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Back to Archives | Back to January 2004 Contents 

Implementing CompStat: Critical Points to Consider

Phyllis P. McDonald, Ed.D., Director of Research, Division of Public Safety Leadership, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland

CompStat represents a sea change in managing police operations, and perhaps the most radical change in recent history. CompStat is a change in attitude toward the capacity of the police to reduce crime and criminal behavior; it is a focus on outcome measures in place of the traditional output measures; it squarely acknowledges that the police are better positioned to maintain order and solve community problems by promoting public safety; and, most importantly, it is a change developed and directed by the collective police wisdom.

As I prepared the book Managing Police Operations: Implementing the New York Crime Control Model—CompStat (Wadsworth, 2002), it became apparent that a law enforcement agency would need to ask several strategic questions if it desired to become a contributing part of the change in police history. The following pointers are designed to provide guidance in implementing CompStat.

What Is the Change in Leadership Required by the Police Chief?
CompStat requires that a police chief or sheriff undertake a significantly different role to provide leadership. He or she must formulate a clear vision expressed as objectives or goals for the agency since operational goals and objectives set priorities for members. The chief or sheriff must be able to coach commanders in developing innovative strategies and tactics to meet objectives. The leader must be able to accept failure and use it to modify or replace tactics rather than punish staff (unless serious incompetence is evidenced). The ability and willingness to reallocate resources, support creative solutions to problems, track progress, and integrate functions within the agency require relentless pressure gently applied, along with all the technical competencies described above.

  • Ensure that you know and understand the principles and program elements of CompStat before you implement the process. Do not rely on things you've heard or surface impressions of the process.
  • Be willing to refocus your leadership and think deeply about the results you want to achieve.
Where Does One Start?
Perhaps the single most important factor in the whole process is the ability to select specific objectives. The leader must know what he or she wants to achieve, what improvements citizens demand, and what targets will ultimately improve public safety.

A word of caution is necessary in establishing an outcome. Law enforcement measures are often stated as percentages for reduction. When a percentage is provided as a target, members will focus on meeting the percentage target only. They will look for easy routes to meeting the target, and once the target is achieved will stop pursuing the objective. By expressing an exact percentage the leader is establishing not an outcome but an output. Outputs are measures of productivity and not effectiveness. In other words, once a percentage target is introduced, creativity is narrowed and effectiveness set aside. Although this may appear as a minor detail in using words, the ultimate meaning conveyed is critical.

  • Based on crime data and citizen input, select three to five crime- or disorder-specific objectives to span a reasonable period of time, e.g., decrease in vandalism, auto theft, business burglaries, drug sales to juveniles, theft from autos.
  • Select objectives that are outcomes focusing on the crime and disorder issues to be addressed in a given area.
  • Do not express the reduction objective as a percentage.
Why Is Data Key to CompStat?
CompStat is a method for managing operations and leads to sound decisions for directing resources. Data can also be used for monitoring and tracking results and to hold upper level management accountable for outcomes.

Crime data identifies three problem areas. One problem is the so-called hot spot where criminal events are identified in a relatively small geographic area. The hot spot can have the same type of criminal offense repeatedly or several different types of offenses simultaneously. The common element is the geographic location.

The second problem area identified by crime data is the crime pattern in which a certain type of crime is committed in several areas and by the same person or persons. The common element of a pattern is the criminal offense occurring in several locations rather than in one hot spot.

The third is a crime trend, where crimes have certain characteristics in common. One example of a trend would be an increase in juvenile offenses such as vandalism, drug use, and after-school burglaries.

Engaging the CompStat process to develop and enact crime control strategies can help agencies of all sizes to address hot spots, patterns, and trends; CompStat is not just for big cities. When it comes to data applications, CompStat becomes a critical thought process.

What Are the Important Characteristics of Crime Data?
There are five characteristics of crime data that are most important to decisions makers:

  • Accuracy
  • Completeness
  • Availability

  • Timeliness
  • Visibility
The characteristics are arranged here in development order, but the actual use of the data by operational personnel occurs in reverse order. First, the data must be visible to provide a clear picture of the geographic area and trends. Ideally this is accomplished through a computerized system using electronic crime mapping, but it can be done using old-fashioned tools such as pins in street maps, flip charts, transparencies, and chalkboards.

The information must be timely; daily, real-time availability is preferred. Crime patterns and behaviors of offenders change rapidly, and if the police are responding swiftly and effectively, the patterns will also change quickly. To offset the changes, the police must have critical and timely information to allow for rapid adjustment of responses.

The volume of data, the availability of personnel, and the computer programming will dictate the crime data availability. In well equipped, well trained, and adequately staffed departments, a crime analyst can handle a high volume of data and provide information on hot spots, patterns, and trends almost instantaneously. In other departments, employees must compile and analyze data manually. The important factor is that the data is being compiled, analyzed, and reported to commanders and other members as quickly as possible.

In addition, the same information at the same time intervals must be shared with everyone involved. Failing to share complete information in a timely manner diminishes the accountability process and can give the impression that the purpose of CompStat is simply to get the commander in trouble. To be meaningful and usable, the data must thoroughly identify when, where, and how the crimes are occurring and who the suspects are. Incomplete data is not helpful. Although data begins with official crime reports, other sources need to be included. Bringing in data developed through calls for service, information from the public, field contact reports, debriefings of arrested persons, parole and probation records, other agencies' sources, informants, and citizen observations all help in developing a clear view of the crime problem in an area.

Accuracy of the data is essential. Checking and cross-referencing the data is time consuming, but it is the most basic and essential need to make CompStat work. For example, a call for service may come in to a 911 center as a citizen reporting a robbery. The actual investigation, however, reveals it is a burglary. The citizen may not know the difference in crime categories, but accuracy is essential to lead to the appropriate analysis of the data, and design the appropriate police response.

What’s More Important: Crime Problems or Geographic Areas?
Focusing on a specific crime problem within a defined geographic area provides the best results for several reasons. An important element in CompStat is fixing responsibility so that action will occur. Effective command imperative begins with full responsibility for a defined area and every issue within it 24 hours a day. When the patrol commander is responsible and has access to all other specialized units for support, strategies can be comprehensive and results are apparent.

In the past, a patrol commander was responsible for a geographic area but had separate and independent drug squads, robbery squads, or sexual assault squads operating in the same area. Often the traditional patrol commander did not know which unit, which offender, or what type of strategy was being employed. Each unit had separate objectives, separate accountability, and separate tactics and shared little information with each other or the patrol commander. Most often the patrol commander's responsibility was ensuring that calls for service were answered—a true silo organization with little impact. CompStat has shown that solving crime problems usually occurs by winning one street, one neighborhood, or one shopping center at a time. When the patrol commander is responsible for a geographic area, strategies can be comprehensive and address more than one issue or incident at a time.

  • Ensure that the patrol commander understands he or she is fully responsible for a geographic area.
  • Provide the patrol commander with sufficient support by all specialized units, government units, and other law enforcement agencies.
What Are the Primary Functions for Leadership?
CompStat cannot work if there is a lack of decisive and direct leadership. The leader of CompStat, be it the chief or other high-ranking official, must be able to redirect resources and make decisions without seeking approval from someone higher in rank. To be effective in this role, the leader must be highly skilled, motivated, capable and committed to analyzing data, and knowledgeable of every crime problem in the jurisdiction.

The CompStat leader must be capable of providing a role model to midlevel commanders by investing considerable time and energy in reviewing crime data, generating creative strategies and tactics, and thereby setting standards for others. When a CompStat leader knows more about a crime problem in a geographic area than the patrol commander, the lack of motivation or skill level of the commander becomes apparent and requires mediation and improvement.

Follow-up as to impact of a strategy or tactic is equally important. If a strategy is not working the response should not be criticism of the commander but an attempt to modify and change the strategy to obtain desired results.

Holding commanders accountable for implementing agreed-upon strategies and following up on the results clearly demonstrates an urgent concern on the part of the leader. This concern can spur a commander to action.

  • Ensure that the leader of the CompStat process has a high-energy interest in reducing crime problems and that this interest is communicated to commanders reporting to the leader.
  • Ensure that CompStat is not an effort to punish the commander and test his or her knowledge of specific statistics about an area. The CompStat leader needs to ensure that the patrol commander is using data, analyzing it correctly, and developing strategies to reallocate resources and solve the issue.
Is It Necessary to Hold CompStat Meetings?
CompStat meetings with the chief or sheriff in attendance must be held in order to send a clear message that crime control and reduction is the most important concern of the agency. It is during these meetings that critical decisions are reached. If the chief or sheriff does not conduct the meetings, the person running the meeting must be of sufficient rank to order the coordination of services to implement strategies. The important elements of a CompStat meeting include the items listed below.
  • Focus on crime problems only. CompStat is not the place for discussing policies, budget, or other management issues. The meeting must stay focused on crime problems in order to reinforce the priority of crime reduction for the agency.
  • Settle on well-designed strategies and tactics. CompStat is where creative and varied policing techniques are designed to address crime problems.
  • Ensure that all members in attendance have an opportunity to contribute their ideas toward the development of a strategy. This makes the meeting a problem-solving group rather than a session to ferret out malingerers and punish them.
  • Direct resources to the problem. The CompStat process makes it possible to coordinate departmental and external resources for greater effectiveness.
  • Review effectiveness of previously agreed-upon strategies. CompStat is where the impact of strategies and tactics previously applied are evaluated and the lessons learned are available to be implemented by others—the genuine learning organization.
  • Confrontation is not a necessary part of the meeting. CompStat is a place where communication occurs based on precise analysis of data for achieving outcomes. Confrontation should only be employed when a commander is negligent, recalcitrant, or totally ineffective for other reasons.
  • Maintain a regular meeting schedule. Meetings must occur on a regular schedule and the meetings must be frequent. This ensures that all members recognize the importance of the process. Regular meetings also allow for executives to track progress and identify failure for remediation.
  • Create an environment where members are encouraged to think outside of the box. CompStat pushes for innovative strategies and integrates department resources for greater impact. Department resources are no longer turfs to be protected but assets to be applied to solve problems. To solve the crime problem in a geographic area, all resources must be focused and personnel must have ownership in getting the problem solved. Needless to say, when agencies function using these principles staff satisfaction increases.
  • Recognize that the CompStat process requires a totally new approach to law enforcement.
What Is the Role of the City Administrator?
It is critical for the city administrator to know and understand the operations management approach and major strategies being employed by the police department. Through the city administrator, political buy-in of elected officials becomes possible. As the crime abatement process develops, other city services may be required for resolutions. In keeping with the basic principle of having decision makers involved to ensure rapid deployment and relentless follow-up, the informed city administrator will be better poised to support the redirection of city services when needed.

How Should the Public Be Involved?
The community will learn about the CompStat process through three sources: experiencing and observing more effective policing, comments by community leaders and elected and appointed government officials, and media reports. Of these, the most meaningful will be the actions by police in the streets. CompStat is a system designed to manage police operations to get results. It reconfigures the relationships between patrol, investigations, specialized units, and support units to focus the department's priorities on the most pressing crime problems affecting the quality of life of citizens. When CompStat is implemented correctly, results will be evident.

When explaining CompStat to the public, be it through official briefings to government officials and community leaders or the news media, the important message to deliver is that CompStat is an integration of police operations driven by scientific analysis of data to abate identified crime problems and community issues.

  • Plan carefully, train key personnel, and use all principles and program elements to ensure effective results.
  • Don't underestimate the preparation time either for the leader of the CompStat process or agency members.
How Does CompStat Relate to Community Policing?
CompStat, when applied correctly and effectively, strengthens community policing. Communities are critical resources for information, for the development of solutions to issues and crime problems, and for behaviors that will help reduce opportunities for perpetrators. CompStat will provide accountability for community policing activities, will ensure that all community activities have direction and application to solving problems, and will reinforce the need for commanders to complete their strategies by involving the community in their problem solving.
  • Ensure that all members recognize the importance of the participation of the community in the development of key strategies and the value of their community's contributions.
CompStat is a new method to manage police operations for greater effectiveness of law enforcement. Agencies that have studied the process, and achieved an understanding of the management principles involved, have had great success. ♦

NYPD CompStat Model Basic Principles

    The New York City Police Department uses crime data to identify and analyze crime problems, patterns, and trends and to engage department personnel at all levels in developing creative strategies and tactical responses to the identified problems. the following explains the four basic principles of the NYPD CompStat model.

Accurate and Timely Intelligence

    If the Police are to respond effectively to crime and to criminal events, officers at all levels of the organization must have accurate knowledge of wen particular types of crimes are occurring, how and where the crimes are being committed, and who the criminals are. The likelihood of an effective police response to crime increases proportionally as the accuracy of this criminal intelligence increases.

Effective Tactics

    Effective tactics are prudently designed to bring about the desired result of crime reduction, and these are developed after studying and analyzing the information gleaned from accurate and timely intelligence. In order to avoid merely displacing crime and quality-of-life problems, and in order to bring about permanent change, these tactics must be comprehensive, flexible, and adaptable to the shifting crime trends we identify and monitor.

Rapid Deployment of Personnel and Resources

    Once a tactical plan has been developed, an array of personnel and other necessary resources are promptly deployed. Although some tactical plans might involve only patrol personnel, experience has proven that the most effective plans require that personnel from several units and enforcement functions work together as a team to address the problem. A viable and comprehensive response to a crime or quality-of-life problem generally demands that patrol personnel, investigators, and support personnel bring their expertise and resources to bear in a coordinated effort.

Relentless Follow-up and Assessment

    As in any problem-solving endeavor, an ongoing process of rigorous follow-up and assessment is absolutely essential to ensure that the desired results are actually being achieved. This evaluation component also permits us to assess the viability of particular tactical responses and to incorporate the knowledge we gain in our subsequent tactics development efforts. By knowing how well a specific tactic worked on a particular crime or quality-of-life problem, and by knowing which specific elements of the tactical response worked most effectively, we are better able to construct and implement effective responses for similar problems in the future. The follow-up and assessment process also permits us to redeploy resource to meet newly identified challenges once a problem has abated.




From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 1, January 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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