By Peter C. Dodenhoff
After more than two decades of reporting on American law enforcement, and a lifetime of New York residence, one may be forgiven a bit of legitimate surprise at hearing words such as “rapid, “relentless,” “rigorous” and “coordinated” applied to the workings of the New York City Police Department. After all, in the past, the NYPD, with its Brobdingnagian ranks and often-Byzantine bureaucracy, has seemed about as easy to maneuver as an aircraft carrier, with orders filtering down from the bridge and taking many miles and much time to effect.
In other words, forget about turning or stopping on a dime.
Well, suspend all disbelief, because this aircraft carrier-sized police department has achieved a full-blown bureaucratic miracle, reinventing itself as speedy, highly maneuverable “task force” of dozens of smaller “ships” precincts and other field units which, acting as a coordinated whole, have realized the seemingly impossible dream of reducing crime in the Big Apple to a degree nothing short of eye-popping.
Simply put, no one in roughly a generation neither police officer nor civilian has seen the kinds of successes against crime that the NYPD has been chalking up for the past three years. The engine that is driving this formidable turn of events goes by the unassuming acronym of Compstat. What started as a computer file to compare statistics hence the name is now the all-purpose label for a strategic process that is steering the NYPD’s all-out, attention-getting war on crime, fear and disorder. It is a process that some believe will eventually be the dominant approach to policing in the United States, and has won for its creators and guiding hands the richly deserved accolade as the 1996 Law Enforcement News People of the Year.
The multifaceted Compstat process is perhaps best known to law enforcement insiders for its high-stress, semiweekly debriefing and brainstorming sessions at police headquarters, but it is far more. In fact, to assume that Compstat was merely some kind of executive inquisition would be to miss the point utterly. Compstat is enabling the NYPD to pinpoint and analyze crime patterns almost instantly, respond in the most appropriate manner, quickly shift personnel and other resources as needed, assess the impact and viability of anti-crime strategies, identify bright, up-and-coming individuals from deep within the ranks, and transform the organization more fluidly and more effectively than one would ever expect of such a huge police agency.
Moreover, Compstat has thrust the NYPD into a clear position of leadership on the cutting edge of national law enforcement.
For all that, a tip of the hat goes to former Police Commissioner William Bratton, current Commissioner Howard Safir, former deputy commissioner Jack Maple, Chief of Department Louis Anemone and, to be sure, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (the first-ever two-time recipient of LEN’s People-of-the-Year honors), who imbued the NYPD with the political will and support that made innovative crime reduction a top priority. In addition, dozens of other officials throughout the department, including the specialized Compstat unit that is part of Anemone’s office, have played key roles in the making of this law enforcement revolution.
Every revolution has its Boston Tea Party, and in a sense the Compstat revolution is no exception. That moment in time can be pinpointed as Giuliani’s election as Mayor in November 1993, and his appointment the following January of Commissioner Bratton, who took office with a vow to “fight for every house in the city…fight for every street…fight for every block, and we will win.” Even allowing for a touch of hyperbole in the new Commissioner’s remarks, the fact remains that Bratton, with the solid backing of Giuliani, the mob-busting former Federal prosecutor, established three clear-cut goals reduce crime significantly, reduce the fear of crime, and work on improving quality of life and then set out to achieve them.
“When Mayor Giuliani came into office, he refused to accept the assumption that existed here in New York City that it was ungovernable and crime was a fact of life,” said Commissioner Safir, the former U.S. Marshals’ Service official who replaced Bratton last April.
Bratton, a former Boston police commissioner, was not unfamiliar with the intricacies of crime-fighting in the Big Apple, having previously served 20 months as chief of the New York Transit Police. In that role he presided over a sharp turnaround in crime and disorder in the city’s subway system, and part of the secret to his success was an approach that he would later transfer to the NYPD, adapting and expanding it into what would become Compstat.
Bratton recalls: “The actual idea for Compstat, the embryo if you will, was Jack Maple,” who at the time was a lieutenant in the Transit Police. “At Transit, I would have a meeting every morning to go over all the crime stats from the day before by district where was it up, where was it down. Transit was fairly easy, with maybe 40, 50 crimes a day, and we’d do week-to-date, month-to-date. And when we began, we did not set a goal. Crime reduction was the goal, but there was no specific number.”
Upon taking the helm of the NYPD, Bratton, with Maple once again at his side, spelled out just what kind of crime reduction he had in mind 10 percent, which was as much as the cumulative decreases during the previous three years under commissioners Lee Brown and Raymond Kelly.
The stated goal, which has been raised higher still in subsequent years, clearly made some people uncomfortable, Bratton says. “We’d gotten out of the habit of being held accountable for crime rates going up or down. We were being excused for it, with society saying crime was caused by all these external factors, so the most police can do is measure how fast you respond to crime, how quickly you solve it, and the quality of your interaction with the public. Nobody was really measuring you by your ability to reduce crime; that was almost a by-product of everything you were doing.”
Compounding the problem of achieving Bratton’s goal was the fact that crime data were little better than useless for strategic purposes. The statistics that were collected were often woefully dated by the time they became available to headquarters. “When we asked how long it would take to get some daily crime stats,” Bratton recalls, “the answer was, ‘A couple months.’ It was all paper-and-pencil, and nobody was asking for information, nobody was coordinating it. They gathered crime statistics to report them to the FBI. What changed was the computerization.”
A parallel change was the emphasis on crime statistics and crime reduction as the NYPD’s “bottom line,” its “profit and loss statement.” Bratton is unabashedly fond of applying successful private-sector concepts and practices, and using business-speak to describe his law enforcement ideas. “Profit centers” the branches of a bank or the outlets of a fast-food chain are precincts in the context of the NYPD. Corporate line managers become precinct commanders. “Re-engineering” meant changing the department from a reactive entity that measured success by 911 response times, clearance rates and keeping overtime down into a proactive, goal-specific organization with a “can-do” confidence about fighting crime.
To this end, police officials set up 12 re-engineering teams, made up of people from both inside and outside the organization, that studied different aspects of the department and came up with more than 600 recommendations for improvement. And, with respect to the specific issue of driving crime down, Bratton & Co. developed the four-step process that is now the essence of Compstat and the guiding operational philosophy of the NYPD:
¶ Timely and accurate intelligence;
¶ Use of effective tactics in response to what that intelligence tells you;
¶ Rapid deployment of personnel and resources;
¶ Relentless follow-up and assessment.
All of these elements come together in the semi-weekly strategy sessions at police headquarters the Compstat meetings [see sidebar, Page 5]. But the Compstat process has also proven itself to be more than a wildly successful crime-fighting tool. For one thing, the Compstat meetings give top brass an opportunity to identify emerging leaders from within the management ranks no easy task in an organization the size of the NYPD.
“It gives me the flexibility to manage our resources, and to actually hold people accountable for what they do,” says Commissioner Safir. “It gives me the ability to see who’s competent, who’s energetic, who’s productive. There’s nothing magic about the ingredients. What’s magic is how it all comes to together.”
Holding managers accountable represents something of a sea change in the NYPD, and as much a facet of Compstat’s success as the crime reductions themselves. Commanders had long been led to believe that crime reduction was largely out of police hands, and success was measured by numbers that had little or nothing to do with crime rates, all of which contributed to an organizational culture that tended toward lethargic and non-goal-specific.
Bratton would have none of it. Virtually from day one, “he forced the retirement of a lot of dead wood,” according to Phyllis McDonald, a senior social scientist at the National Institute of Justice who is involved in replications of Compstat in two other jurisdictions. Most of the current crop of precinct commanders, in fact, are relatively new to their posts, having been appointed within the past few years.
“Bratton can be a very compelling leader,” McDonald observes. “He communicates to people that he has confidence in their abilities.”
The former Commissioner sees other reasons for holding managers accountable. “I’m giving away a lot of authority to appropriate levels in the organization,” says Bratton, and I’m going to hold you accountable for that authority. I’m going to measure how well you use it.”
Redistribution of authority, or empowerment, is nothing new in policing, or unique to the NYPD, having sprung up in departments nationwide as part of the focus on community policing over the past decade. What makes things different in New York is the way in which authority is apportioned.
“What the re-engineering showed us in the NYPD was that the appropriate level in the organization was not the beat cop but the precinct commander,” Bratton notes. “So if you wanted to turn that aircraft carrier and that task force more quickly, the best way to do it was to get all those captains of all those ships involved. We empower beat cops to a degree, but the person who needs to be given power is the precinct commander, and then through Compstat you ensure that everybody else who’s essential to his success, the rest of the crew, is there with him, so that he’s not left out there on his own.”
The crew, as it were, includes not just subordinates, but players at all ranks and in all sectors of the department. Compstat and the accompanying re-engineering of the department have resulted in a de facto “flattening” of the bureaucracy, with geographic rather than functional responsibility now the norm.
“The way police worked in the past,” says Bratton, “the Detective Bureau didn’t talk to uniforms, specialty units didn’t talk to anybody. When the average police commander went to a community meeting, people would complain about drugs, about prostitution, about quality-of-life issues. But the commander had no control over drug units, he had no control over vice units. He’d send a request on up through the bureau chief, the chief of patrol, the chief of department, who would then send it back down through the organized crime chief, the vice unit or the drug unit. Meanwhile the commander is out there every night of the week getting his head handed to him by the community. But he didn’t control those resources.”
Not anymore. The Compstat process and the re-engineered NYPD are pointing the way to a new perspective on community policing, and demonstrating that a community orientation is not incompatible with aggressive, focused law enforcement. Safir calls the new approach “goal-oriented community policing.”
“We do community policing,” the Commissioner observes, “but it’s not the only thing we do. Community policing officers are not the most effective way to deal with crime. They’re the most effective way to make a community feel good, but there are lots of other ways to deal with crime while still using community policing officers.
“You have to be able to be flexible; you can’t say that the only way to reduce crime is to have a cop who knows everybody in the neighborhood and that’s the only way to do it. That’s important, but it’s not the end. There are lots of major cities in the United States that follow that philosophy strictly, and they have incredible crime.”
Perhaps that’s why other cities are taking notice of what’s going on in New York. True, the Compstat process bears a passing resemblance to the SARA approach to problem-oriented policing scanning, analysis, response and assessment but, says Bratton, “nobody has done it as effectively as we’ve done it in New York.”
To date, police officials from a number of jurisdictions have made pilgrimages to 1 Police Plaza in New York to see Compstat in action. Full-blown replications are already underway in Indianapolis and Prince George’s County, Md. Mayor Alex Penelas of Metro Dade County, Fla., which includes Miami, met in November with Mayor Giuliani and Commissioner Safir and came away convinced that “there’s a lot of good things that could apply” in Dade, including New York’s crackdown on quality-of-life offenses and the pervasive use of computerized crime-data tracking. Even police agencies in England have been calling.
Two cities whose police forces have chronically needed all the help they can get are also giving Compstat a serious look. Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry sat in on a Compstat meeting in November and promptly returned to his crime-plagued city to begin trying a similar approach in the nation’s capital, including a public grilling TV cameras and all of police commanders about crime patterns.
New Orleans has gone a step further, importing two of the chief architects of the Compstat process to try their hand at turning around a crime-ridden city and its often corrupt, often brutal, notoriously inefficient police force.
Jack Maple, the former New York deputy police commissioner, and John Linder, who was a private consultant to Bratton, are now partners in a consulting firm, the Linder Maple Group, and they are currently implementing a plan that includes New York-style grilling of commanders and, in a wrinkle that Maple says does the NYPD one better, almost totally decentralizing the city’s detectives.
The voluble, sartorially resplendent Maple has no doubts that Compstat, which he considers to be his baby, will work in the Big Easy just as it did in the Big Apple.
“This could be adopted anywhere in the world,” he asserts. “And I would be very happy to demonstrate that anywhere, against anyone who thinks they can do any differently. They can take half the city, and John Linder and I will take the other half of the city. We’ll do it the Compstat way, and we’ll see what happens. John would do the cultural diagnostics to see what buttons to push to change the culture of the organization, and then Compstat drives it home.”
A key variable in adopting Compstat, according to Maple, is the dynamics of leadership. “An organization takes on the characteristics of the leader,” he notes, “and if the leaders take on this posture, this will change not only policing in America, this will change the crime picture in America. If every police department were modeled on this process, murders would be cut in half in this country.”
Looking at Washington, D.C., Maple observes: “They have 550,000 people and around 3,600 cops. If those cops were properly deployed, it would be a ground ball to cut crime by 50 percent immediately.”
To some observers, the dynamics of political leadership are just as important a factor as police leadership. “Political backing certainly makes things easier,” notes McDonald.
Safir is even more insistent. “If you don’t have a chief executive to make sure you have the resources and the support to do your job, it’s not going to work,” he states. “You need is a governmental cultural change, and that’s what happened here in 1994 when Mayor Giuliani came into office. Compstat is a very smart and effective tool, but it only works in the right environment. You have to be willing to do courageous things, which the Mayor has enabled the Police Department to do.”
Most agree Compstat has the potential to become the dominant mode of policing in America. After all, who could argue with a process that has driven murder rates down by more than 50 percent in a few short years, and has made similarly sharp cuts in other major crimes? The Ford Foundation and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government liked what they saw, choosing the NYPD and Compstat as one of the winners of the 1996 Innovations in Government award.
Eli Silverman, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied Compstat and the NYPD’s re-engineering efforts extensively, is also a believer.
“CompStat is a many-splendored thing,” notes Silverman. “Its beauty lies in its diversity. What started out as an informational need to know crime stats has expanded into a multi-functional vessel far beyond the goal of command accountability. As a management tool, it has extended beyond crime fighting; it is now a vehicle for planning, evaluation and coordination. The story of CompStat is the story of evolution.”
Still, can it survive over the long term in New York, where political expediency has been known to drive crime strategy in the past? Some say that’s a no-brainer.
“The redefinition of the roles and functions of senior staff has made it impossible to go back to the old ways,” McDonald notes. And Maple sees a personality factor at work. “If it weren’t for Lou Anemone, Compstat wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. Chief [Joseph] Dunne, [Deputy Commissioner] Ed Norris and Anemone are the future of Compstat,” he says.
Bratton puts it simply: “We’ve changed course, and the course will be changed for all time.”
What’s on the grill?
In New York, it’s police commanders
“Stress” is often seen as somewhat of a dirty word, as in “You need less stress in your life,” or “I’m all stressed out today.” But most experts on the subjects will readily concede that stress can in fact be a healthy, even necessary condition for an organism.
So, too, for an organization, and the high-stress Compstat debriefings held at New York City police headquarters twice a week are no exception. No one denies that they subject commanders to thorough scrutiny from superiors and peers alike, but the bottom line is that the intensive strategy sessions are a key element of the city’s health and well-being when it comes to controlling crime and disorder.
The sessions today are a far cry in some respects from the way they began in early 1994, when Jack Maple, then the deputy commissioner for crime control strategies, and then-Chief of Patrol Louis Anemone held the first sessions in the headquarters press room. The flip charts and pin maps lacking such basics as plastic overlays that were used at the time to show crime patterns and hot spots seem primitive compared to the displays that are now shown on a huge, computer-linked video projection screen.
One thing has remained constant, however, and that’s the intensity with which field commanders are grilled about crime reduction every Wednesday and Friday at 7 A.M. Another constant is the guiding hand, if you will, of Anemone, now Chief of Department, the NYPD’s top uniformed cop. The debriefing and questioning at the sessions allow what Anemone calls “immediate accountability” of commanders and, as difficult as it might seem in an organization of nearly 45,000 sworn and civilian personnel, provide the police brass with a regular, in-depth look at all aspects of the department’s anti-crime operations.
Too Stressful? Too Bad
“As much as you hear grousing from some people about how hard it is, how stressful it is, well, too bad,” said former Commissioner William Bratton. “Life is stressful. Crime is certainly stressful. If you as a police professional, a police commander, cannot deal with the stresses in the Command Center, talking with your peers about crime, how are you going to be out in the field?”
Compstat meetings encapsulate, at various points and to varying degrees, the NYPD’s four-step crime-control approach: timely, accurate intelligence (“clearly communicated to all,” Maple emphasizes); rapid deployment; effective tactics, and relentless follow-up and assessment.
Intelligence is where it all begins, and the reports that are generated by Anemone’s Compstat Unit are as deep in detail as they are broad in scope. The statistical profiles for each precinct and borough command offer nitty-gritty assessments of crime complaints, shooting incidents, gun and drug arrests, summons activity, integrity control efforts and a variety of demographic information, such as the precinct’s population breakdown, personnel complement, and a profile of the precinct’s commanding officer. The details offered in each weekly report should be enough to convince any commander that faking it at a Compstat meeting is simply out of the question.
It’s show time,” Bratton says of the Compstat meetings. “It’s an opportunity to appear on Broadway, a tryout. A lot of people succeed, and a lot don’t.”
Those who don’t measure up to Compstat demands perhaps because they lack planning, motivational or leadership skills are often reassigned to other, less taxing duties. On the other hand, those who do succeed may find themselves destined for greater things in the department like Joseph Dunne, who was a deputy inspector in the 75th Precinct and is now an assistant chief in charge of the Brooklyn North Strategic and Tactical Command.
“Joe’s star literally shown in the Compstat process,” Bratton remembers. “He’d get up, he was knowledgeable, his people were working as a team. It’s amazing what you see in that setting in terms of the skills of people.”
Not Lonely at the Top
The Compstat sessions which are open to outsiders, including prosecutors, probation officials, school security personnel and others who may wish to contribute or observe are undeniably intense, but it’s not as though precinct commanders are left to fend for themselves in that setting. That would be the old way of conducting business. Instead, right there in the room with the precinct boss is the borough commander, the detective squad commander, the robbery squad commander, the drug commander for that area in short, just about anyone with responsibility for crime reduction in that area. “It’s a true team approach,” says Bratton.
The all-hands-on-deck approach to strategizing is more than just smart crime-fighting. Anemone points to an increased sophistication in running Compstat meetings that has gone hand-in-glove with growth in computer capabilities. As he told a nationwide audience of police chiefs last fall, “Along with identifying problems has come brokering solutions designing tactics, allocating resources, ensuring cross-bureau cooperation on the spot.”
Add to that the element of “relentless follow-up” and you have one more reason for a precinct commander to break a sweat in an air-conditioned room. Strategies and resource allocations are deconstructed, re-examined and reconfigured with a degree of speed and flexibility that helps to ensure that ill-advised efforts are jettisoned and good ideas become better ones. An idea didn’t work? Why not, captain? Another idea generated big-time results? A high-level “attaboy” and a round of applause are not out of the question.
The nature of the Compstat meetings ensures that field commanders will not feel helpless in the face of complex problems that cross precinct boundaries or that require integrated approaches involving a variety of different units. The very colleagues whose input and assistance could resolve a given problem are in the room as well, and all parties concerned are expected to be coordinating their efforts long before they arrive at headquarters, through “mini-Compstat” sessions convened by the borough commanders.
If the precinct and borough commanders need a small measure of comfort in the face of Compstat-generated stresses, perhaps it lies in the fact that the Police Commissioner has his own weekly briefing session with his boss, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a seasoned crime-fighter himself. Everyone, then, from platoon sergeants in the precincts all the way up to the Commissioner, is getting some taste of the same Compstat medicine.