Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Trouble with Compstat

by Robert Zink, PBA Recording Secretary

It was a great idea that has been corrupted by human nature. The Compstat program that made NYPD commanders accountable for controlling crime has degenerated into a situation where the police leadership presses subordinates to keep numbers low by any means necessary. The department’s middle managers will do anything to avoid being dragged onto the carpet at the weekly Compstat meetings. They are, by nature, ambitious people who lust for promotions, and rising crime rates won’t help anybody’s career.

The Compstat program was started when crime was at an all-time high, with over 2,000 homicides a year and countless felonies. The program called for the immediate tracking of crime, swift deployment of police resources to problem areas and what Compstat’s creator Jack Maple called relentless follow-up. The only problem is, it didn’t anticipate the “fudge factor.” That’s the characteristic that allows local commanders to make it look like crime has dropped when it has in fact increased.

In the early days, it was easy for a precinct commander to benefit from Compstat. He or she had crime-ridden neighborhoods where rudimentary policing techniques could bring crime down. Add the increased resources from the Safe Streets/Safe City program, and just paying attention to patterns and putting cops where crime was happening caused stats to fall dramatically. Then add to that the benefit of the gun control effort by the street-crime teams and we’ve made some real and honest impact on crime in New York City.

Of course, when you finally get a real handle on crime, you eventually hit a wall where you can’t push it down any more. Compstat does not recognize that wall so the commanders have to get “creative” to keep their numbers going down. No mayor or police commissioner wants to be the one holding the bag when crime starts climbing, and no precinct commander wants to be the one to deliver the bad news that he or she doesn’t have enough cops to do the job.

So how do you fake a crime decrease? It’s pretty simple. Don’t file reports, misclassify crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, under-value the property lost to crime so it’s not a felony, and report a series of crimes as a single event.

A particularly insidious way to fudge the numbers is to make it difficult or impossible for people to report crimes — in other words, make the victims feel like criminals so they walk away just to spare themselves further pain and suffering.

Some commanders even persecute the victims so they stop reporting crimes. In one case, it is alleged that a precinct commander shut down a fast food joint because the manager reported a grand larceny — someone stole a pocketbook. The precinct commander shut the place down for “an investigation” during lunch hour. Do you think the manager of that establishment, who relies on his lunchtime income, will ever report a crime again?

The truth is, there are over 5,000 fewer police officers on our streets than there were in 1999. And there is a lot more work to do because of the threat of terrorism. And all along, the bosses have been peddling phony numbers to make everybody feel safe. Our mayor likes to say that the NYPD has been doing more with less. Perception becomes reality. But when people are being put at risk and victimized due to ambitious managers, that’s unacceptable.

We’re asking every PBA member to share with their delegates the hard evidence of crimes being downgraded so we can save this department from itself.

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