remain-silent or downloaded to podcast through itunes. Hearing Schoolcraft’s recordings has definitely change the way I look at modern policing statistics, and should give all of us reason to be concerned about Vancouver’s decision to adopt the same system of tracking crime (CompStat) that has been so appallingly manipulated in New York City. 

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