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Compstat Revolutionizes Contemporary Policing

Written by Susan Geoghegan

Eleven years have passed since the New York City police department developed and initiated the CompStat process to fight crime. Since then numerous other cities have instituted similar programs in the hope of replicating New York’s success story. The statistics indicate that CompStat is extremely effective in reducing crime, even though some critics still question the efficacy of these programs.

CompStat, the program that would revolutionize contemporary policing, was initially created with a small business software package named SmartWare. In the early stages, its primary focus was to track crime trends in order to establish a statistical baseline. Incidents of major crime were counted by hand and then mapped in order to identify clusters of criminal activity. CompStat, as it was named by four NYPD officers, would soon become the crown jewel of the Rudolph Giuliani administration.

William Bratton, who became Giuliani’s first police commissioner, implemented the CompStat program in 1994. From the beginning, it was hailed as an innovative managerial paradigm in policing and was the winner of a 1996 “Innovations in American Government” award.

Bratton wanted each precinct to collect crime data, enter it into a computer database, and submit the disk each week to the police commissioner’s office. Every commander was held accountable for the crime activity in his precinct and was required to submit a plan for improvement, if necessary. He assigned deputy commissioner Jack Maple and his startup team to oversee the process.

The CompStat Process

CompStat (Computerized Statistics, aka Compare Statistics, aka Computer Comparison Statistics) is a goal-oriented, information-driven management process that stresses both operational strategy and managerial accountability. Its goal is to reduce crime and enhance the community’s quality of life. The CompStat process consists of four components: 1) collection and analysis of crime data, 2) Development of strategy to address problems, 3) Rapid deployment of resources, and 4) Follow-up and accountability.

The process begins by collecting, analyzing and mapping crime data as it occurs. From this, a report is compiled and forwarded to each precinct’s operational manager. After the statistical trends are reviewed and discussed, it is up to the commander to devise effective tactics to address the problem areas. Subordinates are encouraged to utilize aggressive problem-solving strategies that will result in a reduction in crime.

Once a plan of action is formulated, commanders must then deploy personnel and resources in a timely manner. This is often the most challenging element of CompStat, due to conflicting work schedules and limited funds for overtime. In most cases, proactive personnel are assigned to the CompStat issues, while the balance of the force attends to daily operations. Finally, the precinct commanders must determine if the intended goals were met and, if not, must come up with alternative strategies to effectively address the problem.

CompStat and the NYPD

The New York City Police Department holds bi-weekly CompStat meetings, which have proven to be an effective motivator for precinct commanders. Each commander is required to present an overview of police activity within his command and the strategies for addressing crime and quality of life issues. These briefings provide the commanders an opportunity to impress both their peers and law enforcement executives. This middle-down, middle-up approach is unique to CompStat and emphasizes the importance of accountability.

Generally, CompStat’s effectiveness in reducing crime has been validated through numerous statistical data since its inception. As of 2003, serious crime in New York City dropped for the 13th consecutive year. This is quite an accomplishment if we consider the demands placed on the NYPD’s law enforcement personnel since 9/11. One specific program, “Operation Impact,” focused on 21 crime zones within the city and resulted in a 40% drop in shootings and other violent crimes.

Despite these impressive statistics, CompStat has detractors. Some suggest that using New York City as an example of CompStat’s success is unfair. As the largest police department in the country, the NYPD may not be representative of other departments. Questions are still unanswered as to CompStat’s effectiveness in other cities that have adopted the program. Other critics suggest that the NYPD’s reduction in crime cannot be exclusively attributed to CompStat since there has also been a general nationwide drop in crime.

Progeny of CompStat

The CompStat model has been adopted in numerous U.S. cities under various acronyms. The Baltimore City Police Department utilizes CRIMESTAC (crime tracking and analysis) while the Indianapolis Police Department has IMAP, short for Integrated Management of Patrol.

The Lowell, MA Police Department implemented its own crime control program in 1996 and the results have been remarkable. During the first three-year period (1996-1999) violent crimes fell 26.0% and property crimes dropped 35.2%. Lowell was one of the first police departments to receive a federal COPS grant to install laptops in its patrol cars, giving officers instant access to computer-generated crime data.

While Lowell’s crime-reduction program is patterned after CompStat, the debates that are generated at the bi-monthly meetings are generally more good-natured than the intense interrogations of the New York Police Department. This seems to indicate that negative reinforcement aimed at an underperforming officer is not essential for improvement. Instead, the pressure to improve performance is generated through accurate data pinpointing problems to both commanders and peers.

Lowell’s success can be attributed to the basic elements of CompStat: up-to-date data, cooperation in developing strategy, flexible allocation of resources, and tireless follow-through. The addition of inter-departmental cooperation, community-oriented policing and innovative uses of technology has allowed Lowell to fine-tune the process to fit its needs.

In 2002, former NYPD inspector Jose Cordero became the new Newton, MA Police Chief and immediately implemented a crime control program similar to CompStat. His proactive approach to policing led to an overall drop in the crime rate by 9% over the previous year. Arrests on outstanding warrants went up 139% due to a relentless program of tracking down and arresting suspects.

Since Newton is an affluent suburb with a population of approximately 85,000, many did not see the need for dramatic change. But the 24% decrease in residential burglaries in 2002 confirms that elements of CompStat can be successfully integrated into any size municipality.

That same year, the Detroit Police Department adopted the CompStat process to reduce crime and create safer neighborhoods. With a population of 4.5 million, Detroit is the sixth largest municipal police department in the United States. Based on the Uniform Crime Reports for Detroit, there has been a significant drop in crime since the program’s inception: Murder—down 3%; Robbery—down 23%; Assault—down 27%; Burglary—down 19%; Larceny—down 30% and Arson—down 20%. There was a 9% increase in forcible rape, but a 22% drop from 2003 to 2004. Motor vehicle theft remained virtually unchanged, but experienced a 3% drop from 2003 to 2004.

Assessment of the CompStat Process

Traditional methods of policing are characterized by organizational inflexibility, centralized authority and limited discretion. Police performance is based primarily on arrest rates and response times, which restricts police departments from effectively addressing community issues. Without accountability and relevant measurement systems, managers are not motivated to change their approach toward policing.

Police executives should insist on measuring performance in order to achieve both internal and external accountability. Only through accountability can police organizations achieve higher levels of performance by encouraging managers and officers to equally take part in the process.

While traditional strategies of policing are characterized by a top-down managerial style, community-based programs take a bottom-up approach. The concept is to establish ties between law enforcement officers and the community in an effort to build trust and create safer neighborhoods.

Two components that are integral to the CompStat paradigm are also key features of community policing: solving problems versus simply responding to them, and recognizing quality-of-life issues as vehicles for criminal activity. The Broken Windows Theory asserts that if deteriorating conditions within a community are left untended, they will lead to more serious crime. The rapid deployment of resources that is a key component of CompStat gets immediate results, as opposed to other forms of community policing that make vague references to the eventuality of change.

Perhaps the reason for CompStat’s success is its ability to combine elements of both traditional- and community-based programs. It melds both the reactive and proactive approaches of policing by first focusing on the problem, reacting to it, and ultimately utilizing resources to address it.

Some critics believe that many of the CompStat elements are blurred and undefined and that “problem solving” and “management reorganization” are merely catchphrases that belie their actual impact on resource allocation and organizational structure. Others maintain that most law enforcement officers still perform their jobs reactively and have little involvement in proactive problem solving.

This has created disagreement in some police agencies regarding the duties of the traditional patrol officer as opposed to the officer who is given greater autonomy in policing. Despite these conflicting roles, studies show that community policing officers and traditional patrol officers share similar attitudes and beliefs. They generally view proactive policing as positive, but recognize the importance of traditional policing values to reduce crime.

While the CompStat process seems to be having a significant impact on contemporary policing, implementation within police agencies can be difficult. Collaboration and information-sharing have improved problem diagnosis, but solutions remain firmly in the hands of the traditional law enforcement process. This limits community involvement and opportunities for alternative measures of problem-solving and creates conflicting roles for law enforcement officers. While they are required to develop an awareness of community needs, they are also expected to impartially enforce the law according to the processes of the justice system.

Ultimately, this balancing of traditional and contemporary methods to reduce crime may be the future of effective policing. Without community involvement, the public develops an overdependence on the criminal justice system and fails to take responsibility. Aggressive law enforcement and formal control measures create mistrust between police and communities. Citizens view the criminal justice system as a repetition of arrests and prosecution, leading to passivity and missed opportunities for involvement.

Vincent E. Henry, the author of “The CompStat Paradigm,” believes the future of CompStat lies in recognizing that each city and municipality can tailor the program to fit its particular needs. Law enforcement agencies that have studied the NYPD’s CompStat process have successfully incorporated some, but not all, of its components into their policing strategies. Indeed, the empowerment aspect of the program can lead to corruption within the system if left in the hands of unethical managers and executives. However, CompStat’s success stories all have one thing in common. Its management techniques were introduced to each agency by those who were instrumental in its inception in New York City.

Once started as a bold venture into alternative methods to reduce crime, the CompStat paradigm is becoming firmly entrenched in contemporary policing. CompStat in its purest form is most effective in major cities with larger police departments but variations, such as CitiStat, have been successfully implemented in smaller towns.

The strength of the CompStat process lies in the management and accountability factors. While computer mapping and rapid deployment of resources are key components, without effective leadership, cooperation between agencies and relentless follow-through, CompStat is merely another fancy software package. In the end, people are still the most effective resource we have to make our cities safer.

Susan Geoghegan is enrolled in the College of Professional Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University. She will graduate with a B.S. in Criminal Justice and plans to continue on for her Master’s degree in Public Administration.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2006

Rating : 7.2


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