Technically, crime is up. More New Yorkers were robbed and fewer were killed this past month compared to October 2021, according to the NYPD’s recently released citywide crime stats. The figures don’t jump off the page. Yet New Yorkers were on high alert. What do these numbers really mean during a month when public safety in the “Big Apple” was a national conversation and a central issue during this past governor’s race?
“When New York talks about crime, they’re talking about seven crime categories,” said Marq Claxton, director of the Black Law Enforcement Alliance. “They’re not talking about all the crimes in the penal law. They look at seven particular crimes. And based on those seven crime categories, they make a determination whether ‘crime is up, crime is down.’”
The seven major index crimes accounted for are murder, rape, felony assault, robbery, burglary, grand larceny and grand larceny auto. Claxton, a retired NYPD detective, says those categories limit a broader assessment of public safety. Instead, he recommends looking at other, more minor and common offenses to get a better gauge of crime in the city. For example, felony assaults makeup a small fraction of overall assaults—instead, misdemeanor assault stats paint a much clearer picture of how frequently New Yorkers are attacked on the streets.
And most serious crime isn’t even reported to police, according to Dr. Chris Herrmann, an assistant professor at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former NYPD Crime Analyst Supervisor. The U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey found only 45.6% of violent crime was reported to police last year.
“We’re only looking at half of the picture, at best,” he said. “And based on that half picture, we’re supposed to come up with all these great ideas and policies and strategies and prevention and control. It’s like a little bit of a crapshoot.”
Major index crimes are tallied through police reports, which are reviewed by higher-ups and higher-, higher-ups before they’re computerized as an actual physical record. From there, analysts dive back into the database to tally up crime statistics.
But the process often requires subjective judgment calls by police when categorizing an offense. Herrmann says robbery, grand larceny and burglary are frequently intertwined and can be manipulated to exacerbate or reduce violent crime numbers. Claxton adds that departments are often tasked with putting on their best “Antiques RoadShow” impression and appraising the value of items during a larceny arrest—the assessment can often determine whether the offense is tallied as a felony or misdemeanor.
Last month, burglaries, robbery, grand larceny and grand larceny auto were all up in New York City according to the NYPD. Herrmann says this is a good sign for credibility—given the categories’ inherent connection, aberrations between the four crimes should be met with suspicion.
In fact, New Yorkers benefit from one of the most accurate crime tallies in the nation, boasting the NYPD-piloted Compstat process.
“We got more people that are counting crime than the majority of police departments are taking care of all their crimes,” said Herrmann.
He adds that the FBI can’t properly estimate a nationwide crime rate this year due to the lack of reporting and antiquated documentation processes by smaller departments across the country.
Then there’s the matter of how different communities are policed due to race. For example, statistics point to higher illegal drug activity in Black and brown communities. But felony drug use is comparable, if not higher, in white neighborhoods, according to Claxton.
“If your crime-fighting strategies focus on Black and brown communities, then [unsurprisingly], you’re [going to have] some great recordings of incidents in Black and brown communities,” he said. “If you don’t enforce and police the same way in other communities and if you don’t document offenses in those communities, then it’ll show as if nothing happens there, when it’s just not the reality.”
So in the end, major index crime stats don’t fully paint the picture of public safety. Claxton says they’re useful for determining which specific crimes need to be resolved. But they don’t explain why New Yorkers stand meters away from the subway track or hire private security guards to police their block these days.
“If we just look at those statistics, we lose what’s really important to people, and that’s how they feel,” said Claxton. “That sense of safety, that feeling of safety, because those types of feelings are contagious. And they shouldn’t be ignored, even when the statistics show otherwise.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1