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October 19, 2007
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High-tech tool crunches crime figures for N.J. police

The Jersey Journal

NEW JERSEY Along Summit Avenue, near the Jersey City Municipal Court building, lies one of those geographic oddities: Three of the city's four police districts - East, South and North all converge at one point.

A string of home burglaries took place there earlier this year, and the burglar unknowingly hit a home in all three districts. In the past, that might have proved fortuitous for the burglar, since the police districts rarely shared lower level street information with one another, police brass said.

But that was before the city reintroduced COMSTAT, a highly acclaimed program used in countless departments across the country that combines computer tracking of crimes and information sharing with public accountability as a way to efficiently deploy police resources.

"We got the guy," Police Chief Tom Comey said. "The districts shared information at our COMSTAT meetings and he was captured. Years ago, that would have never happened. Districts operated in isolation, like they were on an island."


In March 2006, Jersey City revived its COMSTAT program after a computer glitch several years ago wreaked havoc and sunk its previous attempt.

Since then, the department's top-ranking officers have met twice a month to review computer-generated crime statistics and maps, looking for trends and sharing street-level information. The idea is to quickly redeploy resources based on the trends.

For example, police noticed a spike in muggings and robberies near the city's Hudson-Bergen Light Rail stations. They created a task force with officers from all districts to combat the problem, leading to a number of arrests and increased safety around these transportation hubs.

Just recently, a spike in arsons led to an Arson Watch Task Force made up of firefighters and cops. Soon, a 24-year-old Greenville man was charged.

COMSTAT, officials say, has helped reduce crime levels in the city. They cite the latest FBI Uniform Crime Report that shows violent crime dropped 8 percent last year while nonviolent crime dropped by nearly 13 percent.

"It helps us manage crime in the city. It doesn't mean that we will eliminate it, but when we see numbers spike we can now react quickly," said Police Capt. Hugh Donaghue, Comey's chief of staff, who helped implement the current COMSTAT system.


Beyond that, the COMSTAT program has changed the culture of the department, Comey says.

District commanders know that they will be held accountable for spikes in crime, so they try to get in front of issues before they become a problem. Often, they will reach out to the brass at the Erie Street headquarters for additional resources.

That wasn't always the case.

"People used to feel like they were on the island and they were required to fend for themselves. In the past, if you called the chief's office as a district commander looking for some help, the reply was 'Fix it. Isn't that why I put you there?' " Comey said.

Nationwide, the COMSTAT meetings fictionalized in the popular HBO series "The Wire" have become famous for their public dressing down of officers who fail to meet the chief's expectations.

At a recent COMSTAT meeting in Jersey City, though, except for a few minor criticisms from the chief, the gathering sounded much like a men's locker room, with officers exchanging friendly verbal jabs.

During one portion of the meeting, Inspector Robert Kilduff was highlighting crime statistics in the North District. He pointed out that drug incidents were higher than last year, saying the numbers represented more drug arrests. He congratulated the district, then noted that the number of aggravated assaults were down in the district, patting the district on the back for the reduction.

However, no matter which way they looked at the numbers, they put the district in a positive light. When numbers rose, it meant more arrests. When numbers dropped, it meant better crime prevention.

And that raises questions about the cornerstone of the program: accountability.

"We have spent the last year focusing on violent crimes, and we believe we have made some progress, which means that we can focus now on drugs, and that is what Inspector Kilduff was explaining," Comey responded. "But you have to be here every day to understand that."

Copyright 2007 Jersey Journal

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