THE BLOG
12/14/2012 04:06 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

Is the Love Affair With Data Driven Public Policy Cooling Off?

The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)

When historians and political scientists look back on the first decade of this century I suspect they'll spend a fair amount of time explaining why politicians, enamored of data driven "reforms," bypassed the democratic process to achieve their goals.

If we're lucky, they'll also be explaining why these reforms failed so miserably.

It seems the give and take of the American political dialectic no longer works for them. In its stead when it comes to solving the public policy issues of our day the businessman-technocrat and politician are acting in unison. Their hallmark is a fundamental contempt for the intrusion of the democratic process. Computer models are now the handmaidens of public policy.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than at the crossroads where public education and law enforcement intersect. It is there that the misuse of data has created a Cloud cuckoo land that is slowly unraveling before our eyes.

For example, the New York Police Department claims that New York's schools are the safest they've been over the past decade as a result of measures they've taken that includes metal detectors and a greater police presence in troubled schools. The NYCLU has filed a class-action lawsuit that seeks to make school discipline the province of educators rather than the police.

They claim that the 882 arrests and 1,666 summonses handed out to students in 2011-2012 demonstrate that placing police in schools is fatally flawed public policy.

Who's right? Are there excessive arrests or has policing made the schools safer than ever? How should we account for the discrepancy? Are crimes stats dropping or is it a mirage?

According to a study conducted by Sharon Balmer for the National Center for Schools and communities at Fordham University ("When the schoolhouse feels like a jailhouse: Relationships between attendance, school environment, and violence in the NYC public schools"), an increased police presence in schools increased suspensions and police incidents and actually depressed attendance.

The truth is that school crime numbers have always been subject to manipulation because the school code of discipline as well as the criminal code can be applied for infractions in many situations. School officials fearful of having their schools branded as persistently dangerous are predisposed to letting the discipline code adjudicate the matter rather than having an arrest on the books.

Victims and their parents are often reluctant to press charges fearing recrimination from the perpetrator or should they be in the country illegally, which is often the case, getting involved with the criminal justice system. If they are injured they can seek a "safety transfer" and will flee a school for another location knowing that it's impossible to remove the predator in their midst.

When you couple this policy with aggressive truancy enforcement by the police, you remove the main source of street crimes, kids between the ages of 15 and 18. But simply recycling these truants back into the schools without any sort of special intervention, almost guarantees more crime in the schoolhouse. Only those numbers won't show up if the offense is adjudicated using the school discipline code.

On paper it appears that street crime is down and school crime is down. The reality is the schools are actually less safe. When government agencies run two sets of books they are really no different from a private sector Ponzi scheme. A policy heralded with much fanfare deflected criticism and scrutiny while actually masking the reality of New York's schools.

The picture sharpens when we look at another study about street crime that demonstrates what happens when you ask the wrong questions about violence. Your answer might sound good, but because of changing circumstances you wind up using statistics and drawing conclusions that are irrelevant.

A reappraisal of urban homicide statistics received a lengthy two thousand-word treatment that began on the front-page of the December 8, edition of the Wall Street Journal. The article revealed what policemen on the beat and discerning criminologists have been saying for quite some time. The number of homicides doesn't necessarily reveal the level of violence in today's society.

So while homicide rates have fallen dramatically, gun violence has skyrocketed based on the number of people that have been treated for gunshot wounds. The falling homicide numbers touted by big city mayors and police commissioners aren't quite what they're cracked up to be. Between 2001- 2011, the number of people hospitalized as a result of gunshot wounds rose 47 percent according to the Center for Disease Control.

Medical advances for treating severe trauma from gunshot wounds and has radically reduced the mortality rate of its victims. Many of these life-saving advances were developed in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan and have made their way into emergency rooms and trauma centers increasing survival rates.

Solving a quadratic equation or developing an algorithm for electronic trading on the stock exchange should never be confused with governance. Statistical studies are just one component for arriving at the truth for certain kinds of problems, but it isn't a substitute for the truth. It isn't a substitute for democracy either.