Jun 192012

I wrote last week about crime statistics and crime fiction and how the relative absence of one from a particular society needn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t produce the other.
I revisited that thought last night as I read a blog post by the brilliant David Simon.

If you’ve known me for any length of time you’ve probably heard me rave about Simon’s The Wire. It’s my favorite TV show, not just because of its brilliant plot, performances and writing, but because it tells the story of a society in decline. Now, we often tend to gloss over the less appealing aspects of our cities, but The Wire not only stares those defects in the face, it forces us, the audience, to confront all that is wrong.

The post dealt with how Simon’s beloved Baltimore was changing the way it charged homicides. Here’s the salient bit:

“Beginning midway through 2011, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, for the first time in modern history, became the sole arbiter of when to charge a defendant in a homicide investigation. Previously, that decision rested with the police department, which would do so in consultation with prosecutors from the Violent Crimes Unit of the State’s Attorney’s Office. Which is to say, while police detectives were expected to take guidance from prosecutors — and did so — they were nonetheless free to arrest defendants if they felt the evidence warranted a charge.”

Needless to say, Simon, who was a crime reporter for The Sun for many years, doesn’t like the change in policy, though he’s the first to acknowledge that the previous method also led to a statistical legerdemain.

Again Simon:

“In 1988, for example, there were 234 homicides in Baltimore. Tracking all of those cases, a reporter would learn that 22 of them were cleared by the police department through arrest, but then later dropped by the state’s attorney’s office prior to indictment. What did that mean to the police department? To the prosecutor’s office? To the city of Baltimore?
Well, for the police department it meant credit for solving 22 cases that they didn’t actually solve, given that the evidence was insufficient for prosecutors to obtain even a grand jury indictment. Why? Because the FBI’s crime reporting logic allows police departments to take credit for all cases cleared by arrest, regardless of whether those arrests are any good at all. Once an arrest has been made — even if charges are subsequently dropped — the case is credited as cleared, and its status as a cleared case doesn’t change.”

So the city is changing the way it counts homicides — going from a system that allowed the department to claim clearances even when there weren’t any to one in which homicides are charged at the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s discretion. And this should, on the surface, be a good thing. Right?
Not so, says Simon, because, the State’s Attorney needs to run for re-election every four years. So the conviction rate matters, as does his ability to win a murder case. So, in Simon’s words, “a new, more profound dishonesty began to overtake the system.”

“Now, the state’s attorney — acting unilaterally and without any possible contradiction by police commanders — was free to charge only those cases he was absolutely sure he could win in court. Now, police had not only been prevented from charging murders in which they had weak evidence, but also from charging those cases in which evidence was substantive, but not necessarily ironclad.”

Now, this brought me back to crime statistics in Mumbai. In my post last week, I’d said that there were 202 homicides in the city in 2011,a drop from the previous year. In fact, the chart on the Mumbai Police website shows that homicides hovered above the 200 mark for the years 2007-11. Low? Yes. But is it the complete picture?
Well, there was one major event in 2008 in Mumbai: the terrorist attacks that rocked the city: 164 people were killed. These folks don’t make it to the homicide list, presumably because they were victims of a terrorist attack. Mumbai’s been the victim of multiple terrorist attacks over the past decade and presumably none of those killed make it to the homicide list. So what the data tell us — whether it’s in Mumbai or in Baltimore — is that it’s not the number of people who are killed that matter, but the way those killings are counted.
A fine way to foster a sense of security.

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