Police use stats to beat crime

NYPD polica car at Times Square, NYC

The Computer Statistics system, commonly known as CompStat, is an emerging policing tool in the United States. It assists the nation’s cities to reduce crime through intelligent criminal investigations and information sharing at a time when budgets are tight. The system collates and analyses information relating to criminal activity, allowing Police Departments to allocate resources and develop tactics on a more logical and effective basis.

The new Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, has brought in Newark’s Police Director, Garry McCarthy, as his new Police Superintendent to help tackle the City’s growing violent crime problem. Mr. McCarthy’s history of overhauling struggling Police Departments is impressive; whilst at the NYPD he implemented the department’s CompStat organisation and used it to assist in bringing down gun crime in the City. He then moved on to revolutionise the infrastructure of the Newark Police Department. After introducing a local version of the CompStat system and upgrading the Department’s computer facilities, Newark saw a reduction in its murder rate of thirty-two per cent in 2008.

Mr. McCarthy explained his view of what CompStat is and what it is able to achieve at a recent Police Executive Research Forum, prior to his appointment to the top job in Chicago:

“CompStat is not just a meeting that happens every week or every other week; it’s a process, and the process takes place every single day. It’s about figuring out where your crime is happening, making the connections, and coming up with ways to interrupt the crime patterns and change things”.

What began in early 1990’s New York as a system based on displaying criminal activity on maps using drawing pins, has become a computer driven initiative which has developed and grown as it has been presented with new technology and situations. CompStat is fast becoming a part of the basic policing architecture in both large, and small cities in the United States.

Following a fifty per cent cut in the numbers of Officers in his Department, the Chief of Police in Camden, New Jersey, said:

“We’ve had to modify it [CompStat] for survival. We went from having CompStat once a week to..., well, essentially I have a meeting every day now… If we did not have CompStat in place and were not doing it on a daily basis, the results [in crime rates] would be disastrous by now”.

The application of the CompStat model is as varied as the City that uses it; San Jose, California, concentrates on focussing large parts of its resources on specific high-level issues using a top down approach. Daytona Beach, Florida, takes the view that spreading the information gained from CompStat analysis as far as possible is the best way to engage with community groups. This tactic has led to the point where the Department now has a group of retired Police Detectives from New York and Philadelphia working on ‘cold cases’. Clearwater, Florida, has implemented a Lite version of CompStat, installing it on computers which are used by Officers in their patrol cars. The CompStat Lite system collates data in real time and allows officers to view crimes committed in their patrol zones in real time and over a specified period. This version of the CompStat system was designed to enable Officers to follow up on details of crimes whilst on patrol and then input any new information back into the system.

It is acknowledged by commanders that to achieve gains using statistical analysis requires investment in technology and data systems without which CompStat would be redundant. Chris Moore, Chief of Police in San Jose explains:

“Part of our problem was that our Records Management System was in poor shape; it’s hard to hold people accountable when they can’t get the data they need. But about three years ago we started investing $7 Million in that, and we are starting to see some real-time data coming through”.

There has been criticism of the CompStat system, including allegations that the use of statistics manipulates police departments and encourages politicians to massage figures to suit their own ends. One such case is currently on-going in New York City; an Officer, Adrian Schoolcraft, from the 81st Precinct in North Brooklyn - former posting of NYPD whistle-blower Frank Serpico - was suspended from duty after he went to the papers over data manipulation allegations. He stated that Officers were being encouraged to record felonies as misdemeanours and ignore complaints in an effort to drive down the City’s crime statistics. The 81st Precinct is, as a result, under investigation. Following the allegations by Officer Schoolcraft and his subsequent suspension, an anonymous Officer recorded a ‘quota allocation’ meeting at the 81st Precinct. Individual shifts were encouraged to focus on handing out more summonses for misdemeanours, such as parking in bus lanes and driving whilst using a mobile phone. Shifts were apparently given a target of twenty summonses, between the group, each day.

The belief that statistics can be manipulated to show more positive results is clearly not unfounded. However, the results that CompStat has achieved allowing resources to be concentrated on problem areas cannot be ignored. New York City has, therefore, introduced a full and comprehensive audit process to increase public trust in information released by the Police Department.

“…we developed an internal capacity to audit and examine the crime reports in two separate units that are independent of the operational units. We have a Data Integrity Unit that looks at what is entered into the computers and check for accuracy in the classification of crimes. And we also have a Quality Assurance Division, which does much more robust auditing. …The audits are not announced and done on a random basis but all units are covered in a six month period”

CompStat has come a long way in its seventeen-year existence; the key to its perceived success has been continuous improvement. This coupled with preparedness for Police Departments to shift objectives and tactics has perhaps made the system work more effectively, reducing crime in inner-city communities and positively affecting the lives of voters.


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