What About CompStat and Crime Reduction?

liar liar    Recently, Chief Mike Masterson of Boise wrote me about CompStat and lowering the crime rate:

     "In regards to the heralded CompStat I wonder how agencies like Houston, Boise and countless other departments who focus on using data to prevent, deter and solve crime and for problem solving but skip the brow-beating and "bullying" that many former police commanders have stated existed with CompStat have achieved their results. It's not about the label and tough talk, it's about using data and thinking smarter. Also, the concept you are referring to with Bratton in your daily blog is called Procedural justice and it is gaining notice in the profession. You know it has  'civility' ...and yes, you were the first to mention it many years ago."

Chief Masterson begs an important question with regard to reported crime and the CompStat method. Why do cities like Boise and others who do not use the method also experience a reduction in reported crime?

First, let’s identify some of the terms used here. Procedural justice concerns the fairness and the transparency of the processes by which decisions are made, and may be contrasted with distributive justice (fairness in the distribution of rights or resources), and retributive justice (fairness in the rectification of wrongs).

Hearing all parties before a decision is made is one step which would be considered appropriate to be taken in order that a process may then be characterized as procedurally fair. Some theories of procedural justice hold that fair procedure leads to equitable outcomes, even if the requirements of distributive or corrective justice are not met. (Fore more, CLICK HERE.)

CompStat (short for computer statistics or comparative statistics) is a police management process guided by four principles:

  1. Accurate and timely intelligence  (“Know what is happening.”)
  2. Effective tactics (“Have a plan.”)
  3. Rapid deployment (“Do it quickly.”)
  4. Relentless  follow-up and assessment (“If it works, do more. If  not, do something else.”)

Current research suggests that the four principles of CompStat are often not implemented as originally intended. Many law enforcement agencies use CompStat to merely reinforce traditional features of the police bureaucracy, including authoritarianism, hierarchy, and control. Agencies simultaneously neglect the collaboration, coordination, problem solving, and leadership components of CompStat. Like a lot of management tools, the idea maybe good, but the application is often wanting — especially when the technique is used to bully and embarrass police commanders with regard to the reported crime in their district. And many have suggested that it is brow-beating and shaming that leads commanders to “juke the stats;” to downgrade or ignore some crimes in avoid a negative experience rather than work together to improve the system. Others say that CompStat, as it has been practiced, has been merely a review of the numbers, but that a successful model requires the reengineering of police processes, central data collection, and a better understanding of leadership and performance management. (For more, CLICK HERE.)

The New York Police Department recently released an outside review CompStat. John Eterno, a retired NYPD captain and criminal justice professor who wrote a book on CompStat abuses, tells us:

“You have to get into this report. If you read the whole thing, you see a lot of alarm bells in there.”

Eterno has a special interest in the outside review of CompStat. He and Eli Silverman, a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, helped ignite criticism over the way the NYPD compiles its crime data. In 2010, they released the results of a survey in which dozens of retired police officials complained that pressure from department brass prompted widespread statistical manipulation of CompStat data, specifically by downgrading reports of serious crimes to less serious offenses. The outside audit not only confirmed that such data manipulation takes place but found several weak points in the ways the department tracks and uncovers it. (For more, CLICK HERE.)

The point I am trying to make is that using good, reliable data, managing the performance of police officers by treating them with respect, listening to both employees and community members, working to solve problems and continuously seeking to improve are always the best ways to run a police department — large or small.

In conclusion, I wrote this about crime statistics in my book, Arrested Development:

In a recent interview, veteran journalist Bill Moyers talked with David Simon, creator of the popular HBO series The Wire. Simon, a former journalist and police reporter, talked about evaluation. Simon mentioned the propensity of corporations, governments, and their agencies to “juke their stats”—that is, to alter data so that it appeared that they were doing well, even when they weren’t. The following dialogue is from an episode from The Wire, in which “Prez” Pryzbylewski, a cop turned teacher, has an exchange with the school principal about numbers and teacher evaluation:

Principal:  So for the time being, all teachers will devote class time to teaching language arts sample questions. Now, if you turn to page eleven, please, I have some things I want to go over with you.

Prez:  I don’t get it—all this so we score higher on the state tests? If we’re teaching the kids the test questions, what is it assessing in them?

Teacher:  Nothing—it assesses us. The test scores go up, they can say the schools are improving. The scores stay down, they can’t.

Prez:  Juking the stats.

Teacher:  Excuse me?

Prez:  Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before. [1]

 In his interview with Moyers, Simon further reflects on his life as a journalist and police reporter:

You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America, school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, arrest stats, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on. And as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50  people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is…  a police commissioner or a deputy commissioner can get promoted, and a major can become a colonel, and an assistant school superintendent can become a school superintendent, if they make it look like the kids are learning, and that they’re solving crime. And that was a front-row seat for me as a reporter. Getting to figure out how the crime stats actually didn’t represent anything, once they got done with them.[2]

            I spent a good deal of my time as police chief trying to teach members of the media, as well as elected officials and community members, what exactly crime was and what it meant. To remind them that a numerical increase or decrease didn’t necessarily mean that crime was actually up or down. I didn’t juke the stats nor pressure my officers about reducing these imaginary numbers.

            A reported numerical increase (as the UCR shows) could instead mean citizens have more confidence in the police to solve crime, and therefore are now reporting it. On the other hand, a decrease in the rate of reporting could indicate not that crime is down but that police are underreporting various crimes by labeling them as lesser offenses; a practice which many believe to be standard operating procedure in most American cities today.

            For example, an attempted burglary might be classified as a vandalism; a forcible rape as an assault; a homicide as a sudden death. Each of these instances of downgrading would move a crime from the UCR’s closely watched eight Part I Offenses category to the lesser considered category of Part II Offenses.[3] A decrease in reported crime could also mean that citizens have less confidence in the police to do anything about it and, therefore, simply don’t bother to report it.

            The fact is that none of us can make a valid judgment one way or another when it comes to analyzing reported crime as the data are presently collected. However, there are more valid statistical methods in existence to determine actual, not simply reported, rates of crime. This method uses a statistical sampling of citizens, rather than relying on offenses that are reported to the police and that the police in turn report. Yet America and their police still are wedded to this archaic method of data collection and evaluation in spite of the existence of more effective and truer methods of measurement.


[1] The Wire. Home Box Office miniseries, Season 4. 2006.

[2] Bill Moyers. PBS interview with David Simon (producer of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire.) April 17, 2009.

[3] Federal Bureau of Investigation. Annual Uniform Crime Report.

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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.

8 Responses to “What About CompStat and Crime Reduction?”

  1. Try looking at the mess that UK police stats are in at the moment as a result of over playing the performance game and I have just been in Canada where they were clear that there no ‘good stats’.

    Peter Neyroud CBE QPM Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.

    >

    • The beat keeps beating and we seem not to understand what’s happening. Remember the old piece from your neck of the woods over a century ago from Josiah Stamp?

      “The governments are very keen on amassing statistics. They collect them, add them, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root, and prepare wonderful diagrams. But you must never forget that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the [village watchman], who just puts down what he damn pleases.”

  2. Chief Couper – COMPSTAT works well in some cities and some not. If used correctly, an agency can improve, crime lowered and particiaption from many becomes a hallwark for reform. COMPSTAT may come down to what a chief feels comfortable in doing with their department. Some chiefs don’t particiapate with crime control, community engagement, etc. PERF recently provided a working document on COMPSAT. Rockford PD uses COMPSTAT and our sessions are not meant to punish or call out a supervisor or commander. One takes responsibility with their supervisory and command rank and this comes accountability with of course – crime control. Some cities and chiefs like it and some choose not to partipate. I can see both sides of the debate.

    • Thanks for this, Chet. Yes, that’s what thinking police do, they analyze, they make choices, they understand the positives and negatives of various systems and then focus on what’s right for their department and community. Done well, and professionally, the ideas behind CompStat can work — especially a greater appreciation of good data and helping their officers become both fair and effective in the field.

  3. Another interesting and thought provoking topic. Thank you. We utilize a yearly survey conducted by ICMA that measures the perception of safety in neighborhoods throughout the City that become our critical benchmarks for improvement. Crime stats don’t mean anything to people who simply don’t feel safe in a neighborhood, so we put a significant weight on perception of safety. Making people feel safe is our priority…

    • Spot on! It’s not the government who should be telling folks about safety but rather people responding to that basic question — “Do you feel safe in your neighborhood?” “Do you worry about the safety of your family?” I often tell the story of community meetings when we the police completely missed the problem. We assumed we know the problem. We’d say, “Our analysis of crime in your neighborhood tells us you have a theft problem.” We’d even have charts showing them their problem. Citizens would respectfully listen for a while and then say something like this: “We appreciate your work here, but the reasons we are here is to try and get you to do something about the noise problem. We can tolerate the occasional thievery…” That’s why I am a big supporter of shifting from police reported crime to what citizens have to say (e.g., victimization studies).

  4. If the police would like to know if the citizen feel safe in their neighborhoods, then maybe the police would be force to live in those areas and then they would get a sense in a few weeks or months, if it was safe to walk the neighborhood at all hours of the day/night. Unfortunately, that will not happen since Reverend Couper, David, and I had some discussions about it in one of the articles last year, where the pros and cons of making the police live in high crime, gang-infested, poor neighorhoods.

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