There’s Truth in Numbers in Policing – Until There Isn’t

To hold the police accountable for misconduct, data related to police violence must not only become more accessible, it must also become more reliable.

In a recent New York Times column, Mara Gay revealed the details from a never-released report that showed “the number of people killed by police activity in New York is more than twice what has been reported.” Led by Mary Bassett, former New York City health commissioner and current director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, the Health Department “identified 105 people killed by the police or police activity during the period from 2010 to 2015, more than double the 46 the agency had publicly reported for those years.” The reasons for the undercount varied. “The city’s official count often excludes people who die in incidents related to police activity,” as Gay explained in the column. “In some cases, police activity wasn’t indicated on medical examiner reports, leading the Health Department to misclassify the deaths.” Regardless of the reasons, this sort of undercounting sheds light on why data-centered police reforms repeatedly fall short.

At the heart of many police reform arguments is accountability. But to hold the police accountable for misconduct, data related to police violence must not only become more accessible, it must also become more reliable. But what if this is just not possible? What if we cannot ever rely on this data to be true? The broader problems about measuring crime amongst the general population are magnified when we attempt to gather information about crimes committed by the police. Verifiable measures, such as arrest rates and incarceration rates, neither of which truly indicate if a crime was actually committed, are often reserved for the policed not the police. And, so long as police departments have any influence on reporting or recording crime, even independent, credentialed bodies will be unsuccessful in their effort to collect and publish accurate accounts.

The police have a long history of manipulating data-centered reforms for its benefit. Overreporting crime statistics can often reap financial rewards and more power for police departments. For example, responding to public concern about the steady rise in youths arrested in New York City, the New York Police Department (NYPD) integrated the Crime Prevention Bureau as an official part in 1931. The Bureau was tasked to control crime- contributing community conditions and to treat “potential delinquents.” These discretionary undertakings by the police, especially the latter, gave police the authority to expand its surveillance powers and to increase direct contact with young people throughout the city. For the policed, the results were catastrophic. In the first three years, the Crime Prevention Bureau expanded its caseload by 50 percent and reached its peak in 1933 at roughly 15,000 cases. But, according to then Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, these numbers still did not justify their expenses. The Crime Prevention Bureau was reorganized under a new director and renamed the Juvenile Aid Bureau (JAB) in 1934. Needing more cases to justify its existence, JAB expanded its referral- based list of potential delinquents to include “any youths who engaged in acts that could ultimately bring them into conflict with the law.” This broadened definition had the desired effect, and by the end of the decade, according to a 1947 New York University case study, the Bureau reported more than 66,000 cases, and potential delinquents made up almost 90 percent of the caseload; the annual budget increased from $346,000 to $500,000.

Similarly, underreporting police violence allows the police to elude public criticism and to combat reform efforts aimed at limiting police power. In January 1964, on the eve of the World’s Fair, top law enforcement officials from New York, including then governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, ...