Perverse effects from police statistics

2010-05-07

in Geek stuff, Law, Politics, Security

An article in the Village Voice describes how police officers in one New York precinct routinely downgraded crime reports, in order to make their statistics look more favourable. A whistle-blowing police officer revealed with, with evidence from covert audio recordings.

Indeed, the whole situation is deeply reminiscent of police work as portrayed on the television show The Wire. In particular, it matches up with two quotes from that series:

  • “But the stat games? That lie? It’s what ruined this department. Shining up shit and calling it gold so majors become colonels and mayors become governors.”
  • “Robberies become larcenies oh so easily. And rapes, well they just disappear.”

It’s a tricky problem to deal with. I have defended standardizes tests as protection against grade inflation, but they can clearly create similar perverse incentives. When people start chasing a number that is intended as a proxy for a good outcome, they can begin to produce worse outcomes in ways that flatter the particular figure you are looking at.

It’s not an easy problem to solve, allowing discretion while maintaining high standards. Clearly, part of all statistics-based systems must be an audit and oversight capacity that retains a sense of the importance of the real outcomes being sought, and a level of independence that prevents it from becoming just another political tool. Of course, the same political pressures that seem capable of turning police forces into factories for dodgy statistics apply just as strongly to any such oversight bodies. They also make it highly likely that whisteblowers will be ostracized, with everything possible being done to discredit them.

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