Friday, December 3, 2010

New chairs at the Comstat table

The headlines proclaim victory. Are they right?

Last blog I talked about what caused dips in NY crime. There is no doubt something remarkable began in New York during the 1990s. It coincided with a wholesale reform in the New York Police Department. There is doubt whether those reforms caused the crime declines.

In NYPD Battles Crime, Eli Silverman says it was those reforms that did the job. Conversely, in The Great American Crime Decline Franklin Zimring suggests demographics and other factors probably triggered most, but not all, of New York's (and the entire country's) declines.

Most, but not all? He tantalizes us by adding that NYPD's reforms may have accounted for up to 35% of their decline. If that's the case he says, "it would be by far the biggest crime prevention achievement in the recorded history of policing."

There were many parts to those reforms, for example the broken windows theory (which I argue is less a theory and more a group of descriptive symbols). The most famous of those reforms was called Comstat (sometimes called Compstat).

Crime maps are the cornerstone of comstat

Comstat is short for comparison statistics, Comstat uses current crime statistics and maps to hold mid-level supervisors accountable for cutting crime. They do this in regular (sometimes heated) meetings at the Comstat table with the Chief as inquisitor. As my last blog suggests, senior officers often hate being hauled on the Comstat carpet for crime increases.

Today, some police executives have adopted it, such as in New Orleans, while others doubt that it works. Baltimore police suspended it at one point.

Advocates war with critics and journalists eat it up. This is especially the case in recent scandals.

I think sitting at the Comstat table did bring the neighborhood crime pulse to mid-level commanders in a new way. Accountability for crime is not a bad table to sit at even though it is a lopsided table with missing chairs. Why lopsided? Because cops can't do it all.

Police can tackle crime as it happens, catch bad guys on a crime spree, or stem a flow of drugs and gun shootings. Comstat helps them do that better. It's an overdue step forward. Sadly, as with all progress, one step forward can become two steps backwards.


As Silverman describes, as time went on cops resorted too often on heavy use of force, alienating some of the community. Surveys showed a downturn in public confidence. About the future of Comstat and the leadership reforms Silverman asks: "Can the center hold?"

That's the wrong question. The police are not the center - the community is! Police are untrained to tackle the roots of crime, the social, economic and psychological causes. The comstat table needs chairs for those more able to tackle those roots: non-profits, business associations, faith groups, and community development organizations. Consider the importance of schools, social services, housing, cultural activities, transportation, and investors.

It won't be easy to sit at the same table. Not all crime data and discussions are appropriate in public. Neighborhoods are not always representative or properly organized. For their part police are accustomed to re-acting, not pro-acting. After all, comstat crimes are always after-the-fact (otherwise they wouldn't show up on a crime map). And the Intelligence-Led Policing folk might think of the new chairs as eyes and ears for cops rather than smarter brains for everyone.

Still, because the discussion is difficult doesn't excuse others from the table especially given what's at stake - creating opportunities to develop communities and combine the roots with the branches of the crime tree.

The incoming New Orleans police chief has taken a small step forward by inviting community representatives to observe his comstat meetings.

Geller and Belsky's new book provides a more thorough path to tread

Bill Geller and Lisa Belsky's new book Building Our Way Out of Crime shows what the next step might look like.

Ultimately, when it comes to tackling crime, holding the center is easier when it is more thoroughly and legitimately shared with resourceful hands outside the organization.

1 Reply so far - Add your comment

Dee Edwards MBE said...

I was in New York five years ago, I never for a moment felt unsafe. I thought a lot of that was to do with the large amount of police presence everywhere which makes you feel safe.

I believe that with Mayor Guiliani in office that his zero tolerance on crime also helped reduce the crime figures. I had the pleasure of doing a link up on the news one night from London with Mr Guiliani about an exhibition of so called art. I had campaigned to have the Myra Hindley exhibition removed from the Royal Academy in London - basically a portrait of the murderer made up of the hand prints of small children. Despite causing offence to many, including the elderly mother of one of her victims who is still missing after more than 40 years, the exhibition went ahead. When it was taken to NY - Mayor Guiliani threatened to remove funding from the museum unless the exhibition was removed. His stand on crime in any context could teach a lesson to the law makers in the UK.