Mark Twain said “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” Which brings us to the news reported late last month that New York City was as safe in terms of serious crimes as it has been in modern history. Nevertheless, there are those who complain that they feel less safe at this time, and others who attack the nature of the record-gathering. In order to understand what is going on, it’s necessary first to discuss what numbers we’re talking about.
When a city, such as New York, wants to examine the level of serious/violent crime, they typically refer to the major felonies tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Those crimes are murder, rape, burglary, robbery and felony assault. There appears to be no question that in fact the statistics show that these have fallen, and are at record low or near-record low rates in NYC. But questions continue to be raised attacking either the statistics themselves, or their worth as a barometer of crime in the city.
To be sure, the “major crimes” defined by the FBI could be seen as overly inclusive or exclusive, depending upon your point of view. But if the goal is to compare crime over time, we have to compare apples to apples. And if we do so, the statistics do show that major felonies are down in New York. So why do so many people still take issue with the conclusion that the city is safer now than at most times in the past decades? We think there are two things at work here.
First, there are the politicians, hardliners perhaps, who don’t like the statistics because they make Police Commissioner Bill Bratton look good. Or perhaps they have a vested interest in the expansion of the department, and think that lower crime numbers will dissuade some from seeing the logic in expanding the number of officers on the street.
Second, and we believe more important, is the fact that the average citizen may not feel any safer than he or she has felt over the past few years, or even the past few decades. The question is, why people still feel like crime is worse than ever, in the face of the numbers to the contrary? We’ve got to point the finger, at least in part, at the media. Crime sells. News outlets are not altruistic enterprises; rather, they are big business in every sense of the word. So while serious crime, including violent crime, may be down, you’d never know it by watching the six o’clock news.
Finally, in the face of nationwide reports of the unfairness of the criminal justice system, including police shootings of unarmed people, the outcry from certain areas has been that these reports are undermining the ability of the police to do their job. Predictions of urban disorder are everywhere.
So it’s no wonder that people are fearful. But the numbers, for all the attacks on them, don’t lie.
George Vomvolakis Law Offices
275 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016