CompStat: From Humble Beginnings

The snow was falling, heavily.

Gene Whyte, John Brancato, Richard Mehia and John Yohe wanted to go home, before the weather turned impenetrable. But Brancato, now a narcotics detective, had to save the file the New York City policemen were working on. So the four-man band had to come up with a name, first.

They had eight characters to work with. This was January 1994, and their computer used 5.25-inch floppy disks to store data and used the now-ancient Disk Operating System that Microsoft had originally re-branded to instruct standard IBM-type personal computers how to work.

So someone called out “CompStat.” It could be interpreted to mean Computer Statistics. Or Comparative Statistics. Or even Comparative Computer Stats. It didn’t matter.

What did matter was getting home.

“We had no idea it would end up meaning something around the world,” said Lt. Whyte, who now works in the office of the deputy commissioner of operations for the New York Police Department. “It just meant, ‘compare stats, let’s go home,’ ” at the time.

Thus was born a piece of technology that has come to be identified as the core means by which the NYPD turned endless rising crime into consistent reductions of murder, rape, larceny and other felonies. The use of an off-the-shelf program for small businesses led to one of the few revolutions in a major industry—crimefighting—that has continued unabated in the past eight years.

For the week ending June 2, 2002, for instance, the number of murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries and grand larcenies totaled 2,905, down from 2,977 in the same seven days a year earlier. That was a decline of 2.4% year over year. Over the span of two years, the decline is 17.6%; and the percentage drop over the nine years of tracking is now 65.7%.

But there is precious little technical originality to CompStat. It started life as nothing more than an elementary database, created in a set of desktop office software called SmartWare, from Informix.

When CompStat got geared up, that approach was junked in favor of entering all the statistics into files on an early version of Microsoft’s FoxPro database for small businesses, according to Detective James Callinan.

“The technology is fairly rudimentary,” says Vincent Henry, an associate professor at Pace University and retired member of the NYPD. “But it is a lot more advanced than it was” when Whyte and cohorts began working in the police department’s typewriter-based environs. “It really was a revolution.”

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