I have regular occasion to serve as a consultant to police agencies. As such, I’m afforded the “pleasure” of watching police administrators interact with the political leadership to whom they answer. More often than not, one party thinks the other is hiding something. To paraphrase Joe Friday, that’s where I come in. I carry a clipboard.
In many regards, I live and die by reconciling things that I’ve sorted into tidy little columns. Somewhat facetiously I have often said that ‘I count stuff for a living.’ The primary tools of my trade could be summed up as “statistics.”
In this world of big data and solipsistic hyper-quantifying, statistics are unfairly maligned. A familiar phrase, “lies, damned lies and statistics” is frequently misattributed to Mark Twain (ca. 1904). We know that at least a dozen British nobles had penned something similar decades prior. Its exact provenance aside, the phrase goes to a point: Whenever someone presents a statistic, we’re conditioned to think him an obfuscating equivocator with combustible pantaloons.
Sadly, this jaundiced view cuts us off from the power and beauty that statistics can inhabit. When I went off to graduate school, I was haunted by the fact that I had to take multiple doctoral level statistics classes in order to graduate. They might as well have required me to take brain surgery classes.
Then I met Prof. David McDowall. McDowall is a quiet man whose courses evidence a level of organization and forethought that few teachers will ever attain. He has a facility to explain extremely complicated things so that even an innumerate boob like me could understand them.
I was so entranced by the window onto the elegant harmony of numbers McDowall opened, that he became the chair of my dissertation committee. I was forever changed in how I saw the world and its probabilities.
I use the term “probabilities” because that’s what statistics provide for us. They aren’t some kind of black box enterprise designed to make us more convincing liars. They are a way to understand the world around us. Statistics can be used to describe phenomena: batting averages; yards rushed; eggs laid per chicken. They can also be used to infer the character of a population from a sample — television ratings. They can be used to estimate the probability of an event, given certain conditions — My boss at the newspaper, likes to apply this particular aspect of inferential statistics in close proximity to a thing called a “paddock.”
So then we come back to statistics as fodder for lies. At a recent meeting, I heard a government official say to a police chief, “So, these statistics, this is how we’re gonna make the numbers say what we want them to say?”
On the one hand, I reckoned that I just heard an elected official advocate the fraudulent manipulation of public records. On the other, I realized that he just wasn’t a “deep thinker.”
Nobody is born knowing anything about statistics. He can’t be faulted for that. Maybe the people who have repeatedly reelected him can, but he can’t.
The deeper sin here lies in his assumption that statistics were just another way to manipulate the fruits of bad government into a fairy tale that would let him and his ilk off the hook for being incompetent.
The matter under consideration that night was crime, but it could have been anything else. How many potholes did the street department fill or how many fires did the fire department put out? All of these could be addressed with descriptive statistics; and in most cases nobody would question their veracity.
Crime is somehow different. In America we’re prone to distrust the police (unfairly, I would argue). As such, we want to have a fuller accounting when police administrators rise to speak. In so many cities across the U.S., police officials are trying to provide more professional, modern and broader services than at anytime in history. They certainly need our help. What they don’t need is a presumption that they’re here just to dupe us with pleasing lies.
• • •
Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org