Crime Data Helps Police thrive: NYPD Commissioner

Academics, critics miss mark on CompStat. Reporting numbers gave cops focus needed to improve city.

For more than a decade, coteries of academics, and ex-cops who became academics, have been selling the idea that CompStat, the police command accountability and crime strategy system developed in the New York Police Department in the mid-1990s, is responsible for the deterioration of police-community relations across the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. These critics are not that knowledgeable about CompStat as it is practiced, and certainly not as it has been practiced in the NYPD over the past three years.

What they present is a ludicrous caricature of CompStat as a numbers-driven juggernaut that rolls over peaceful and unsuspecting neighborhoods for no better reason than to jack up enforcement numbers such as arrests, summonses and stops. They suggest that precinct commanders, having been “humiliated” at CompStat sessions because of high-crime numbers, come back to their precincts and demand that cops crack down on neighborhoods on pain of being denied days off or assigned to undesirable shifts. In turn, these officers supposedly go out into the streets and abuse the public.

Although CompStat appeared at times to have placed too heavy an emphasis on numbers, the case against it is an exaggeration. CompStat has been adopted by police departments across the country and around the world because it applied a much needed focus to the complex challenges of policing a large city.

Data, strategy bring focus

The real risk in large police organizations is not overzealous policing but the tendency to drift and lose focus because of a lack of strategic oversight. Absent this oversight prior to CompStat, New York’s precinct commands weren’t grappling with emerging crime trends effectively; detective squads weren’t identifying and shutting down patterns of robberies and burglaries swiftly; and special units like narcotics squads weren’t coordinating their efforts with precincts or detectives very well. Individual cops and detectives were working hard, but the department as a whole was spinning its wheels more often than not as crime, and especially violence, continued to climb in the 1970s and 1980s.

CompStat changed all this. The simple act of tracking crime by precinct, introduced as a weekly data report in 1994, has helped the entire department stay abreast of changing crime circumstances and respond accordingly. CompStat meetings bring together precinct commanders, detective squad leaders and special unit commanders from a particular part of the city at headquarters each week. In three-hour sessions, the NYPD’s top operational managers work with these field commanders to conduct an exacting and detailed review of crime, emerging patterns, and the steps being taken to counter them. It’s a planning session, a training session and a resource coordinating session all in one. Maybe most important, CompStat continuously reinforces a sense of urgency about our core mission: countering crime and keeping people safe.

We ran the NYPD CompStat meetings together in 2015 and 2016. We were able to manage further declines in crime from New York City’s already very low numbers, including an all-time low in shootings. During those years, the city experienced lows in murders, robberies, burglaries and auto thefts.

CompStat in New York today is a precision instrument. The chiefs running the meeting do not demand arrests, summonses or stops from anyone simply for the sake of generating numbers. Rather, they focus on strategy to prevent and solve crime when it occurs. What they demand: close attention to emerging problems and crime; the thorough gathering of evidence and intelligence; exhaustive investigative follow-through; and plans and strategies to attack whatever challenges have developed in each precinct.

System contributes to community policing

The critics of CompStat have another recurring theme, which is that CompStat ought to be replaced by “community” and “problem-solving” policing, which they rarely define with any clarity. CompStat is the most effective problem-solving policing system ever devised. It helps commanders identify the real crime and quality-of-life issues in a neighborhood and then apply resources to effectively address them.

But New York cops go further. In the past 21 months, the NYPD has mounted a far-reaching neighborhood policing effort that is transforming the way we fight crime. This approach allows patrol cops to share the responsibility and authority for addressing conditions in their precincts. By restructuring various units and adding police officers, we have been able to staff patrol units sufficiently so that police officers have both the time and latitude to work with neighborhood residents at solving problems, including entrenched crime. Anchored in sectors within precincts, the NYPD’s sector officers are collaborating closely with community residents and delivering a level of local police service that was never possible before. Neighborhood police officers are building meaningful relationships with the public. And they better understand the neighborhood, conditions and crime by working with residents who live there.

As it happens, CompStat is helping NYPD manage this complex transition in its patrol methodology. Unlike CompStat’s critics, who vaguely imagine an idealized community policing future, New York police have actually put the structure in place to make neighborhood policing a reality.

Since its inception in 1994, CompStat has ensured better community service and crime fighting across New York City. Now, with the added innovation of neighborhood policing, the NYPD is taking the next step toward stronger police/community alliances. But the department is not jettisoning CompStat. It’s building on it with the confidence that neighborhood policing will be as lasting and effective an innovation as CompStat has been.

As seen in USA Today:
James P. O’Neill is the commissioner of the New York Police Department. Dermot Shea is the chief of crime control strategies.