Crime-Fighting by Computer Widens Scope
New York City's renowned Compstat crime-fighting program, originally created to measure and map serious crime in city neighborhoods, has grown into a sweeping data-collection machine that traces hundreds of factors, many of which appear distant from the nuts and bolts of police work.
The system, introduced in 1994 to focus largely on the seven major crime categories, has changed in ways both substantial and subtle, and now records 734 of what officials call indicators: everything from concentrations of prostitutes to police overtime, allegations of abuse by officers and how often police commanders meet with community leaders.
The expansion reflects an acknowledgment that fighting crime is not just about finding criminals and arresting them, but about enlisting the support of communities and finding a way to do it economically.
In effect, Compstat has become an intricate map of the city and its ills - the annoying and the deadly - and an abacus upon which officials can calculate how the Police Department is working to alleviate them.
Gone are the days when murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft were the central focus of searing Compstat meetings in a cavernous room on the eighth floor of 1 Police Plaza.
Under the current commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, Compstat has further evolved, focusing also on minor offenses that can have a major impact on the quality of city life: panhandling, squeegee men, loud parties and barking dogs. And the weekly meetings have become more collegial, with an atmosphere, Mr. Kelly said, in which commanders are often put on the spot but spared the abuse that many glumly suffered in years past.
"It's been broadened, and again, it is more collaborative, in the sense that we're trying to share information as to what was done by other commands to address problems," said Mr. Kelly, who took over the force in January in his second tour as commissioner.
Compstat has long been admired nationally and internationally; the system has been used by cities like Baltimore, and Caracas, Venezuela, plans to use it. The concept has also been copied in its hometown, where it has been brought into other agencies like the Sanitation and Correction Departments, and where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is considering using it to measure the effectiveness of other city agencies.
The innovation was created and developed under William J. Bratton, the police commissioner from 1994 to 1996, the first two years of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's administration; one of the primary architects of the program was Jack Maple, Mr. Bratton's deputy commissioner for crime control strategies. Mr. Maple died of cancer last summer.
Mr. Bratton used Compstat to direct swift deployments of officers to areas with high concentrations of crime and to hold commanders accountable for crime problems in their precincts.
His approach turned into a police philosophy that changed the way departments across America and in other parts of the world serve their communities, drawing a nonstop procession of police commanders and government officials from as far away as China and Chile.
Soon after it was introduced, it became part of the culture at 1 Police Plaza: twice-weekly meetings in which local commanders were pushed, prodded and sometimes humiliated by senior officials who pinpointed crime problems on their streets and broadcast their failings.
Mr. Bratton defended the aggressive nature of the sessions in the early days, arguing that precinct commanders were making $80,000 a year. "If they can't deal with the pressure of that room, you can be damn sure they can't deal with pressure out there on the street," he said.
Mr. Kelly, however, said he felt that commanders, who are each running what he called the equivalent of a $30 million to $40 million business, "shouldn't be abused, they should be treated with dignity and respect, while held accountable for what happens on their watch."
Eli B. Silverman, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of "NYPD Battles Crime: Innovative Strategies in Policing," said a certain amount of pressure was required in the program's early days. "My own view was that in the beginning it needed to be very forceful because you were starting something very different," he said.
Mr. Kelly, who has made upgrading department technology a priority, says he hopes to use teleconferencing to broadcast the now weekly meetings to officials in boroughs beyond the one under scrutiny each week.
And, it seems, there is much to learn. Mr. Kelly said the meetings now focused on the number of precinct arrests that were made by officers on overtime patrols, part of an effort to reduce costs and ensure that enforcement is driven by crime rather than an officer's desire for more overtime.
Compstat now also measures emergency response time, conditions in police station houses and how many police cars are available for patrol and how quickly those in need of repairs are turned around in the department's shops.
The system also records the number of corruption allegations and civilian complaints of police abuse in each precinct, which along with community relations are important indicators of how a department serves the people, according to Mark H. Moore, a professor of criminal justice policy and management at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Professor Moore, who has been studying methods to measure police performance for five years, contends that crime reductions alone provide an incomplete picture of a police department.
He maintains that a police force's performance - or "profits" - can be accurately gauged only by factoring in the "costs" of police operations: not only the financial costs, but the toll that police operations take on community relations, or how the department's use of authority impinges on citizens' liberties.
"The degree that people feel alienated by the police is the degree to which they are reluctant to cooperate with them, something that makes the work of the police more difficult," he said.