May 17, 2010

This week, my crime column for Reason looks at 117 audio recordings of roll call meetings in a Brooklyn NYPD precinct that were recently obtained by the Village Voice.

Some background: Last March, a study from Molloy college suggested that NYPD higher-ups were pressuring police officers to under-report or reclassify serious crimes to juke the city’s crime stats. At about the same time, an NYPD officer released a few recordings in which his commanding officers can be heard telling rank-and-file cops that they’re required to meet a minimum number of arrests and citations each month. Both stories were played down by NYPD and its supporters.

The new recordings obtained by the Village Voice reinforce both sets of allegations made last March. The implications are pretty startling: As a matter of policy, NYPD seems to be encouraging its officers to harass innocent people, even to the point of arresting and detaining them for non-crimes (the city had a record 570,000 stop-and-frisk searches last year). At the same time, the department may be pressuring some officers and citizens to downgrade actual crimes–even serious ones–or to not report them at all.

We obviously want to hold government employees accountable. But it’s important that the metrics we use in doing so both reflect political realities and create a proper alignment of incentives. Much of what’s wrong with the criminal justice system today isn’t the product of evil or malevolent law enforcement personnel, but of poorly structured incentives put in place by bad policy. And bad policy usually comes from clueless politicians (the issue of crime seems particularly prone to unnuanced, slogan-based policy making).

I’ll look at other incentive problems within the criminal justice sysem in future posts this week.

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