In Praise of 311 - Compstat Continued

09.30.2005 | Harry Siegel | Urban Affairs

When Rudolph Giuliani was first elected mayor of New York City in 1993, the nation’s best and brightest, including most city dwellers, had written off urban America.

After the Los Angeles and Crown Heights riots in 1992, it was generally taken for granted that the inner city was no longer controllable and that residents of inner cities could not be held to the same standards as society at large. More than two thousand New Yorkers were murdered in 1990, an all-time high, and forty children were killed by stray gunfire in the first six months of the year alone.

34.gifAnd where were the police when all this was going on? Largely confined to their patrol cars, they merely responded to crimes that had already occurred. And many “victimless crimes” didn’t even merit their response. The “no car radio” signs on people’s windshields – notes written from residents directly to the city’s thugs – emphasized how small a role the police were playing. And the future seemed certain to offer more of the same.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, long one of New York’s wise men, feared that the illegitimacy rate rendered law enforcement an exercise in futility, counseling that “the out-of-wedlock ratio in New York City today [tells us] what the situation of teenagers in high school will be in sixteen years’ time … the next two decades are spoken for…. There is nothing you’ll do of any consequence, except start the process of change. Don’t expect it to take less than thirty years.” And no one expected that a change in New York’s leadership would alter the situation. George Will spoke for many conservatives when he dismissed Giuliani’s election as “irrelevant.” The idea that a bloated government bureaucracy – no matter who was in charge – could produce a drop of innovation or creativity seemed laughable.

Looking back, it seems more than a little surprising that a country that prides itself on innovation – our Founding Fathers were nothing if not creative – and a city that has been at the center of intellectual, business, and cultural life for so long, could have given up looking for creative solutions to its problems so quickly. Indeed, it seems the critics spoke too soon. Now, less than fifteen years after these depressing pronouncements, crime in New York is at a forty-year low, and such despair seems unthinkable as one walks through the growing number of safe, vibrant, and increasingly wealthy neighborhoods all over the city.

How this change occurred is the story not of one man’s totalitarian control of the city – as Giuliani’s administration was sometimes portrayed – but rather of a set of new ideas about urban government, and the people, the environment, and the technology that made their implementation possible. Now these new ideas are being carried over into almost every facet of city life, so that fifteen years hence we may recall the triumph over crime as only the beginning of a new way of looking at and managing cities.

The first of these ideas, now well-known, is the “broken windows” theory, originally put forth by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson in the Atlantic, which argued that by stopping the small crimes that had long been effectively decriminalized police could take the felons off the streets and undo the disorder – the broken windows – at the same time. The idea of cracking down on squeegee men (who wiped windshields of cars stopped at traffic lights and then demanded payment from drivers) and fare-beaters in the subways was mocked at the time. Why bother with minor infractions when muggers and murderers were running free? But when it turned out that nearly one in six fare-beaters was either carrying a weapon or was wanted on an outstanding warrant, the new administration knew it was on the right track.

Once the lowest-hanging fruit had been effectively picked, that is, once the most brazen or stupid criminals had been caught, the administration began to explore other ideas for controlling crime. They began with looking at the crime statistics. Police Commissioner William Bratton recalls, “As far as the department had been concerned, statistics were not for use in combating crime, they were only for keeping score at the end of the year. Even then, the only statistics they paid attention to were the robberies. But even that was smoke and mirrors…. Nobody used them for anything.” But suddenly, the same numbers that police officers, city councilmen, mayors, and reporters had been staring at sadly for decades became the key to solving the city’s crime problems.

The man who first looked at these numbers in a different, creative way was deputy commissioner Jack Maple. One of those incredible New York characters – he sported a bow tie, homburg, and spectator shoes – Maple claims he first got the idea for COMPSTAT (computerized statistics) in early 1994 while soaking up a few at Elaine’s, a tony East Side watering hole.

Maple asked for all the criminal incidents for East New York, the dangerous 75th precinct, to be mapped with push-pins. The information was gradually entered into a computer system, which allowed map projections of various kinds of crime to be superimposed on each other. “For the first time,” notes police historian Eli Silverman, “all the crime and arrest data that were floating in the vast NYPD universe were brought together.” Like many innovative ideas, this seems like common sense in retrospect. But at the time, when police spent most of their time simply responding to emergency calls, and precincts’ passivity, territorialism, and distrust of City Hall put a damper on the sharing and gathering of information, this was ground-breaking stuff.

As with many creative ideas, COMPSTAT used old ideas in a new context. Urban data-mapping has been around since at least 1854, when Dr. John Snow mapped more than 500 cholera deaths in London and found that they clustered around a single water pump. But no one had previously thought of putting urban mapping to use in preventing crime. Moreover, New York was relying on outdated technology. Once they began using computers, the data could be mapped more quickly and efficiently.

But new information and new ways of looking at it could not be the whole solution. The entire role of the police force in an urban environment had to be reconsidered. Under previous city governments, many police had been kept off the streets in order to reduce corruption. The more the police were allowed to interact with lawbreakers, the logic went, the more chances there were for officers to accept bribes to look the other way or become involved in crime themselves. Police were also supposed to avoid conflict as much as possible. After the Crown Heights riots in particular, city authorities became more concerned with tamping down racial tensions than with fighting crime.

The Giuliani administration changed the role of police in the city. At what became the daily 8 a.m. COMPSTAT meeting, the previous day’s crime statistics were given to the police department leadership. For the first time, the precinct commanders could plan their daily operations on the basis of up-to-the-minute crime information sorted by category of crime and mapped out block by block. Suddenly the job of the police was to prevent crimes, not just respond to them. Specifically, COMPSTAT gave the NYPD the ability to overcome a problem called “displacement.” When the Tactical Narcotics Teams had performed raids in previous years, criminals just moved over a few blocks. With accurate and instantaneous mapping, open-air drug markets were broken up over and over until they either dried up or were driven indoors where they did less damage. And when the data showed that drug crime and gun crime existed in overlapping geographic areas, drug units were replaced with Street Narcotics and Gun Units that ran round-the-clock buy and bust operations. Suddenly, the statistic each precinct was concerned with was not the number of minutes it took to respond to a crime, but the number of “collars” they made per day.

COMPSTAT also changed the relationship between the precinct commanders and the brass, breaking through the traditionally rigid layers of authority. The effect, as one Brooklyn precinct commander put it, was that “we,” meaning the rank-and-file and the department leadership, “are more and more on the same wavelength.” But it also put the precinct commanders in a tough spot. If there had been a surge in muggings or burglaries on a particular block, they were expected to analyze the problem and explain what they intended to do about it. If they didn’t solve the problem in a timely fashion, it was their jobs on the line.

As Professor Eli Silverman, in his article “NYPD Battles Crime, Innovative Strategies in Policing,” explains, “The top of the chain was demanding that precinct commanders finally take ownership of crime control – an idea that became central to the COMPSTAT meetings – and the commanders, their feet to the fire, were instilling that same idea in their men on the street.” Louis Anemone, then-chief-of-patrol, recalls his delight in hearing one commander report, “I have four robberies.” Before COMPSTAT, apparently, most precinct commanders didn’t use the first-person pronoun in reporting crime statistics.

The results of these innovations in city governance were remarkable. In 1994 crime dropped by 12 percent, followed by 16 percent declines in 1995 and 1996. The biggest declines came in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, mostly in the outer boroughs. And fear seemed to decline even more rapidly than crime. Just as the belief in the intractability of the city’s problems encouraged despair among law-abiding people, the creative solutions to urban problems begot a certain optimism among the city’s population. The change was palpable. A virtuous (as opposed to vicious) cycle was set in motion, in which law-abiding people spent more time in public places, and, as good uses of public space drove out bad, more people were drawn back into the public life of the city.

Time, whose 1990 cover story “The Rotting of the Big Apple” had generated enormous dismay, trumpeted the change by placing Bratton on a 1995 cover. As murder rates plunged to a twenty-five-year low in the first half of 1995, New York proclaimed “The End of Crime As We Know It.”

Though he didn’t believe that crime would disappear entirely, Bratton realized it was possible for creative ideas to change behavior, something the city’s detractors, and even people like Senator Moynihan, had doubted. That meant 163,428 fewer felonies between the start of 1994 and the end of 1996, a year that saw the city’s lowest number of crime complaints in more than a quarter century. The big crime, murder, dropped 16 percent in 1996 and had already fallen by nearly half since 1993.


The problems of an urban environment, though, are hardly solved. And COMPSTAT is now being understood as an evolving and expanding tool. “COMPSTAT has changed over the years,” says Detective Walter Burns, a spokesman for the New York City Police Department. “We’ve added different elements. The original concept was just dealing with precinct commanders. But one would come in and say, ‘My problem is narcotics and I don’t have a narcotics group. So bring narcotics into COMPSTAT.’ One says, ‘I’m having a big problem with kids stealing cars.’ Now auto theft is part of COMPSTAT.”

And there’s no reason the COMPSTAT system and the ethos of accountability that goes with it should apply only to crime numbers. New York now has, in order of their introduction, TRAFFICSTAT (also run by the police), TEAMS (Total Efficiency Accountability Management System – a prison governance system which led to the infamously brutal Rikers Island becoming the safest prison facility in the nation, according to a report by the Rockefeller Foundation), and PARKSTAT, which rates public parks for cleanliness and safety, and features monthly COMPSTAT-like meetings. The percentage of parks in New York rated acceptably clean and safe by the department rose from 47 percent in 1993 to 86 percent in 2001. Finally, in August 2001, the Giuliani administration announced the Citywide Accountability Program (CAPSTAT), which required all city agencies to develop programs that implement the essential elements of COMPSTAT. The agencies must collect data about their work and hold regular meetings with managers to find solutions to the problems revealed by the data.

And now the idea has spread across the country. By 2000, a third of the country’s 515- largest police departments had implemented a COMPSTAT-like program, according to a Police Foundation study. Bratton, now chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, has taken COMPSTAT west with him, instituting it in America’s second-largest city last fall.

“That’s an amazing diffusion of innovation,” says David Weisburd, the lead investigator of the study. “I compared it to diffusion rates of the fastest growing innovations, agricultural innovations, and social innovations like birth control. Most innovations take a very long time to spread. This one, in comparison, was extremely fast.” The researchers at the Police Foundation believe that COMPSTAT’s popularity came from its top-down model of authority. “COMPSTAT emphasizes putting pressure on commanders,” Weisburd says. “The drama occurs with the higher-ups.”

Like their colleagues in New York, officials in other cities have created COMPSTATs for other problems – or combinations of problems. Baltimore, Maryland, has implemented a CITISTAT system that tracks city government as a whole. City agencies provide regular data about their work to a central office that analyzes the data and creates reports for the mayor. “The charts, maps, and pictures tell a story of performance, and those managers are held accountable,” explains Matt Gallagher, director of operations for CITISTAT. Since the program was implemented, Baltimore has experienced a 40 percent reduction in payroll overtime, saving the city $15 million over two years, while taking on such indicators of urban blight as graffiti and abandoned vehicles. But the idea itself is not enough. The consistency of the statistics and the extent to which managers are held accountable are the keys to ensuring the success of these programs, which is why other cities have yet to experience the same level of success as New York. “The managers have to feel top management is serious about it,” Silverman says, and management has to stick to it.

And the system itself is far from perfect. Even COMPSTAT’s most ardent proponents concede that these programs do have some downsides. “What is not counted tends to be discounted,” wrote Dennis Smith and William Bratton in a Rockefeller Institute Report. Commanders tend to overlook other indicators of police performance, such as civilian complaints and patterns of police misconduct, including too-aggressive policing and a lack of respect for citizens. Sidney L. Harring, a professor of law at City University of New York Law School, and Gerda W. Ray of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, wrote in 1999 that as the police strove to increase arrests they did not keep track of how many people they stopped and frisked on city streets. “That all of this scientifically structured, aggressive police work could be pulled off without even the most rudimentary data about its result reveals the hollow core of the social scientific foundation of New York City’s highly managed policing. COMPSTAT is no better than its flawed database,” Harring and Ray noted. Indeed tracking systems are only as good as the numbers that guide them. There’s a temptation for commanders feeling the heat to downgrade felonies to misdemeanors, making the crime rate in the area appear lower than it really was. Since COMPSTAT went into effect, “at least five police commanders have been accused of reclassifying crimes to improve their statistics, which are reviewed at sometimes contentious weekly COMPSTAT meetings,” William K. Rashbaum reported in the New York Times.

Despite these difficulties, there are some who see potential for COMPSTAT beyond the local level. City Journal writer Heather MacDonald has argued that we need a federal version of COMPSTAT to monitor terrorist investigations. “The NYPD, for instance, could target enforcement activities on suspected terrorist groups and then apply the strategy that worked so well for street crime: treat every arrest as an opportunity to get information about other crimes…. Even New York’s Human Resources Administration – which has discovered 10,000 fugitive felons, including twelve murderers, on its welfare rolls, since it began cross-checking recipients’ fingerprints against a national database of outstanding warrants – should check recipients against Interpol terrorist data too.”


When Mike Bloomberg succeeded Rudy Giuliani as mayor in 2001, many voters were hoping he could simply ensure that these new policies would stay in place and help the city maintain its new safe environment. But Bloomberg, who made his fortune managing and presenting financial data on his ubiquitous and eponymous Bloomberg terminals, actually hit upon another creative idea, 311, a citywide number for all non-emergency calls that provides services and information while at the same time vastly increasing the city’s store of knowledge.

Prior to 311, most non-emergency calls were taken by the misleadingly named Mayor’s Action Center, headed by Fletcher Vredenburgh, who first came to public attention when he posted an essay online declaring that he was sick of “griping, often whining, often stupid New Yorkers … dumb f—-s from the public to dumber f—-s that work for the city. I’ve had two cases where cops took in cars that had been stolen and then were at a loss to even give a hint to their owners about where they might be. Every day someone gets thrown off welfare improperly because an imbecilic caseworker can’t tell her ass from a hole in the wall …” He concluded: “So I take painkillers, sleep a lot, and think about killing every citizen and employee of New York City every minute I’m awake.”

Vredenburgh’s outburst was over the top, but doubtless many New Yorkers felt the same way about calling in for help as he did in receiving their calls. As recently as 2003, New York City had more than forty call centers employing over 800 employees, not to mention automated lines. Many of the operators worked on hopelessly outdated computers, while others relied on a fourteen-page phone book of city services with more than 4,000 entries. In fact, many callers grew so frustrated with the city’s information centers that they called 911 to get their questions about garbage pickup answered, thereby creating enormous problems for the city’s emergency service operators. “There are 11 pages of listings in the phone book under New York City,” said Mayor Bloomberg, as he shepherded the $13.1 million 311 center through in the midst of budget cuts. 311 is now staffed by 200 workers handling over 10,000 calls daily. Operators who take seven weeks of training in phone manners, computer skills, and the city’s geography offer services in 170 different languages.

But New York’s 311 system did far more than create a single clearinghouse for non-emergency city services and information. It also provided the city with an unprecedented array of data that, in conjunction with the other departmental statistics gathered, creates an innovative way to monitor and demand efficient results.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. 311 may prove an even bigger civic innovation than COMPSTAT. The city learns from each problem reported to 311 – it knows which blocks have graffiti problems and which landlords won’t turn on the heat – which perhaps is why the mayor himself frequently calls in to report potholes and other such problems. 311 extends the city’s grasp of itself, adding millions of observers to its information network.

There are still kinks to be ironed out. The city continues to misrepresent 311 as a simpler way to get your problems solved. But the same unresponsive city agencies are on the other end of a lot of these calls. If you make a justified complaint to the Department of Environmental Protection, for instance, it’ll still take them a week to get there.

What finally elevates New York’s 311 system over other cities’ is that while it helps keep 911 clear for emergency calls, like Baltimore’s, and performs constituent services, like Chicago’s, it is also integrated into CAPSTAT, so that instead of being a reactive system (like 911, which is predicated on a crime happening before the police respond), it can handle problems before they become emergencies, or even major hassles. And the numbers it generates are an incentive for the mayor to keep service levels up, problems down, and response times short, and for city managers to stop trouble before it happens.

New York’s 311 is not a new solution to an old problem so much as an entirely new paradigm, a new form of urban introspection. As Johnson has it, “the government learns as much as the callers do. That’s the radical idea at the heart of the service: Every question or problem carries its own kind of data.” As the city continues to examine itself in previously unthinkable ways, suddenly the problems of urban living don’t seem so intractable. Maybe creative solutions to the difficulties of governing didn’t end with the Constitutional Convention.

—Harry Siegel and Fred Siegel

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