By H. Dean Crisp Jr., Chief of Police, and R. J. Hines, Captain, Columbia Police Department, Columbia, South Carolina
hen a series of armed robberies occurred in Columbia’s Five Points neighborhood, a popular destination for locals and visitors alike, the police knew it was vital to solve the crimes quickly and put a stop to the robberies. A few years earlier, the police department’s response would have involved sending an investigative unit to look into each robbery alone and without assistance from other units, and then forming an operational plan some time after several robberies had occurred.
Today, as part of the Columbia Police Department’s CompStat management system, a new criminal intelligence unit (CIU) serves as the department’s central warehouse for the collection and dissemination of pertinent information on crimes, suspects, and all other intelligence data. The CIU, along with the crime analysis unit, provided real-time information about the Five Points robberies to commanders, investigative sergeants, and line officers that resulted in the immediate arrest of the robbery suspect. This instantaneous response prevented more occurrences, calls, and complaints; it also increased our citizens’ safety and sense of well-being.
Five Points epitomizes the concept of the urban village, with its mix of detached houses, apartments and condominiums, shops, restaurants, and bars. The area is popular with students from the University of South Carolina (USC) and with soldiers and families from Fort Jackson. Five Points draws nearly 120,000 visitors each year.
When a series of armed robberies took place, the police department’s Crime Analysis Unit brought the problem forward during the daily and weekly crime reports, which include GIS maps, profiles, and charts. The CompStat process placed the problem in the department’s open forum, enabling a brainstorming and problem-solving session.
The police department sought the assistance of the University South Carolina Police Department, the Richland County Sheriff’s Office, the Forest Acres Police Department, the local media outlets, the owners and managers of Five Points businesses, and the neighborhood organizations in and around Five Points.
The goal for the law enforcement agencies was to capture the suspects by saturating the area with officers; to that end, the special operations unit pooled all available staffing and resources from the other law enforcement agencies. Another important objective was the real-time sharing of crime reports, field reports, and investigative reports. The advantage of receiving real-time data allowed the information on the robberies to get to patrol officers within hours after an offense, thereby increasing officer awareness and increasing the possibility of apprehension.
The information sharing and saturation did not stop with law enforcement. The Columbia Police Department encouraged the media to immediately and widely disseminate news of the robberies to the community, making everyone who frequented the area aware of the robbery problem and encouraging those who were in the vicinity during the times of the previous robberies to come forward and tell the police about anything they saw that looked suspicious.
While law enforcement canvassed the area, they informed community leaders, residents, and merchants of the robbery problem, asked them to be attentive, offered crime prevention tips, and advised the bar owners to stop service to patrons who appeared to be inebriated because they tended to become the target of robberies and other violent offenses.
The prime objective was to apprehend the robbery suspects immediately in order to prevent the violence from escalating, to avert physical harm, and to decrease the fear of crime in our communities. Using the CompStat process, the police department tore down barriers to communication and information sharing between officers and units in the department and between the Columbia Police Department and other agencies. Where it used to take 30 days to create a BOLO (be on the lookout) advisory it now took only 30 minutes because of reorganization and improved communications.
Making CompStat Work
Part of the difficulty of implementing CompStat was the necessity of training the entire department—civilians, line officers and command staff—on the concept. The department also sought to reinvigorate the public by increasing the interaction between residential patrol officers and the people they served.
Implementing CompStat resulted in a reorganization of the entire police department. The reorganization was necessary to effectively and efficiently realize the objective of the CompStat process. The process fosters teamwork and encourages the use of staff and resources across old boundaries, thus eliminating competition between the geographic divisions as well as the displacement of crime from one area to the other.
There were some problems related to refitting the department structurally to accommodate the reorganization. There was a need for new office space to house the new divisions and units such as special operations, the homeless initiative, and the crime suppression units. The needs included reassigning personnel, buying furniture and equipment, running and upgrading cable for computers, and upgrading department-wide computer software. Upgrading department-wide software was necessary to allow vital sharing of information, especially mapped crime data and photo images of suspects. It was necessary to coordinate closely with other city departments to ensure that the software would work. For example, in order for the mapping program to be operational and the crime analyst trained on the program, it was necessary to reach out to the city’s geographic information system office. These tasks, while viewed as routine and obvious, nevertheless required much coordination, were labor intensive, and required funding to complete the department’s reorganization.
Another challenge was changing the views and thinking of the staff, from a reactive stance to an aggressive, proactive posture. The Columbia Police Department, like many police departments, had been relegated to policing by calls for service. This practice of responding to calls had taken root over the years and ingrained itself. The time-honored and proven method of policing, which involved all line officers going out into the community and interacting with the citizens, had been lost. The traditional method of recording detailed and relevant information in the initial incident report was lost as well. Columbia’s officers were jumping from one call to the other with barely enough time to record offenses let alone conduct a detailed preliminary investigation. The call volume for the police department is about 14,000 a month. But officers now receive real-time data and are able to quickly formulate and put into action plans that lead to apprehension of wanted suspects.
It was also necessary to increase the lines of communication with neighboring law enforcement agencies and refine the mutual aid agreements. Although there had been long-standing mutual assistance agreements and cooperation on task forces devoted to battling narcotics and gangs, the departments did not exchange the daily reports of crime activity occurring in their jurisdictions. This information sharing is a vital component to apprehending wanted suspects and deterring potential suspects. The daily communication and coordination of staffing and resources between neighboring agencies have resulted in increased arrests. Neighboring agencies were brought in at the initiation of the Columbia CompStat process and remain active participants at weekly meetings.
The police department evaluated the CompStat process with the assistance of Mike Smith, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. The primary tool used to measure the effectiveness of CompStat was the monthly crime statistic reports produced by the department’s crime analysis unit. These reports revealed that in 2005 Columbia enjoyed decreases of 13 percent in violent crimes and 18 percent in property crimes. The actual results were in line with the anticipated outcomes.
The most important lessons learned from the CompStat process is the power of both information sharing and the access to real-time data. For too many years law enforcement agencies have kept a tight seal on information about crimes in their jurisdictions, opting to handle crime concerns alone. They did not share crime data with other law enforcement agencies, played down the issue with citizens, and put a total ban on media access. The CompStat process has revealed that these practices do not help to apprehend dangerous criminals.
Access to real-time crime data is invaluable in a jurisdiction the size of Columbia, where the city has expanded into neighboring counties. Real-time crime data in the officer’s hands have simply made it easier to apprehend wanted suspects, thus freeing up more time to interact with the community and to formulate new proactive plans to resolve crime concerns.
The CompStat process has created an air of openness, seamless communication, and enhanced teamwork in the department. It also improved relations with neighboring law enforcement agencies and community organizations. Most importantly, it has drastically reduced the incidences of crime within the city and increased the number of arrests.
The police department extends an open invitation to all law enforcement agencies to observe Columbia’s CompStat meetings. ■