By Eli B. Silverman
In the last three years, New York City has experienced the most dramatic decline in crime in the nation. Since 1994, the homicide rate has dropped by more than 50 percent; rape, over 8 percent; robbery, over 40 percent, felonious assault, over 25 percent; burglary, 37 percent; grand larceny, over 31 percent; grand larceny autos, over 45 percent.
Simply stated, New York is, to a large extent, the engine that is driving the nation’s downturn in crime. For example, serious crimes throughout the country decreased by 1 percent in the first six months of 1995, compared with the same period one year earlier. In New York City, the drop was over 16 percent during the same period part of an ongoing decline that has brought the city to its lowest levels of crime since the early 1970s. During 1994, the overall New York City crime decline was 12 percent for 1994, compared to 2 percent nationally, and 17 percent for 1995. According to FBI statistics, New York accounted for 61 percent of the nationwide decline in felonies during the first six months of 1995.
Looking at just the murder rate, one finds a dramatic decline from a total of over 2,200 in 1990 to about 1,500 in 1994 and 1,200 in 1995. The decrease has continued into 1996, with murder plummeting over 10 percent during the first six months compared with the same period in 1995. Based on these trends, the year-end murder total could dip below 1,000, the first time it would have dropped this low in more than 25 years.
And, in perhaps the most unanticipated result throughout most of this period, one finds that the decline in crime occurred in every police precinct in the city, debunking the theory that police can only displace crime from one area to another.
How does one explain this apparent reluctance, with a few notable exceptions, to acknowledge the substantial impact of reorganized police management, precise, targeted strategies and rapid deployment based on reliable and timely crime data? The explanation may lie in previous research that has advanced three predominant themes.
The first theme holds that traditional police practices have little impact on crime. The academic community’s focus on a host of external factors has contributed to a diminished view of the role of the police in crime reduction. During periods of increasing crime rates, research has pointedly and repeatedly stressed the force of economic, demographic and political conditions. The scholar David Bayley recently asserted that crime rates in large cities can be predicted accurately 80 percent to 90 percent of the time when one takes into account such economic and social factors as income, unemployment, education, prevalence of minorities households headed by single women, household size and home ownership.
The second theme is that police ought to change their ways and do things differently. This requires radical reforms: from reactive, incident-driven, police-based crime responses to more coherent organizations that work in concert, not at cross-purposes; where generalist police officers and specialist units, such as detectives, do not work in isolation from one another and the community; where organizational decisions are made at the level where they will be most effective; where accurate and timely information is gathered systematically, merged with forethought, insight and collective wisdom, and used to diagnose problems by types and patterns, rather then viewed as discrete, random isolated incidents.
The third principal theme has posited that these types of police reforms have been historically frustrated by inherent bureaucratic resistance and a wide range of barriers. Scholars have long commented on the insularity, defensiveness and lack of receptivity to change within police organizations. Such resistance is fueled by organizational rigidity, occupational role assignments and the distinctive nature of the police job. These obstacles, it has been maintained, have prevented police forces from refocusing and reorganizing themselves, their values and their missions, and thus have hindered redeployment and proper matching of resources with crime patterns.
Despite the utter lack of demonstrable evidence of dramatic socioeconomic changes in New York City during these past three years, the social science response to police claims has been “show us evidence of fundamental police changes that correspond with the steep drop in crime.” Yet this academic response is in the face of analyses such as that offered earlier this year by the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, which concluded: “In sum, decreased crime reporting, demographic changes, developments in the drug trade, national trends or the local economy do not appear to offer adequate explanations for the recent decreases in crime in New York City.”
Perhaps those who discard the immense importance of the role of the police subscribe to a kind of criminal justice “big bang” theory that an impromptu, unpredictable, undocumented constellation of unknown forces suddenly emerged and conspired to drive New York City’s crime down at an unprecedented rate. Yet this approach appears to stretch credibility far more than the connection between the simultaneous drop in crime and fundamental police changes during the past three years.
This research has revealed that the New York City Police Department, in the last three years, has continued to demonstrate the capacity for fundamental change in its strategic, managerial and organizational approaches. These changes constitute a revolution of significant and monumental proportions. The most striking similarity between New York City policing today and prior to 1994 is the word policing itself everything else is worlds apart. Those who hold that “policing is policing,” and hence has limited impact on crime, are not aware of the underlying policing changes in the NYPD. More than any societal factors, these pivotal police changes provide the explanation for the city’s dramatic decline in crime.
This revolution in policing is a product of revised thinking of police ends and means; a willingness to draw upon and expand previous department approaches such as problem-solving, decentralization, quality-of-life concerns, and the civil enforcement initiative (especially the nuisance-abatement law, police-padlock law and various forfeiture proceedings); an eagerness to raise questions about existing obstacles, and a commitment and willingness to operationalize innovative strategies, decision-making processes and organizational arrangements.
The primary underpinning of change was a mindset that consisted of transformed objectives as to what the police should and could accomplish, and a belief, desire and commitment to fundamentally recast police strategies and organizational responsibilities to accomplish these objectives.
In regard to the role and mission of the police, the new bearings can be discerned by analyzing such factors as: the city’s 1993 mayoral campaign; his selection of a new Police Commissioner; the Mayor’s and Commissioner’s perceptions and perspectives on previous and current change efforts; earlier law enforcement actions such as the Harlem mosque and Korean boycott incidents; and early police commitment to detailed crime reduction targets and strategies. From this inquiry, what emerges is a fundamental change in perspective and orientation that posits a clear desire to focus more specifically on particular types of crimes. This contrasts sharply with previous police orientations and concerns such as minimizing scandals, maintaining community well-being and preserving a low police profile.
Several early occurrences and actions stand out as watershed events in revamping police approaches and strategies. One of the Commissioner’s first orders was to direct top-level bureau chief personnel to submit crime reduction plans for their areas of responsibilities. Then, by the end of January 1994, the Commissioner’s first month in office, the First Deputy Commissioner, the Chief of Patrol, the Chief of the Organized Crime Control Bureau, the Chief of Detectives, the Deputy Commissioner for Community Affairs and several other top officials all retired and were replaced by individuals with reputations for being aggressive risk-takers. This represents an early and swift replacement of personnel (certainly when compared with previous police commissioners) by a commissioner who prided himself on change. In addition, more than two-thirds of the city’s 76 precinct commanders were replaced during the Commissioner’s first year.
Similarly, a number of significant policy changes were also announced by the end of the first month of the new commissioner’s tenure. For example, some of the responsibilities of OCCB, which is charged with handling drug enforcement, auto theft and public morals, were transferred to borough commanders and precinct commanders. In addition, movement was made to integrate detective squads more closely with precinct commanders.
The overhaul of the department could not, of course, proceed solely with the enlistment of new leaders and adoption of new goals. To use the lexicon of organizational change (as the department often did), it was important to engage a “critical mass” of the organization. Two major vehicles were crucial to this process. They were: 1) the use of focus groups; and 2) re-engineering committees and reports. Their impact as agents for change can best be appreciated in the context of the well-documented difficulty of previous reform efforts undertaken by the NYPD.
Changing the rules
The 12 re-engineering documents and subsequent department changes would center on the devolution of decision-making authority, the matching of resources with problems, and a shift from decision-making based on functional specialization to one based on geographic authority.
One key report, the “precinct organization” document, presents plans to streamline the lines of communication and authority within each precinct by changing the organizational structure of the precinct to geographically based teams that operate in defined precinct areas supported by precinct-wide special resources, replacing incident-based strategies with problem-solving strategies to attack precinct crime and quality-of-life problems, and changing the methods of accountability for all personnel in the precinct by measuring results as well as efforts.
Similar themes emerge in the “geographic vs. function” report, which stresses streamlining the lines of authority and placing “resources closer to the point of impact at the delivery level,” with a concurrent increase in levels of accountability, this time on a department-wide basis. The ultimate goals were to significantly reduce crime, fear of crime and disorder. The report recommends that precinct commanders be allocated the resources and latitude of deployment necessary to address precinct conditions. The document also urged revisions in department guidelines that limited the total number of precinct personnel assigned to anti-crime units, Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit, duty or special posts, and community beats.
Changes in decision-making have been as dramatic as they have been unprecedented. Traditionally, police headquarters was perceived at the nerve center of the department’s decision-making apparatus, with very limited input from field commands. As geography became more important than functional specialization, there was a recognition, for example, that the incidence of drugs and guns often occurred in overlapping geographic patterns. The problem-solving approach has resulted in the initial replacement of specialized drug units with Strategic Narcotics and Gun (SNAG) teams, which investigate situations involving both types of criminal activities. Today, more sophisticated integration of specialist and generalist is occurring.
In some cases, existing data bases had to be expanded, as happened with NITRO (Narcotics Investigative Tracking of Recidivist Offenders), a data base designed to track career felony drug offenders. The expansion was aimed at encouraging detectives, narcotics officers, patrol officers and other precinct units to share in the collection and retrieval of intelligence information previously unavailable to precinct-level personnel or, at best, difficult to obtain.
Greater access to information was also achieved through mandated referral from one specialty unit to another, improved cooperation with outside Federal, state and city agencies, and, quite simply, more thorough analysis and quicker, more effective dissemination.
Putting it all together: The Compstat process
Compstat began to evolve in early 1994 when, after changes in the leadership of many of the NYPD’s bureaus, disturbing information emerged. It appeared that the NYPD did not know most of its own current crime statistics, and there was a time lag of three to six months in its statistical reporting methods. Upon learning this, the department made a concerted effort to generate crime activity data on a weekly basis.
Compstat was originally a document, referred to as the “Compstat book,” which included current year-to-date statistics for criminal complaints, arrests for major felony categories and gun violations, compiled on a citywide, patrol borough and precinct basis. The initial versions of the Compstat book, which improved steadily over time with regard to overall sophistication and degree of detail, developed from a computer file called Compare Stats hence, Compstat.
The transformation of Compstat into a new mechanism for change first became evident in April 1994, when a monthly, borough-wide meeting on robberies was converted into the forerunner of the regular crime-strategy sessions that are now conducted at Police Headquarters (the Compstat meetings). The aim was to forge a link between the crime strategies and the increased power and accountability assigned to the precinct commanders.
It was vital for all levels of the department to have ready access to information concerning crime incident locations. The department developed and required all precincts to maintain pin maps, and cover them with acetate overlays for each of the major Index crimes. These maps were then required to be produced at all Compstat meetings so that a meaningful dialogue could take place. The Compstat mapping capability of headquarters units also improved with each successive week, as pin maps and acetate overlays ultimately gave way to sophisticated computer-generated maps addressing a seemingly unlimited variety of details, all the while enhancing the department crime-fighting abilities.
As with other departmental changes, Compstat is still evolving and improving. What was once an source of timely and relevant crime statistics has become a mechanism for planning, coordination and evaluation.
Compstat, through the weekly headquarters meetings, provides the dynamics for precinct and borough accountability, and an arena for testing the mettle of field commanders. As a management tool, Compstat melds upgraded quantitative information on crime locations and times with police deployment arrangements and qualitative quality-of-life information. Precinct problem-solving can be weighed against available resources, and the responsibilities, information-sharing and interaction of different department units can be gauged.
The crucial role of the Compstat process in crime-strategy meetings is reinforced by the first-time gathering of multiple sources of information by a single departmental unit for display before all key organizational members at a meeting devoted solely to fighting crime. In addition, Compstat enables the department to evaluate the enforcement rigor and effectiveness of its crime strategies, such as the nature of detective debriefing of arrestees and search for all accomplices, and provides enhanced opportunities for greater coordination with other criminal justice agencies.
Smart policing makes a difference
Behind all these NYPD changes is a keen recognition of the pivotal role of information. Vital information is to a police organization what healthy food is to an individual. Without it, the organism becomes anemic. This police organization has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to experiment with various organizational, managerial and strategic arrangements to retrieve, organize, disseminate, share and act on information. This is reflected in the large increase in quality-of-life and drug-crime enforcement in all precincts, and the flexibility, anticipation and rapid response to problems through attention to gangs, social clubs, crime hot-spots and seasonal fluctuations like summer and Christmas holiday crime.
Perhaps even more striking, though, the New York City Police Department has manifested encouraging signs of what organizational theorists refer to as double-loop organizational learning. Single-loop learning, the predominant mode, occurs when the detection and correction of error enables the organization to continue with its present policies or achieve its present objectives. Double-loop learning, on the other hand, is rarer and more fundamental since it involves questioning basic operating assumptions, entertaining disparate approaches, and experimenting with various arrangements. In this sense, the NYPD is a healthy organization in competition with itself. It has permitted, perhaps even encouraged, unconventional organizational, structural and managerial patterns focused on similar problems. This is evidenced, for example, by the competing organizational and managerial arrangements devoted to different major anti-drug efforts in the Brooklyn North area and Washington Heights illustrative of what analysts refer to as organizations that reinvent themselves managerially as well as structurally. This approach is rare among large organizations, to say nothing of large police organizations.
By probing even deeper, one finds that some of these new strategies and managerial arrangements can be traced back to early 1994 when police personnel submitted concept papers to various re-engineering committees. The fact that so many of these ideas have recently emerged into practice in various commands is an encouraging sign of the department’s recognition that future crime-fighting efforts are contingent on continuous organizational renewal, problem solving, and learning.
Eli B. Silverman, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the author of the forthcoming book “985 Homicides: Policing New York City” (Northeastern University Press).