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Ratios and the rational

The Marshall Project, an excellent site on what we are pleased to call criminal justice, has a great interview with The Wire's David Simon on current events in Baltimore. These vivid paragraphs on Martin O'Malley ("Marty") caught my eye:

The second thing Marty did, in order to be governor, involves the stats themselves. In the beginning, under Norris, he did get a better brand of police work and we can credit a legitimate 12 to 15 percent decline in homicides. Again, that was a restoration of an investigative deterrent in the early years of that administration. But it wasn’t enough to declare a Baltimore Miracle, by any means.

What can you do? You can’t artificially lower the murder rate – how do you hide the bodies when it’s the state health department that controls the medical examiner’s office? But the other felony categories? Robbery, aggravated assault, rape? Christ, what they did with that stuff was jaw-dropping.

So they cooked the books.

Oh yeah. If you hit somebody with a bullet, that had to count. If they went to the hospital with a bullet in them, it probably had to count as an aggravated assault. But if someone just took a gun out and emptied the clip and didn't hit anything or they didn't know if you hit anything, suddenly that was a common assault or even an unfounded report. Armed robberies became larcenies if you only had a victim’s description of a gun, but not a recovered weapon. And it only gets worse as some district commanders began to curry favor with the mayoral aides who were sitting on the Comstat data. In the Southwest District, a victim would try to make an armed robbery complaint, saying , ‘I just got robbed, somebody pointed a gun at me,’ and what they would do is tell him, well, okay, we can take the report but the first thing we have to do is run you through the computer to see if there's any paper on you. Wait, you're doing a warrant check on me before I can report a robbery? Oh yeah, we gotta know who you are before we take a complaint. You and everyone you’re living with? What’s your address again? You still want to report that robbery?

They cooked their own books in remarkable ways. Guns disappeared from reports and armed robberies became larcenies. Deadly weapons were omitted from reports and aggravated assaults became common assaults. The Baltimore Sun did a fine job looking into the dramatic drop in rapes in the city. Turned out that regardless of how insistent the victims were that they had been raped, the incidents were being quietly unfounded. That tip of the iceberg was reported, but the rest of it, no. And yet there were many veteran commanders and supervisors who were disgusted, who would privately complain about what was happening. If you weren’t a journalist obliged to quote sources and instead, say, someone writing a fictional television drama, they’d share a beer and let you fill cocktail napkins with all the ways in which felonies disappeared in those years.

I mean, think about it. How does the homicide rate decline by 15 percent, while the agg assault rate falls by more than double that rate. Are all of Baltimore’s felons going to gun ranges in the county? Are they becoming better shots? Have the mortality rates for serious assault victims in Baltimore, Maryland suddenly doubled? Did they suddenly close the Hopkins and University emergency rooms and return trauma care to the dark ages? It makes no sense statistically until you realize that you can’t hide a murder, but you can make an attempted murder disappear in a heartbeat, no problem.

But these guys weren't satisfied with just juking their own stats. No, the O'Malley administration also went back to the last year of the previous mayoralty and performed its own retroactive assessment of those felony totals, and guess what? It was determined from this special review that the preceding administration had underreported its own crime rate, which O'Malley rectified by upgrading a good chunk of misdemeanors into felonies to fatten up the Baltimore crime rate that he was inheriting. Get it? How better than to later claim a 30 or 40 percent reduction in crime than by first juking up your inherited rate as high as she'll go. It really was that cynical an exercise.

So Martin O’Malley proclaims a Baltimore Miracle and moves to Annapolis. And tellingly, when his successor as mayor allows a new police commissioner to finally de-emphasize street sweeps and mass arrests and instead focus on gun crime, that’s when the murder rate really dives. That’s when violence really goes down. When a drug arrest or a street sweep is suddenly not the standard for police work, when violence itself is directly addressed, that’s when Baltimore makes some progress.

Obviously, this is messed up. And obviously, Martin O'Malley will have a few problems if he ever makes it to the Presidential campaign trail, which I don't think, now, he will.

Less obviously, O'Malleys modus operandi looks a lot like accounting control fraud, to me; inflate all the numbers, but instead of collecting the ballooned commission and getting out before the scam falls apart, get elected to the next higher office.

And then there's the question: Is there any official statistic we use that isn't gamed or messed up? The issues with the unemployment numbers we know about; but then there's the Reinhart-Rogoff affair, where entire governments imposed austerity on "their people" justified by a ratio of debt to GDP based on bad data in a paper they wrote.

But it's not only bad data that's ubiquitous: It's ratios themselves. (I helpfully underlined them in the quote above.) It's possible, I suppose, to run a business based on business ratios drawn from the company's books (unless the books are faked, in which case you keep a second set of books (unless....)). But that's because any business as a construct is an artificial entity cut off from the world that cannot account for externalities; literally can't account for them; can't put them on the books.

But could it be true that no ratio can account for externalities?

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Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

Thanks for the link. I wondered what David Simon would have to say about this.

Less obviously, O'Malleys modus operandi looks a lot like accounting control fraud, to me; inflate all the numbers, but instead of collecting the ballooned commission and getting out before the scam falls apart, get elected to the next higher office.

One of the few things I used to think I could count on was that government statistics weren't a lie. They might be deceptive (as the labor statistics are), but at least if you dig down into them you can figure out what the truth really is. The O'Malley method makes that either difficult or impossible. The numbers are deliberately mis-recorded in the first place. It's like hiding fraudulent vote counting in the drivers of the voting machines - you only know the numbers you're looking at could be a fraud. What the truth might be is another matter.

Nevertheless, Simon said in that article that he might vote for O'Malley, should he be the Democratic candidate. That's a metaphor for the progressive movement in 21st Century America if ever there was one.

Simon's point about incentives is important, too. The incentives for individual cops are to do something other than quality police work. Having worked in the defense industry, where incentives are similarly perverse, I fear Baltimore is in for a long struggle if it wants to get its police back to doing what they ought to be. Employees who have learned to work with one set of incentives will not be easily converted to a new one.