CompStat: a Case Study of New York City Crime Prevention

During the 80s and the beginning of the 90s New York City was considered as a very unsafe place. Both the number of violent crimes and the unsolved crimes were high. An article published by New York Times described the situation faced by the population. “New York City is staggering. The streets already resemble a New Calcutta, bristling with beggars and sad schizophrenics tuned in to inner voices. Crime, the fear of it as much as the fact, adds overtones of a New Beirut. Many New Yorkers now think twice about where they can safely walk; in a civilized place, that should be as automatic as breathing”.

At that point, the police was not seriously collecting data related to crimes, so statistics were not available. Also there was no systematic approach to crime prevention. Finally, the working force of the police department was not sharing information among its units, so there was a crucial lack of knowledge of what was going on in the city.

The turning point of New York’s public safety in the 90s has been captured in many publications. One of the most important books was written by Franklin E. Zimring in 2012, The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons For Urban Crime And Its Control. In the book, Zimring praised the good job of fighting crime by the N.Y.P.D officers, and he specifically noted that they owed it to the implementation of CompStat policy. Not only scholars feel that way, but also the citizens of New York also celebrated their safer city. There are many publications documented, one of them is on the Time magazine.

The CompStat era coincided with a staggering decline in crime. Between 1990 and 2011, homicide in New York City declined by 80 percent, robbery by 83 percent, burglary by 86 percent and car theft by 94 percent. During that period crime fell everywhere in the United States, but it fell twice as much and for twice as long in New York City.

What is CompStat?

First and foremost, CompStat is not merely just the software or interactive apps. But it is the whole comprehensive system of fighting crime by using statistical data. Obviously, CompStat is popularly seen as a high-tech way of sticking pins in map and try to map out possible crime area. But it goes beyond that. It starts with data collecting, analyzing the data and present it in a visual form — publicly accessible not only for the officers but also the citizen. The most important thing about CompStat is not the data collection process, but it in the matter of how that data gets used.

It was an idea of Jack Maple, who was the Deputy Police Commissioner for Crime Control Strategies. And he had an idea to combat crime by using statistic. However, the idea just got implemented after the election of William Bratton as the N.Y.P.D Chief Police Officer in 1994. Bratton pointed Jack Maple along with several other officers to specifically address the issues of New York’s staggering crime rates.

Jack Maple, pioneer of crime statistics in New York

The Goal

The goal of CompStat is actually really simple, to improve the citizen’s life quality by reducing crime rates in the city. As seen in the graph below, the happiness index and crime rates in the city are actually correlated with each other. The lower the crime rates in the city, the happier the citizen will be. As safety is one of the concern related to citizen’s quality of life. The government should ensure that all of its citizen is safe and without any danger living in the area. Therefore, crime rates should be reduced to achieve higher happiness index.

How CompStat works?

Since it is a comprehensive system, so as said before, not only the program or the apps, but the general idea is build a strategy in reducing and preventing crime.

The Core Principles:
Accurate and timely intelligence — Know what is happening
Effective tactics — Have a plan
Rapid deployment — Do it quickly
Relentless follow-up and assessment — If it works, do more. If not, do something else.

“Compstat is not a solution. It’s a method to obtain solutions. It is an ideology and methodology. When the numbers aren’t good, commanders have to know what is the problem, what is the plan and what are the results to date”.

On practice

Members of the police department collect all sorts of valuable data on a weekly basis and send it to the statistics department. Then the CompStat Unit is responsible for processing all the data sent from the whole city or region. The outcome is a detailed report with informations related to crime complaints and arrest activity in the previous days. Finally, the middle level management police officers attend meetings to define strategies based on the findings. The strategies include the use of GIS to elaborate map crimes. Only after attending these meetings where the goals are set the police officers go out to the streets.

Results

Since its adoption by the NYPD, Compstat proved to be a very important tool to combat crime. The year of 1994 registered 1,108 murders, while the number dropped to 596 in 2003. It is a 50% decline, the lowest number since 1964. According to the Wall Street Journal, between 1990 and 2011, homicide in New York City declined by 80 percent, robbery by 83 percent, burglary by 86 percent and car theft by 94 percent. During that period crime fell everywhere in the United States, but it fell twice as much and for twice as long in New York City. By 1995 the crime reductions were so pronounced that the New York Times called them a “marvel of American law enforcement” and “simply breathtaking.”

Evaluation

Compstat reshaped the work and the strategies adopted by the police all around the world. The use of data and statistics was decisive to move forward in the never-ending fight against crime. Since the 90s the police officers can rely on a “scientific method” to tackle their goals. But it is also important to notice that one crucial question of the system is the possibility of data manipulation. Furthermore, some scholars suggest that Compstat was not the only reason why crime dropped in New York city in the end of the last century.

For example, the economist Steven D. Levitt argues that the training and deployment of around 5,000 new better-educated police officers, the integration of New York’s housing and transit police into the New York Police Department, a robust “zero tolerance” campaign against petty crime and anti-social behavior under Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and a widespread removal of graffiti were also important.

Compstat on Video

Watch a TV news story about the implementation of the Compstat in a city in United States.

Compstat on real life. Watch the Compstat meeting of the Newark Police Department.

Compstat around the world

Take a look at the real Compstat at the page of crime statistics of the New York Police Department. There are many other cities that are using the methodology, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver.

Many cities publish their data on the web where users can interact with its content. Here is the crime statistics of San Francisco since January, 2003.

To learn more

Do you want to learn more about Compstat? Check these references:

  • What Is CompStat? Implementing and Instutionalizing CompStat in Maryland. University of Maryland.
  • “Armed With Data, Fighting More Than Crime”, article by Tina Rosenberg published in New York Times in May, 2012.
  • The report “Compstat: Its Origins, Evolution and Future in Law Enforcement Agencies”, from the Police Executive Research Forum can be found here.

Originally posted on the Urban Safety Module (UMUSAMA) Blog.

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