If you look at your police precinct’s weekly CompStat summary on-line, you’ll see that crime is down significantly from, say, 1998 to 2011. You can also learn which categories — murder, rape, robbery, felonious assault, grand larceny, burglary and auto theft — took a dive or suffered a spike this year compared to last.
But New York City’s precincts, contiguous with community districts, are larger than many U.S. cities. The population of the Bronx’s 52nd Precinct (one of 12 in the borough) was 139,286 in 2010, bigger than New Haven, Topeka and Waco. The 107th Precinct, one of 14 in Queens, is more than 6.5 miles wide.
So, the crime data for a precinct-sized chunk of the Big Apple might not provide the bite-sized info a resident needs to gauge how safe their block or neighborhood is.
“If I lived in Co-op City, it’s not going to do me too much good to see crime in the 45th Precinct, because that’s not Co-op City,” says Council Member James Vacca. The distinct, diverse communities of City Island, Throgs Neck and Westchester Square/Zerega are sealso in the Four-Five.
Data for areas within precincts, known as sectors (there are anywhere from eight to 18 in each Bronx precinct) is collected and analyzed regularly by precinct brass. That and even more refined data is what CompStat is all about: identifying hyper-local crime trends to so police can target their resources effectively.
Kept close to vest
But the NYPD doesn’t make sector data public, though there are occasional exceptions. The Riverdale Press gets sector data from the 50th Precinct annually, and then publishes a map of what types of crime occurred where. (Despite some hotspots, this higher-income precinct has the fewest recorded incidents of crime in the borough.)
A commander in the 52nd Precinct released the data to the Norwood News once in 2008. But after that the paper was told to file Freedom of Information Law requests. In 2010 the paper submitted a FOIL request for sector stats in all Bronx precincts. On its blog, it clocked each day that passed. Thirteen months later, following an NBC-TV news report on the paper’s editorial campaign, the NYPD released the information. By that point the data was more than six months out of date.
The paper’s coverage led Council Member Fernando Cabrera to introduce legislation requiring the NYPD to post the sector data monthly on the Web for each of the seven major felony crimes. However, a year later, the bill has not received a hearing in the Public Safety Committee, chaired by Council Member Peter Vallone, Jr.
“There are 160 bills presently before the Public Safety Committee, a number of which involve increased reporting by the NYPD,” says Michael Pantelidis, Vallone’s communications director, in a statement. “Council Member Vallone is actually a sponsor of the bill in question and hopes to have a hearing on it in the near future.”
Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who determines whether most bills get a hearing, did not return several requests for comment.
According to Cabrera, Quinn is the one holding up the bill, which has 19 co-sponsors.
“This is a problem whenever you have as speaker that runs for mayor,” he says. “You have too much politics involved.”
Quinn has said she hopes to keep Raymond Kelly as police commissioner if she does succeed Bloomberg.
Bill supporters argue that making the data public will make the city safer.
“This information can be very helpful to researchers and policy makers,” says John Eterno, a Molloy College criminal justice professor and former commanding officer of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk unit.
Just one example of the perspective that sector-level crime statistics can provide. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of felony assaults in the 40th police precinct—which covers the Port Morris, Mott Haven and Melrose neighborhoods of the Bronx—rose 4 percent. But that precinct-wide figure masked significantly different trends within sectors. For instance, the number of felony assaults fell 16 percent in Sector J. But it rose 31 percent in Sector G.
While the data may show crime upticks in some sectors and result in negative press, Eterno believes that is “offset by all positive aspects of releasing them, including fighting crime more efficiently because we can bring to bear community resources that cannot be brought to bear because they will not allow these stats to come out.”
Need to apply resources wisely
For Cabrera, whose district is largely in the 46th Precinct and straddles the Cross Bronx Expressway and the Grand Concourse, that claim is not just theoretical.
Local nonprofits – like the Council for Unity and the Christian Athletic League – are eager to deploy their resources on the streets where it’s needed most and they look to him for guidance, he says. But “I don’t have that knowledge. All I have is the hearsay from the block and that’s not the best source of information.”
In 2010, there were 71 grand larcenies in Sector D, 52 felonious assaults in Sector I, and 6 rapes in Sector C, the highest by far for those categories in the 46th Precinct, according to the documents the Norwood News acquired. All were increases from 2009, when there was only one rape in Sector C. Knowing that, for example, could have led nonprofits and community groups to warn and educate women in that neighborhood. Other trends might also have pointed to action citizens and advocates could take — like the general crime spike in Sector A from four incidents to 15 from April to May 2010 — but residents and community leaders couldn't access the data.
Now, those figures are dated, and no one except the NYPD knows how crime evolved in 2011. And even if Cabrera wanted to bet on the 2010 stats being similar to this year’s, he doesn’t even have access to a map showing what sector is where.
“What’s ironic is the NYPD has always [told] me, “We can do the arrests, we need you to do the prevention piece,” Cabrera says.
Towards that end, he allotted $1 million in discretionary funds for security cameras and $200,000 for youth programs this year, but until the data is made public he says he won’t know for sure if he’s put those resources where they are needed most.
Vacca believes freeing up the sector stats will also help highlight how some communities have gotten safer.
“We could look at places where crime is down and replicate those strategies in other neighborhoods,” he says.
Crime is not down in Sector G (or “George” as cops refer to it) of the 52nd Precinct, at least as far as Monsignor John Jenik, pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Church in Fordham Bedford, is concerned.
Like Cabrera, he doesn’t have the latest data, but Jenik gathers as much news as he can from parishioners and residents of the blocks surrounding the Catholic church he’s led for 27 years. Muggings, a murder, and three stabbings were on his list from the two weeks in early September.
What making the data pubic will achieve is simple, says Jenik, who has long advocated for its release.
“It would create accountability,” he says. “[The police wouldn’t be able to] use the whole paintbrush and say the whole precinct is down.”
“They don’t have to do anything in your area if it goes down in another area,” Jenik added.
The Bloomberg administration has prided itself on providing easy access to large amounts of localized data, from vendor records to school test scores to pothole work-orders. Yet during Mayor Bloomberg’s time in office, the NYPD has fought the release of other types of information, most notably stop-and-frisk data ultimately attained by the ACLU. The New York Times went to court to get the agency to free up information about gun owners and hate crime locations. The debate over sector stats is just the latest dispute over whether the police department needs to divulge more.
Paul Browne, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for public information, did not respond to requests for comment, so the department’s rationale for keeping sector data under wraps is unknown.
Lat May, City Limits submitted a FOIL to the NYPD for citywide sector data from 2011. Aside from a June letter acknowledging its receipt, there has been no response.
“It’s incomprehensible to me that the [Bloomberg] administration is holding this back,” Cabrera says. “That’s why the City Council is there. We’re supposed to be there for checks and balances.”
If the Council does get to play that role by voting on Cabrera’s legislation, it probably won’t happen for several more months.
On the same day that City Limits interviewed Cabrera, Vallone’s staff informed him that they hoped to hold a hearing on his bill next spring.
Whether or not that happens, Intro 687 may get debated in the mayoral election, which will then be well under way.
In the meantime, advocates continue to stress its bottom line: New Yorkers have the right to know what crimes are up or down where they live.
“I don’t live in the precinct,” Jenik says. “People don’t live in the precinct. We live in neighborhoods.”