A Short Primer on Crime Numbers

What is CompStat and why is it causing problems for police?

CompStat (short for COMPuter STATistics or COMParative STATistics) is:

“The name given to the New York City Police Department’s accountability process… CompStat is a management philosophy or organizational management tool for police departments…   CompStat is a multilayered dynamic approach to crime reduction, quality of life improvement, and personnel and resource management. CompStat employs Geographic Information Systems and was intended to map crime and identify problems. In weekly meetings, ranking NYPD executives meet with local precinct commanders from one of the eight patrol boroughs in New York City to discuss the problems. They devise strategies and tactics to solve problems, reduce crime, and ultimately improve quality of life in their assigned area. The system is also in use in other major cities including Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Austin, San Juan, San Francisco, and Baltimore, Maryland…  In Canada the CompStat system is currently in use by the Vancouver Police Department. CompStat was started by Jack Maple when he was a Transit police officer…  Chief of New York City Transit Police William J. Bratton was later appointed Police Commissioner by Rudolph Giuliani, and brought Maple’s [system] with him… and it was credited with bringing down crime by 60%…” (Wikipedia)

But did it?

And what’s wrong with bringing down crime?

I think we have to be wary of any system that uses reported crime numbers to justify success. The infamous CompStat meetings are not designed to develop leadership but to bring forth (force?) the “correct numbers.” The reported crime numbers are up? Bad! The numbers are down? Good!

It wouldn’t take many meetings in which you as a leader are beaten up for bringing forth the bad numbers (numbers for which you have little control) when you might quickly think of ways to bring forth some good numbers — that is, report fewer numbers and reduce any increases.

What I am talking about is a particular group of  “crimes” — those that crimes citizens report to the police and the police, in turn, report to the FBI. These are not numbers acquired by polling, surveying or collected by an independent agency. When we talk about crime this way we are talking about only seven categorical incidents reported to the police and the police, in turn, chose to report the FBI (Aggravated assaultforcible rapemurder, and robbery are classified as violent while arson,burglarylarceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft are classified as property crimes. We are NOT talking about the actual amount and extent of all kinds of crimes.

Reported crime can be de-classified as a lesser offense (a burglary becomes a vandalism, a serious assault becomes a simple battery, and so on) but also by police officers deciding not to make a report. Because when humiliation is reaped upon leaders the pressure mounts and guess where it goes — to the beat cops and the admin clerks who “classify” the incidents in order to keep the bosses off their backs.

If we decide to measure the effectiveness of our nation’s police by this system we are bound to run into trouble. And the trouble today is this: police leaders are manipulating the numbers and definitions of crime (the most recent event has occurred in Milwaukee according to a Journal-Sentinel investigation).

This happens because we are lazy. We don’t ask the right questions of our politicians and we are more than willing to accept simplistic explanations about crime and our society.

The second thing that goes on with a system like CompStat is that the top leadership of the police department acts in a very negative, repressive and non-collaborative way with junior managers, supervisors, and front-line workers. When you really don’t have any control over the “numbers” (except to juke them), what kind of leadership is the top leadership of the department trying to reinforce? When “the man kicks the dog, who bites the cat, who eats the canary,” what does that say about leadership?

Let’s face the facts: crime is a complex social phenomenon. It is affected by many, many forces such as demographics, class, and economy. How can we know if crime is up or down if we don’t know what we are counting? [You need to read my new book about what I have to say about this.]

CompStat is not only an American phenomenon, but it is now being exported to the rest of the world to not only places like the U.K. and Canada, but also Bahrain. And it doesn’t speak well of our idea of leadership in a world that we believe should be free and democratic. A world which should be marked by intelligence, competency, collaboration, and respect toward others.

While the idea of CompStat may have limited merit, the application is greatly wanting. In a recent Op-Ed, “Policing by the Numbers,” in the New York Times, retired captain John Eterno said it best, “the Police Department… has become a top-down, micromanaged bureaucracy in which precinct commanders are pitted against one another and officers are challenged to match or exceed what they did the previous year, month and week.”

In short, I don’t think it’s the way to run a highly professional organization of any type — let alone one where the employees wear guns and where honesty and integrity should be the practice.

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About improvingpolice

I served over 20 years as the chief of police in Madison (WI), four years as chief of the Burnsville (MN) Police Department, and before that as a police officer in Edina (MN) and the City of Minneapolis. I hold graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota and Edgewood College in Madison. I have written many articles over my years as a police leader calling for police improvement (for example, How To Rate Your Local Police, and with my wife, Sabine, Quality Policing: The Madison Experience). After retiring from the police department, I answered a call to ministry, attended seminary, and was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. At the present time, I serve a small church in North Lake (WI), east of Madison. Sabine and I have nine adult children, eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She is also a retired police officer and we both continue active lives.

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  1. Juking the Stats! (Again) | improving police - June 29, 2014

    […] A Short Primer on Crime Numbers.  […]

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