The summer of 1991 brought the riots of Crown Heights, N.Y., and a "low point in morale" for the New York City Police Department, where a former cop characterized policing efforts as "mass confusion."
"I was disgusted with the city," said Ed Reuss, a former captain. "I thought New York City was going down the tubes."
Reuss retired the following year, but glimpsed the future of New York City policing before he did. "What happened, thank God, was the computerization of data."
It started with an online booking system in 1992. When Bill Bratton was appointed New York City police commissioner in 1994, it swelled into CompStat, a system of computerizing and mapping crime data, then relentlessly pursuing solutions to the findings.
The result was a 39 percent decline in serious crimes, including a dramatic reduction in homicides. From 1993 to 1998, the number of murders dropped from 1,946 to 629. Although the plunge in violent crime was part of a national trend during that period, the decline in New York's crime rate was three times the national average.
The city later applied CompStat to other measurements of city service, such as emergency response time, police station conditions, police car availability for patrol and speed of repairs.
That effective, if straightforward, concept branched in numerous directions during the last decade. Many cities have implemented some variation of the CompStat idea, and some have broadened it far beyond its original intent.
Just south of New York, for instance, Baltimore was drowning in a sea of crime, drugs, failing schools and embarrassing budget deficits. Desperate to reclaim its city, Baltimore developed CitiStat, a copycat of CompStat. After three years of applying the concept to law enforcement, Baltimore cut its murder rate in half.
The city also transformed its version of CompStat from a law enforcement data collection technique into a management tool that measures effectiveness of city services, such as garbage collection, tree trimming and protecting kids from lead paint. Baltimore officials credit the concept with increasing government efficiency and saving taxpayers millions.
Finally, although CompStat itself relies on fairly basic technology, the concept has triggered the implementation of more complex systems. For instance, it was a key driver in Baltimore's creation of a centralized 311 system, which gives residents one number to call for virtually any city service.
Bratton, now chief of the undermanned Los Angeles Police Department, intends to take CompStat even further by adding new analytic functions, making the system even more powerful to combat violent street gangs.
And New York City is just as eager to recite statistics on crime reduction, and tout CompStat as the means to that end. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration has built on CompStat with new initiatives that make further use of the data.
The original CompStat model created a system that uses current, relevant data to direct police activities rather than relying on three- to six-month old information, which was previously the norm.
The concept is nothing new to the private sector, but it hadn't been applied to law enforcement until the mid-1990s, when CompStat was implemented in New York, Bratton said. "The dirty little secret in America is how poor a job we do at dealing with crime. It wasn't until the 1990s, when we accepted responsibility for it, that we began to be held accountable for it."
Bratton and his staff knew if law enforcement made decisions on old data, they'd hop from crime scene to crime scene, doing little more than cleaning up after criminals.
"In the '70s and '80s, there was this excuse that crime is caused by the economy; it's caused by this or that," Bratton said. "Police can't influence any of that. That's baloney."