Pressure to raise numbers unjustly pushes police into minority neighborhoods — and into bloating crime statistics
On Jan. 23, New York City announced a $75 million payout to settle a class-action lawsuit against the New York Police Department. The complainants successfully argued that the NYPD issued more than 900,000 unlawful criminal summonses. Lawsuits like these are preventable, but only if we bring about substantial changes in the organizational culture of police, most important their overreliance on a numbers- and data-driven statistics (or CompStat) system.
CompStat was created in the mid-1990s by then-NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and his Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple, as a way to reorient police toward reducing crime through enhanced information sharing and accountability. It’s now used by departments across the country. The CompStat (which originally stood for comparative statistics) system is multilayered. It is first a computer database of crime statistics (murders, robberies, rapes, larcenies, car thefts) and police activity (stops, tickets, summonses, arrests) for a given district or precinct. District data are analyzed during regional meetings, also called CompStat.
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A good tool, abused
The NYPD says CompStat was the driving force in reducing crime by 75% in about 20 years. Unfortunately, as with many new toys, those who used it found a way to break it. Instead of police departments developing it into a tool that could better control crime, they weaponized it. It was and is wielded as a tool of punishment, embarrassment and coercion. The foot was never taken off the gas, even in light of record drops in crime.
Every week in conference rooms across the country, police officials gather for CompStat meetings. Toting binders packed with statistics, precinct commanders wait to be called on the carpet by police chiefs about what they are or are not doing to control crime. They have no idea what they will be asked or where the questions will lead. Not every commander will be called on, and stress levels are high. The attempt at intimidation by police chiefs is intentional. Like the saying goes: Kill one, frighten thousands.
Imagine watching a fellow commander being dressed down because there were few stops or summonses in a high-crime area.
Even if more stops aren’t necessary in your jurisdiction, you’ll likely return to your community and take a closer look at where you can bump up your CompStat numbers to avoid being the next commander humiliated during a meeting.
As the precinct commander, you explain to your lieutenants that they must ensure arrests and summonses are up as well as stops. Ultimately, sergeants in your district tell patrol officers to crack down in neighborhoods that may or may not need it. If those cops don’t, they could face retribution in the form of denial of requested days off or poor work schedules. Officers, sergeants, lieutenants and commanders act out of self-preservation instead of developing the most effective and just crime fighting tools.
Less numbers, more social services
When cops are under pressure to show productivity, they make stops and hand out summonses they may not otherwise. That creates excesses that don’t actually reduce crime. The CompStat mentality has created a wedge between the police and the communities they are supposed to serve.
Eli Silverman, a criminologist, and John Eterno, a former NYPD precinct captain, show in their book The Crime Numbers Game that in New York City, CompStat led directly to abusive police practices in communities of color and contributed to police commanders falsifying crime figures to bloat their numbers and make it look like some communities are committing more crimes than they are.
This is not just a problem in New York. All across the country, many of the complaints about excessive and heavy handed policing are driven by unnecessary and counterproductive overpolicing in an attempt to “get the numbers up.” The Justice Department raised the issue of too many punitive interactions with the public in their reports on both the Baltimore and Chicago police departments.
There is an alternative.
Former cop turned Harvard Kennedy School professor Malcom Sparrow argues in his book Handcuffed that police need to drop the numbers game and focus on the craft of local problem solving. Problem-oriented policing is based on the idea that many crime and disorder problems are ongoing and have their roots in local social dynamics that can’t be resolved with an isolated arrest or ticket. Instead, police need to identify the larger social issues and work with other city agencies to try to address them. A rash of car break-ins or burglaries might be tied to the closing of a youth program or an increase in homelessness that requires a sustained and systematic response from many different agencies, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach of ratcheting up the number of tickets and arrests.
If we want to repair community-police relationships and create substantive changes, then we must reform CompStat. Police need information and managerial accountability, but they must also bring back the discretion and creativity at the heart of policing. The biggest challenge, however, may be getting these departments to admit that there is a problem in the first place.
Joseph L. Giacalone is a retired NYPD detective sergeant and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and coordinator of its Policing and Social Justice Project.
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