By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld Print this article Print

Online exclusive: Named in haste and built on simple technologies, the NYPD's CompStat system has become a key tool in fighting crime through better statistical analysis.

's Quest for Stats">

NYPD's Quest for Stats

The idea behind CompStat also was quite simple. The Rudolph Giuliani administration had just come into power in January 1994, and its first police commissioner, William Bratton from Boston, wanted "stick counts," as Whyte would put it, of major crimes as they occurred.

At the time, New York would report its numbers on murders, robberies and other major crimes to the Federal Bureau of Investigation; six months later, it would get Uniform Crime Report statistics back, summarizing trends. Bratton's "stick counts" were initially to be delivered every week—and compared to the counts for the previous year in the same time periods.

Pulling together the counts was no easy sell. Deputy commissioner Jack Maple, Yohe and the startup team had to push, pull and demand that commanders deliver disks of hand-counted data to the police commissioner's office every week, for uploading into CompStat. Even if it took screaming their demands into the middle of the night, when precincts didn't take the need for statistics seriously.

"You would have thought they had been asked to walk barefoot over hot coals," Yohe says of some precinct officers.

The precinct commanders then would have to stand behind their numbers, explain why there were clusters of certain kinds of crimes and specify what they were doing about it. If they did not have a grasp of what was going on, they were reassigned or gone.

"Precinct commanders grew up in an administration where they could all go hide under their rocks," Bratton says now. "They weren't used to being brought in literally under the bright lights. Was it uncomfortable? It certainly was."

In effect, Bratton was bringing into the practice of policing what business schools might call "management by objectives" or an information technology department might call "managing to the baseline."

"For us, crime was the bottom line," says Yohe, now a private consultant. To establish a baseline, the early crew of CompStat compilers had to count by hand the incidents of major crime for every week in 1993.

Within a year, mapping would be added. Yohe would spend 18 minutes a day pushing pins into a physical map for one precinct, to prove that, even without mapping software, clusters of crime could be identified rapidly and addressed.

That made managing crime visible. "We take the biggest dot and make it go away," says Yohe. "Then we go to the second biggest dot and make it go away."

If, for instance, the dots indicated a slight uptick in old ladies getting mugged on the No. 4 subway train, Manhattan South could put a decoy on the train in "some kind of drag," says Henry.

The data was soon visible on screens of all sizes, through a no-frills software selection process. The CompStat team got the green light to map data—as long as it used the MapInfo software sitting on shelves unopened from a previous initiative.

The stick counts formed the basis for constant attention to crime-fighting detail across all 76 precincts. The counts provided what Bratton would call "timely, accurate intelligence," and then it was up to all chiefs, commanders and street cops to respond rapidly, come up with effective tactics and relentlessly follow up.

"The process only works if you're willing to ask hard questions. Why are you having this crime? And what are you planning to do about it?" says Whyte. Not too much to ask of a commander who is running the equivalent of a $20 million-a-year company.

The process was played out in management conferences. CompStat meetings constantly addressed old issues and tackled new ones. As many as 150 commanders, detectives, information specialists, officers and agency heads might pile into a room at One Police Plaza to hash out what to do about the latest stats.

"It allowed me twice a week to literally walk into the engine room of that very large ship that I was steering and meet with all levels of the organization at one time," says Bratton. "Everybody is included in that meeting that has anything to do with the goals we are seeking to achieve."

Over time, the department began feeding in information on recovered vehicles, general complaints and even reports of shots fired, whether from crime or not. The idea: Disparate data, tied together, provides clues to the right tactics to take. Eventually, reports from bus drivers and taxi drivers could be added, in an attempt to enlist more eyes on the streets.

This article was originally published on 2002-09-09
Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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