Crime Stats, Tests And Credibility

There were two prominent stories in New York last week that were worlds apart, but which symbolized what is wrong with our society today.

A new study, which interviewed hundreds of former New York Police Department employees, reveals that the city's much-acclaimed crime declines over the past two decades may partially be the result of cooking the books.

Because of the pressure by the past two mayors and their police commissioners to show evidence of declines in crime, police officers and their supervisors have allegedly been downgrading certain crimes and also discouraging the reporting of other crimes.

We all know that New York City has become a much safer place in the past two decades. As someone who came of age in the city in the 1970s and 1980s, I remember how scary the streets of the city were and how the news of multiple murders each day became commonplace.

Today, due to strong policing, a decline in the use of illicit drugs like crack and a general upgrade in the quality of life in the city, we are averaging less than one murder a day, a very impressive feat. But in certain neighborhoods in the city, I am told that teenagers are forced to join gangs just so they can feel safe roaming their neighborhood.

And with the economy sputtering, it is no great surprise that we have seen upticks in crimes like larceny and theft, particularly of electronic goods like iPhones and iPads. We have also started to see more homeless people on our streets, a harbinger of a general decline in our city's ability to maintain order.

But back to the alleged manipulation of crime stats. When your sole criteria for judging performance is numbers-driven and the keeper of the numbers is in control of the release of that data, it is no great surprise that there are some ethical lapses. This merits investigation so New Yorkers can know the true crime statistics from their borough and thus have the ability to pressure the police department to better patrol high crime areas.

The other news story that shows the dangers of a purely data-driven society was the Regents cheating scandal at Stuyvesant High School, my alma mater. We have allowed testing and test scores to replace teaching and learning and these kinds of scandals are largely a consequence of this.

Of course we need minimum competency exams like the Regents to ensure that students have mastered subject areas, but our over-reliance on multiple-choice exams has opened things up to scandals like these and also, I believe, leads to a shallow kind of education.

Students need to write more essays and orally explain the concepts they have learned. Multiple-choice exams don't reflect true learning; they just test student's memories, not their critical thinking. Multiple-choice exams are merely an efficient, mass-produced way to teach and this is why our education system is now becoming second rate in the global education race.

We need to demand transparency in our public safety numbers and punish those who subvert that goal. The NYPD should not let its desire for achievement get in the way of reflecting what is happening on the streets of New York. Accurate knowledge is power and COMPSTAT, the system that tracks crime by neighborhood, cannot be an effective crime-fighting tool if it is being fed bogus data.

And we cannot continue to test our kids to death and not expect a diminution of real learning. Testing is meant to give teacher's feedback on gaps in learning so they can supplement children's education and fill in those gaps.

We have to face facts: data and testing must be accurate and effective if we are going to continue to ensure that New York is a great place to live.

The test takers of today could become the leaders of tomorrow: let's make sure they really grasp concepts and can communicate them verbally and in writing.

And let's make sure the next time we're told crime is down in a neighborhood, it's because of true statistics, not overzealous cooking of the books.

New York is a tough, competitive place. Honesty and credibility must be its hallmarks in government and education.

Tom Allon is a 2013 Liberal and Democratic candidate for Mayor of New York City.

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