Crime Drops in NYC

New York City has managed to cut its crime rate by an unprecedented 38 percent in barely three years, thanks, in part, to computer technology.

by / February 28, 1997
The Big Apple's plummeting crime rate is the talk of the town. The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have run front page stories about it. Major newsmagazines, academic and public institutions have also taken notice, written about the phenomenon and even handed out awards for what has occurred there.

Since 1993, serious crime in New York City has dropped nearly 40 percent while the rest of the nation's crime rate declined only 2 percent. For the first time since 1968, the number of murders in the city has dropped below 1,000. Auto theft has fallen 51 percent since 1990, and crime for 1996 has declined 16 percent below last year's figures.

"New York has been seeing historically unprecedented declines in serious crime," said David Kennedy, a senior researcher with the Program in Criminal Justice for the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Traditionally, crime experts say it's difficult to point a finger at one particular reason crime goes up or comes down, given such factors as changing incarceration policies, economics and demographics. "But after three years of this substantial decline," explained Kennedy, "it's almost certainly a case that these reductions are due to what the New York Police Department (NYPD) has been doing."

What NYPD has done is get tough on crime. That wasn't always the case. Plagued by a series of corruption scandals during the 1970s and '80s, NYPD had a reputation for trying to avoid trouble rather than accomplish its job. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani changed all that when he hired William J. Bratton as police commissioner in 1994. Bratton combined aggressive policing tactics with a tough new managerial attitude that emphasized the twin forces of empowerment and accountability among precinct commanders. Bratton was replaced by Howard Safir in April 1996.

A major component in NYPD's crime fighting strategy is the relentless gathering and analysis of crime statistics. A combination of new and not-so-new computer technology has allowed NYPD to stay on top of numerous crime patterns and trends in a way that wasn't possible before. "For the first time, we are using crime statistics to give us a sense of what is going on immediately," said Lenny Alcivar, a spokesman for NYPD.

By computerizing these statistics as quickly as they become available and converting the data into charts and maps, commanders can quickly see how certain crimes are affecting their precincts. "With that information, we can give precinct commanders increased autonomy over their jurisdictions, because policing in Harlem is different from policing in Brooklyn," said Alcivar.

While computers are just another tool in the city's fight to reduce crime, they are proving to be a significant factor. "One can imagine something like Compstat -- NYPD's name for its computer-based management strategy -- happening without modern information support," remarked Kennedy, "but one can't imagine Compstat working with the kind of clarity, speed and immediacy that it does without the use of computers."

A major factor in NYPD's new war on crime has been its aggressive pursuit of so-called quality-of-life offenses. The police have gone after drug dealers, street prostitutes, cars with loud stereos, pushy panhandlers and even spitters. Former Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Maple -- considered by many to be the brains behind Compstat -- has said that to fight crime every case should be treated as if your mother was the victim. In other words, there's no such thing as a minor crime.

After arresting the petty criminals, the police check for weapons -- using civil confiscation laws -- and then grill the suspects for information about other crimes happening in the neighborhood. Quickly, word gets out on the street about the confiscations or the arrests for nuisance crimes and soon dealers and thieves begin leaving their weapons at home. With fewer weapons out on the street, arguments and brawls are less likely to turn violent. The police also use the information they gather from the criminals to go after more serious problems, such as drug and auto theft rings.

Data on every arrest and complaint is dutifully captured in each of the city's 76 precincts -- which have been equipped with computers and local area networks in recent years. The complaints are entered daily into NYPD's new Online Complaint System, which is linked to the department's mainframe located in downtown Manhattan.

According to Sgt. John Yohe, the complaint system captures the rudiments of each crime: type of crime, who the victim was, where and when it happened, etc. Unfortunately, the system is relatively new and has occasionally crashed. "It's not ready for prime time," said Yohe, "so we use that data for mapping."

The possible loss of two or three crimes is not terribly important when it comes to mapping, because the system isn't designed to display all the data. But statistical information on individual precincts must be accurate. "If you lose three robberies a week from a precinct's statistics, that's bad," said Yohe.

To ensure accuracy of data, each precinct enters information on arrests into a database program Yohe wrote using a product from Informix. At the end of each week, the precincts send the data via diskette to Yohe, who uploads the information into a FoxPro database at headquarters. "The total process takes about 10 minutes," he said.

The power of the crime statistics and data becomes starkly evident during NYPD's twice-weekly Compstat meetings, which last for three hours and focus on a particular borough. All precinct commanders are expected to attend at least one a month. The meetings are held at 7 a.m. so commanders can avoid any schedule conflicts.

Precinct statistics, taken from the data Yohe received by disk, are displayed in charts and graphs that appear on large screens in the meeting room. According to Yohe, the computers will display up to 26 weeks of various crimes to help precincts identify problem areas. "We have graphs that show the frequency of individual crimes -- murder, rape, robbery, felonious assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft -- by the day of the week, as well as by the hour of the day. This helps us get more of a visual handle on crime trends."

It also helps police commanders when it comes to deploying their officers. In the old days, some crime-fighting units used to operate 9 to 5, five days a week. With these kinds of statistics, the police can now move in on crime trends that happen at different times, day or night, seven days a week.

Yohe uses MapInfo desktop mapping software to overlay data from the online complaint system onto a city street map. Yohe also feeds in other pertinent data, such as the location of parolees, residences of people wanted for warrants, homeless shelters, pawn shops and known chop shops, and displays them in relation to the crime locations. He even uses data from CD-ROMs containing telephone white-page listings.

"Let's say we're having a problem with Laundromat robberies in Brooklyn," said Yohe. "I can pull from the CD all the listed Laundromats in Brooklyn, map them, shade in color the ones that are already robbed and see if we can spot a pattern. There's a lot of possibilities."

With all of this data on display graphically, the police commissioner and his staff grill the commanders about crimes in their precincts, especially if the numbers aren't going down. By all accounts, the questioning can be tough and excuses are not tolerated. Commanders that don't produce the kind of results the police managers are looking for can be stripped of their commands. Since January 1994, about 80 percent of the precinct commanders have been reassigned.

By holding commanders accountable for the criminal activity that occurs around their precincts, and at the same time giving them autonomy to move on crime problems that plague their particular neighborhoods, NYPD has achieved stunning results in reducing crime. And the impact has been noticed around the country and the world. Police departments from Chicago to Houston have begun to apply some of the tools and techniques used in the Compstat program. Scotland Yard also has begun copying some of Compstat's techniques to fight crime in Great Britain.

Compstat's success has also changed attitudes in law enforcement. "A growing number of police executives now believe they can have an influence on crime and fear in their cities," said Kennedy. "The days when police chiefs thought that the only thing they could do about crime was to answer the telephone are passing."

Speaking about the role technology has played in NYPD's success, Lenny Alcivar said that computers have helped the department move from limited, compartmentalized crime information -- that was often months out of date -- to accurate, citywide information on crime that is always up-to-date. "With that kind of information, you can deploy resources strategically and in a coordinated way so that you get the maximum benefit," he said. "With a 38 percent decrease in crime over the past three years, we have made a great case for changing New York City from 'crime capital of the world' to just 'capital of the world.'"

In the meantime, efforts are under way to bolster the use of technology in NYPD. One goal is to eliminate the use of diskettes for gathering data from the precincts and to turn the embryonic online complaint system into a reliable source of information. That would enable Yohe to provide commanders with crime information in 24 hours, rather than weekly.

Other plans call for linking data from the city's new E-911 system to Compstat. "That will allow us to map not only crimes but calls for emergency service," he said.

But the core of Compstat will continue to work the way it was set up, which makes local leaders, such as Mayor Giuliani, very happy. He may be the most prominent mayor to ask for results from his police force, but he's not the only one. "These days, mayors, city managers and city councils are demanding that the police actually accomplish important things," Kennedy pointed out. "That means you have to focus your department on real problems and have techniques that respond to those problems that generate results. Compstat makes that happen."



SOLUTION: Through a combination of aggressive policing, management techniques and computerized data gathering and analysis, New York City has seen a stunning decline in its crime rate.


VENDORS: MapInfo, FoxPro, Informix.

CONTACT: Sgt. John Yohe, NYPD, 212/374-4298.