In the series finale of The Wire, Cedric Daniels, who had just resigned his new appointment as the fictional Police Commissioner of Baltimore, offered this basic, somewhat profane, insight into why truth in crime data is important:
“I’ll swallow a lie when I have to; I’ve swallowed a few big ones lately. 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; pretending to do police work while one generation fucking trains the next how not to do the job.”
A few years ago, there was a wonderful panel at Law & Society regarding The Wire which featured fantastic panelists and the disembodied head of David Simon, creator of the show, in the background via Skype. After listening to each of the presentations by academics, Simon offered his own view of the show and addressed what had been said. Interestingly, he said that the fundamental theme of The Wire was, similar to the quote from Daniels, was “shining shit and calling it gold.” Politicians, police, drug dealers, newspapers, and virtually everyone featured in the show played the game of taking something worth little and pretending it was something much better. And so, it shouldn’t be surprising that when police performance is judged by easily manipulated crime statistics, some police will choose the easiest path to success: gaming the numbers. And the primary way that crime numbers are kept low in many cases is to not investigate victim complaints at all (deeming them false or not creating a written record of the complaint).