Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The crime game. Can a fancy computer really cut evil-doing?

The crime game
Can a fancy computer really cut evil-doing?

Sat May 27 2006

George Stephenson

Rudy Giuliani claims he has figured out how to cut crime in big cities.
FOR all the self-promoted sturm und drang of the media, too many in the craft accept too much without question. They are not as immune from conventional wisdom and urban myths as they would like to believe.

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You see it often. Auditors-general reports are treated like sermons from the mount, beyond the criticism of mere mortals. Every aboriginal kid who went to a residential school is depicted as a "victim" or "survivor." There is no shading in such pictures, just black and white, good and evil.

Such is the case with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his blink-long visit to Winnipeg recently. Most of the media, and politicians like Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz, soaked up all the crime-fighting claims Giuliani made at the recent city summit here. And nary was heard a discouraging word.

And, really, who cares? A potential candidate for the U.S. presidency comes to town, brags about his record and leaves in a cloud of dust. No harm no foul; turn the page.

Now, however, Sam Katz is using Giuliani's claims as the basis for public policy in Winnipeg and, again, the media are complicit in promoting an agenda around which there are a lot of questions nobody has bothered to ask.

While in Winnipeg, Giuliani said a key element in the decline in the crime rate in New York in the 1990s was a management and computer system called CompStat, promoted by himself and his police commissioner William Bratton.
Katz was so thrilled with this revelation that he now wants the Winnipeg Police Service to implement the system. The bottom line, apparently, is that the system will do for Winnipeg what it supposedly did for New York and other cities: cut the crime rate.

The question then is whether the system played a central role in cutting crime in New York. Since the late 1990s conventional wisdom told us that Giuliani's tough guy approach to crime and implementation of CompStat in 1994 cut the New York crime rate by more than 60 per cent.

Wayne Barrett, a senior editor of the Village Voice in New York and author of the book Rudy, says what Giuliani really managed to do is "mug the media into accepting as fact that he is the man who caused it to happen."

In fact, crime peaked in New York, and across North America, in 1990 and there were 36 months of declines preceding the election of Rudolph Giuliani and the implementation of CompStat.

"The only real claim that Rudy Giuliani can make to a legacy at all is in the crime statistics," says Barrett, "and they have been miserably manipulated."

For example, he points out that under Giuliani the rate for attempted forced burglary dropped by a whopping 90 per cent. This seems startling until one realizes police at one time went out to investigate attempted burglaries, but now victims have to go to the precinct to report them. People just don't bother.

And CompStat is very much about statistics.

The system compiles statistics on selected types of crime on a daily basis, giving police a quick view of where crime is occurring. In most departments these statistics are then used by management to hold district commanders accountable for taking action in their areas of the city.
While the statistical element of CompStat gets all the publicity, it is the accountability aspect that may make it more worthwhile.

Indeed, an in-depth analysis of three departments by the American Police Foundation found the system to be of benefit in making more middle-managers accountable, but was limited in its ability to fight crime.

"CompStat at these sites (Minneapolis, Newark and Lowell) did markedly energize middle managers to do something about crime, but in many respects, the pattern that evolved mimicked the reactive forms of policing.

"CompStat seemed to engender a pattern of organizational response to crime spikes in hot spots that was analogous to the Whack-a-Mole game found at fairs and carnivals. Moles pop up randomly from holes in the game board and the object of the game is to whack them with a paddle before they submerge. A premium is placed on responding quickly rather than (trying) to discern patterns.

"The pressure to act decisively and nip hot spots in the bud may be an improvement over prior practice, but it does not conform to more ambitious notions of how police can use data effectively to ascertain the bigger picture and act proactively to get at underlying problems."

As for cutting crime, that remains an open question.

Stephen Mastrofski, one of the study's authors and director of the administration of justice program at George Mason University in Virginia, says there is little evidence to support the claim that the system cuts crime rates.

"The evidence isn't terribly strong one way or the other."

He too points out that crime rates were dropping for years before the creation of CompStat. But the unquestioning swirl of publicity around dropping rates of crime in New York has been a major contributor to more than half the police forces in the United States implementing CompStat or similar programs. A report on the growth of CompStat, also done for the Police Foundation, says a prime motivator was the desire to reduce rates of serious crime, as had been supposedly done in New York.
And while that was a key reason, not all departments have met with success. The slide in crime in some cities that have been using CompStat has bottomed out, and even risen in some areas.

For the most part, though, cities which have adopted the system say it has helped reduce crime in their streets. But police departments aren't the most objective voices when it comes to questioning the value of toys it buys for crime busting.

Mastrofski says such claims come from a look at the numbers, but when crime begins to fall, there are many reasons, many of which we probably are not even aware. CompStat is not the magic bullet.

Indeed, when crime was dropping in Seattle far faster than it was in New York, the police commissioner there was asked what was causing the decline.

"We have no idea," he replied.

Needless to say, the commissioner is not being touted as a possible presidential candidate, giving speeches to Winnipeg audiences or dragging along an adoring train of media.

George Stephenson is a Winnipeg writer.

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