One Police Plaza

Story behind crime statistics

February 3, 1999

Former Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro yesterday offered an explanation for why the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani withheld news for six months that subway crime was underreported: fear that the press would distort the story.

Speaking at a First Amendment Forum sponsored by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and in a subsequent telephone conversation, Mastro offered no legal justification for the Giuliani administration's delay in releasing statistics showing that subway crimes had been underreported for some three decades - including by as much as 20 percent in 1996.

The Daily News had filed a freedom-of-information law request for the records in August, 1997. According to Daily News counsel Eve Burton, who appeared with Mastro at the forum, the statistics were released only after the News threatened to file a lawsuit the following day.

While pointing out that he was not part of the decision-making process in the subway crime statistics matter, Mastro said at the forum that releasing the new subway crime figures might have "cast doubt" on the city's overall, citywide crime statistics. Police have said the overall statistics were accurate because the missing subway crimes were reported at the precinct level.

"I'm sure there was real concern about the integrity of the larger issue," Mastro said.

That "issue" is the citywide crime statistics, which show unprecedented reductions in virtually all categories of crime. Those reductions have become the cornerstone of Giuliani's mayoralty, as well as a key part of the re-election campaign he was in the midst of when the Daily News filed the request.

In a phone conversation, Mastro, now a lawyer with the midtown firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, which specializes in First Amendment issues, added, "This instance points out the genuine concerns that the administration had about the accuracy of the press reporting about the overall crime statistics, which were in fact accurate and were not affected in any way by this transit issue."

The state freedom-of-information law does allow city officials to withhold data, for example, if it would invade privacy or disclose confidential law-enforcement techniques. But the law says nothing about keeping information secret if it might be misinterpreted or embarrass city officials.

After the Police Department released the statistics in January, 1998, two months after the mayoral election, Kenneth Donohue resigned as chief of the newly created Transportation Bureau and Vincent DeMarino, a deputy inspector, was disciplined. Police Commissioner Howard Safir downgraded the Transporation Bureau to division status later last year.

Donohue has maintained he retired because of an illness and he was the one who discovered the underreporting.

Burton said the News gave City Hall an ultimatum, saying it would file suit on Jan. 8 if the city failed to provide the promised statistics. Instead, on Jan. 7, Safir held a news conference at One Police Plaza and announced the subway crime underreporting, taking credit for its discovery.

©1999 Newsday, Inc.Reprinted with permission.