Compstat, alternatively styled COMPSTAT, ComStat, or CompStat, derives its name from computer statistics and refers to the policies, practices, systems, and organizational structures subsumed by a revolutionary police management paradigm first developed and implemented by the New York Police Department (NYPD) in 1994 during the administration of Police Commissioner William J. Bratton. The Compstat management system had an immediate and dramatic impact on the NYPD’s capacity to reduce crime and improve quality of life within New York City, where overall crime (as measured by the seven major Uniform Crime Report (UCR) Index Crimes of murder, rape, robbery, burglary, felony assault, grand larceny and motor vehicle theft) declined more than 80 percent from 1993 levels. Depending upon the definitions applied, New York City was ranked as the safest big city or among the safest big cities in the United States in 2012. As a result of this success in New York, Compstat management systems and principles have been widely adopted and emulated by police and law enforcement agencies throughout the United States and around the world.
Bratton was appointed New York’s police commissioner in January 1994 with the mandate to reduce crime and improve quality of life within the city. Bratton and his chief crime strategist, Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple, recognized the need to modify the agency’s structure, internal communications systems, management policies, and conventional but largely ineffective approaches to crime fighting. Crime rose steadily in New York from the early 1960s through the early 1990s, and although the agency began moving away from organizational structures and policies rooted in the professional model and toward a community policing model in the early 1990s, the community policing policies and practices it employed proved only minimally effective in reducing crime and improving quality of life within the city.
Bratton and Maple recognized the compelling need to decentralize and redistribute the agency’s power, authority, discretion, and accountability systems from headquarters executives to middle managers at the field command level, who were far more familiar with the dynamics of crime than were headquarters executives. Less encumbered by the decisions of a centralized bureaucracy and empowered with enhanced operational discretion, field commanders were able to respond quickly to emerging crime patterns and trends within their areas of responsibility. The Compstat paradigm operationalized the devolution of power, authority and discretion to field commanders, empowering them by increasing the scope of their authority, and discretion and by providing them with greater control over personnel and other resources, concurrently increasing those field commanders’ accountability for the use of these resources as well as for reducing crime and improving quality of life.
Effective Use of Compstat
Compstat’s effectiveness as a crime control and accountability process is built around four central principles of crime reduction articulated by Maple: (1) timely and accurate crime intelligence; (2) effective crime control strategies and tactics; (3) rapid deployment of personnel and other resources; and (4) relentless follow-up and assessment of results. These principles are operationalized at regularly scheduled crime control strategy meetings (known generically as Compstat meetings) in which headquarters executives meet with field commanders to identify emerging crime patterns and trends, to develop and apply effective crime reduction strategies and tactics, to quickly organize and deploy resources to support those strategies and tactics, and to thoroughly assess the impact of their immediate and long-term crime reduction efforts. These intensive strategy sessions focus the attention of the agency and its personnel on crime control issues, ensure field commanders’ accountability for the enhanced discretion and control of resources they are afforded, and enhance the quantity and quality of communication and interaction between executives and operational commanders.
Compstat’s crime control strategy meetings are the centerpiece of the management system. Compstat makes effective use of technology (including computerized statistical analysis, crime mapping, and geographical information systems) to quickly capture and analyze current crime statistics and to use these and other crime intelligence data to detect emerging crime patterns and trends. Once these trends and patterns are identified, police personnel and other resources are marshaled and deployed to make use of highly specific strategies and tactics that are worked out at the crime control strategy meetings and tailored to the unique patterns they are designed to address.
The efficacy of these strategies and tactics are scrutinized and rigorously assessed at subsequent crime control strategy meetings where, if necessary, they can be adapted or modified to further enhance their effectiveness. Importantly, identified crime trends and patterns are continually monitored to ensure they are successfully eliminated and do not re-emerge.
The basic processes of Compstat and the crime control strategy meetings also permit the agency’s top executives to assess the management strengths, weaknesses, and overall capabilities of field commanders, and to make promotional and personnel assignment decisions based on those assessments; to allocate personnel and other resources where they are most needed and will have the greatest impact; and to achieve a detailed understanding of the unique crime conditions, as well as the specific needs of individual neighborhoods and communities within the city. Compstat processes have also been adapted and operationalized in various forms and formats throughout the agency in order to address police management functions and responsibilities beyond those of controlling street crime. Compstat principles have been applied, for example, to the management of police corruption and the internal investigative function, and Compstat has been proposed as an effective model for the intra and interagency collection and dissemination of intelligence necessary to combat terrorism.
A key element of Compstat’s success is its effective strategic and tactical operationalization of the Broken Windows theory articulated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling (1982). Broken Windows theory holds that the minor crimes and “quality-of-life” offenses police often overlook or fail to enforce are in themselves criminogenic, and the incidence of serious crimes, including murder, robbery, rape, burglary, felony assault, and vehicle theft (i.e., the UCR Index Crimes), can be dramatically reduced through the vigorous enforcement of quality-of-life offense statutes. As in other jurisdictions where Compstat management systems have proven effective, police enforcement activities in New York City focus proactively on such minor crimes as public intoxication, loitering, panhandling, prostitution, noise violations, and other quality-of-life offenses as well as on serious felony crimes. In particular, these activities entailed more aggressive summons enforcement and increased “stop, question, and frisk” activities by patrol officers investigating individuals engaged in suspicious behaviors.
Other essential but often overlooked elements of the Compstat paradigm’s success are its emphasis on altering the department’s structures, policies, and practices to support a crime fighting mission, and the development of a body of strategic doctrine to harmonize the plans and approaches taken agency-wide to address crime and quality-of-life issues. The Compstat paradigm recognizes that anachronistic or outmoded policies and organizational structures proliferate in many law enforcement agencies, impeding the pursuit of more contemporary goals and objectives. NYPD engaged in an intensive process of reengineering a dozen critical police functions including paperwork and record keeping; personnel and promotion policies; the disciplinary system; and recruit, supervisory, and management training in order to realign them to support current goals and objectives. The agency also developed a series of crime control and quality-of-life strategy documents that identified, described, and mandated incorporation of best practices to address crimes that included domestic violence, corruption control, youth crime, gun violence, and narcotics violations. This body of strategic doctrine was promulgated throughout the agency to synchronize NYPD’s overall best practices approach, to ensure coordinated tactical operations, and to broadly communicate the most effective crime fighting methods throughout the agency.
Finally, effective implementation of the Compstat management paradigm requires buy-in from personnel at all levels and in all functions and units throughout the agency. Compstat’s full effectiveness in reducing crime, improving quality of life, and achieving other organizational goals and objectives demands that it be implemented as an overarching management paradigm or model for management practice rather than as a programmatic overlay to traditional police practice. In addition to the NYPD, police agencies that have adopted the Compstat management paradigm and achieved dramatic reductions in crime and improvements in quality of life include those in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami, Newark, and a host of smaller jurisdictions.
Because Compstat is, in essence, a management model that expands the discretion of field commanders, supervisors, and operational officers while vesting the agency’s top executives with the responsibility for managing and directing that discretion, many ethical issues arise. These issues illuminate the need for top executives to vigorously and continuously monitor and manage the tactics, strategies, and policies implemented in the field in order to ensure fair, consistent, and ethical police practices throughout the agency. Allegations have been made that field commanders manipulated crime reporting systems and statistics to portray crime reductions in response to productivity demands placed on them by executives. There have also been accusations by police whistle-blowers that the Compstat management style led to the imposition of summons quotas and other “productivity metrics” as well as racial profiling in the NYPD and in other agencies that apply this model.
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