Compstat for the 21st Century

The New York Police Department's Compstat program has blossomed into more than just a crime-fighting tool.

by / July 3, 2002 0
Compstat emerged in the mid-90s as a nifty computerized tool designed to track the most serious crimes in New York City.

Initial Compstat meetings found New York's finest analyzing statistics from the most serious crimes and plotting them electronically on a computer screen to determine patterns and trends. A cluster of dots in a particular location alerted officers to a string of murders, rapes or robberies.

Since then the Compstat (computer statistics) program has taken over the New York City Police Department. "Compstat itself is a mover of the entire agency," said Garry McCarthy, deputy commissioner of operations.

McCarthy describes the program as a mechanism to hold people accountable, an information-sharing forum, an information-gathering forum and an educational forum all in one. It has evolved to become a general business-management tool for the agency.

The program originally focused on seven major crime categories, but now records information on more than 700 of what officials call "performance indicators." These indicators measure the performance of the agency and identify areas where improvement is needed.

As it did initially, Compstat still tracks the major crimes, including murder, rape, robbery, felony assault and grand larceny. Now the program also tracks shooting incidents and tracks arrests by bureau and arresting officer.

The program reaches further by tracking relatively minor crimes, including prostitution, panhandling, excessive noise, public drinking and a multitude of other minor violations, which are fed into a computer and analyzed.

In fact, nothing is outside the scope of the program as officials keep track of police overtime, allegations by citizens of police abuse, even things like how quickly it takes to get a police vehicle back from repair, and maintenance of police buildings. Commanders log deficiencies in building maintenance to detect trends then invite the folks from building maintenance to a Compstat meeting to discuss the trend.

"We figure that things like morale impact on the ethics of the officers," McCarthy said. "Therefore, we work on morale by working on the condition of the station houses where the officers work."

All the information goes into reports called Compstat books. These collated reports are comprised of data forwarded from each of the 76 precincts in the state that are analyzed by McCarthy and the rest of the Compstat Unit, which consists of about 25 officers. Each of the reports is available on a citywide database.

There are two groups that make up the Compstat Unit. McCarthy heads a staff of about 15 that analyze statistics. There is another group of up to 10 people that work for the commissioner and help gather statistics for the Compstat books. Additionally, there are three to five officers in each precinct who help with the collection of information.

The Compstat Book

Compstat helps develop the four principles that govern the agency: timely and accurate intelligence; rapid deployment; effective tactics; and relentless follow-up and assessment.

All of the information gathered and analyzed is used to facilitate those four principles.

All of the information that comprises the Compstat book helps the Compstat Unit determine trends or deficiencies within each precinct. It is then determined which precinct commanders will be called into a Compstat meeting to discuss what can be done about any problems.

"I'll kind of script the entire Compstat meeting and then sit down and go over the whole thing with the chief beforehand," McCarthy said. "He'll make some changes, add some things he wants to do. We've been doing this for two years so we're pretty hand-in-glove.

"It's a strategy session, it's an information sharing-session and it's an accountability session," said McCarthy. "We're accountable to the public for our statistics because each one of those statistics is a person."

The data on each precinct is separated and analyzed in three separate time periods -- weekly, monthly and yearly -- and compared to data from similar time periods during the previous year. "So you have three separate snapshots of how that precinct is doing," said McCarthy. The department also makes a two-year evaluation and a nine-year snapshot, dating back to when the program started.

"We measure basically on a day-to-day basis because we compare this period against the same period last year, and that's how we evaluate the program," said McCarthy.

From there, an information book is generated for each precinct. The statistics are also used to generate a profile of commanding officers and assess their performance.

"We'll put together profiles of the narcotics commanding officer, the detective commanding officer, the precinct commanding officer and an assessment of each one of their units," McCarthy said.

The Commander Profile Reports scrutinize the commander's performance on a variety of management variables. The profiles include the commander's appointment date, years in rank, education and specialized training he or she received. Each profile contains non-crime statistics such as the amount of overtime generated by members of his command, the number of department vehicle accidents, absence rates and the number of civilian complaints.

The assessments contain information gathered and mapped electronically with MapInfo software. Each map overlaps another to form layers of statistical information that project, as a collection of dots, a plethora of crimes or behavior patterns. Those can then be projected on large video projection screens. A host of charts, tables and graphs are commonly displayed simultaneously. The commanding officers will have an opportunity to address any patterns of behavior or crime trends in their vicinity and explain what solutions are at hand.

A dense pattern of dots, or hot spots, on a map suggests a spree of criminal activity and means somebody is going to be held accountable. Crimes here are now seen as part of a pattern that can be interrupted with good police work.

"There's going to be a causal relationship in a lot of the information," McCarthy said. "You get people standing around on the street drinking beer, the next thing you know they get into a fight, somebody gets assaulted and hurt. If we would have taken the action of making the arrests for public consumption of alcohol, we may have prevented that assault.

"All of that stuff is intertwined. If stolen cars are up, that's because we're not stopping enough cars and catching people in a stolen car."

But there's more to Compstat than catching people driving stolen cars. It's part of a philosophy that evaluating the performance of a police department entails more than just putting bad guys in jail. Factors such as how the community views the department and the financial costs of fighting crimes are also measurements of success.

And the vast array of computerized statistics garnered by the program provides the department with the tools to measure the success of the enterprise. The ever-evolving program has been well received -- it's being duplicated in Baltimore and has been copied by other New York City agencies, including the Sanitation and Correction departments.

McCarthy compared the evolution of the program to that of a prospering business. "Realize that any successful business is constantly reorganizing and Compstat is the mechanism that we use to help us reorganize."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor