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CompStat: Too Big For the Small Department?

Written by Albert Varga

Whether it’s a four-officer department that covers an entire county on one shift, or a 10-officer department that copes with a sudden swell of vacationers, chiefs and sheriffs of departments with fewer than 25 officers often unsure they can’t benefit from CompStat. (CompStat is short for “compare statistics” or “computer statistics.”)

These chiefs and sheriffs see the CompStat operation as something for only the “big guys.” They understand that CompStat is successful in measuring police effectiveness and reducing crime, but they fervently insist their agency is too small to use CompStat. But, is CompStat too big for a small police department?

“Clearly, CompStat is the wave of the future. It’s been diffused through all agencies, from the New York Police Department down to agencies with 12 or so officers,” said Jon M. Shane, retired Newark, N.J., police captain, fellow at the Police Foundation, and faculty member at New York’s John Jay College, “but it’s only been studied in large places.”

Shane, who has authored several articles about CompStat operations, says the small departments are, by nature, focused on their citizenry and know the people and town activities. A small police department may feel it doesn’t need high-tech data collection capabilities. Shane says these departments garner data the old-fashioned way, with citizen contacts. The data deals with not only criminal offenses, but also local, day-to-day police problems.

A great deal of research exists on CompStat, but very little about 10-officer police departments using CompStat. To see if the concept fits for such small departments, it is necessary to dispel any preconceived notions about CompStat.

Patrol Philosophy

First and foremost, CompStat is a concept of patrol but is often mistaken as a software program. It is not software, although many police computer aided dispatch (CAD) software programs become integral with CompStat.

Variations of CompStat operations exist, but certain principles are always followed. Those patrol philosophies include: use of community policing and emphasizing the “Broken Window Theory,” Problem-Oriented Policing (POP), collection of crime data, crime analysis and tactical responses. We spoke with several police agencies that use CompStat, and each had a variation on the operation.

There are no set rules for CompStat, but the process generally includes these steps: geographic division of the municipality (precincts, zones, sectors, beats), collection of accurate and timely intelligence about public safety concerns and crime in each sector, establishment of command accountability or responsibility for each sector, analysis of the data, recognition of the problems, development of tactics to solve problems using resources within and without the agency, development of a plan to prevent the problems, creation of a follow-up procedure using the police and the community, evaluation of the overall performance of commanders and officers, and re-assessment of the operation.

CompStat Meeting

The CompStat sessions are usually no-nonsense affairs where district commanders review problems with their peers, administrators and staff, seeking solutions and feedback regarding their areas of responsibility. Commanders have to be prepared for questions from their chiefs and must offer answers to ongoing problems. In the best meetings, commanders face tough questions but are also praised for their good work or effort.

The Alachua County, Fla., Sheriff’s Department has a CompStat operation that has proven successful in reducing crime and improving accountability of the command staff and officers. “CompStat meetings are a place to resolve problems,” said Lieutenant Bella Blizzard. She indicated that its operation is a roundtable situation, not adversarial, and definitely into sharing information for the entire department. She said deputies now attend to emphasize the intention to share information at all levels of the department.

The Paradise Valley, Ariz., Police Department is a smaller agency that uses CompStat. With 36 officers, this resort town of well-to-do residents is adjacent to Phoenix and contends with normal police problems, but it is especially plagued with the crime of car burglary. Commander Alan Laitsch said his department uses its own version or parts of CompStat to cope with the high volume of car burglaries and other crimes.

“Every 30 days, the chief, deputy chief, commander and six sergeants would meet to discuss the problem and how we were solving the problem. We used a check-off system to describe each incident by time, location and method, and used the intelligence to use our patrols effectively. We also used community volunteers to assist our officers,” Laitsch says.

In this case, the volunteers actually patrol neighborhoods looking for vulnerable situations for a burglary, such as a car left open in public and obviously unlocked, or garage doors left open during the night. They inform the owners or notify the police if the owners cannot be located.

“Using our version of CompStat has made a positive difference,” Laitsch said, indicating that reports of burglaries to autos were on the decrease. The Paradise Valley Police Department uses its CAD system to extract the data, and then Commander Laitsch refines the intelligence.

Newly elected Sheriff Ted Jackson of Fulton County, Ga., has introduced CompStat into the county jail operation. The county jail, under a consent decree by the federal government involving the rights and living conditions of inmates in 15 specific areas, changed for the better in just nine months.

“The system tracks nearly everything through statistics,” said Sergeant Charles Rambo, who does the CompStat training. The sheriff conducts audit meetings that review the day-to-day concerns of a jail operation. “Commanders can’t come to a podium [at a CompStat meeting] and say they didn’t do anything about a problem. They’ll get chewed out, but we don’t turn the meetings into a humiliation session. We train our officers to solve problems or have answers,” he said.

Rambo utilizes Apple’s Numbers program to compile and compare the statistics. The county is elated with the system, and Rambo has been asked to train other sheriff’s departments in other parts of the nation.

Up and Down Communications

Small police departments can use parts of CompStat to adopt any workable principles that fit their needs. Based on experience, it will improve operations and effectiveness. To determine a need for it, a chief does an inventory of his up and down communications in the department to make sure everyone has the same information and there is a continuation from shift to shift of problem solving with community support.

Variations of CompStat are popular among many small departments using the system without even realizing it. Not much literature has been afforded the small department chief in this regard, but formally or informally, most chiefs get the idea. Some have ventured their own concept for small police departments following the basics of CompStat.

E-mails can be a continuous reminder to watch the activity in question. The need for each officer to have a laptop may be too expensive for a small department. In some cases, the department can tap the resources of local service clubs such as Rotary, Kiwanis and other groups that may consider a fundraiser to provide the laptops. A department may already possess laptops or may find that the system can work using one or two computers to do the job.

CompStat operations can be accomplished without computers if a department is severely limited in funds. But in this day and age, CAD usually keeps records, and many departments rely on the data they extract from this system. It takes time to review data, but someone is usually doing such reviews. The key is to get the data to the officers in the field. Costs can be minimal; the results may be rewarding.

With a track record of reducing crime, improving policing and minimal cost, CompStat is something that small agency chiefs and sheriffs should look into. When your crime rate decreases or calls for service decrease, you can tell your peers, “I’m with the ‘big boys’ now.”

Al Varga is a retired deputy chief of police in Hamilton, N.J., and was police director of the Lambertville Police in New Jersey. He is currently a senior manager at the Jersey Professional Management Company, a municipal government consulting firm.

Published in Law and Order, Mar 2011

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