Shake HPD blues with NYPD savvy

The Big Apple’s innovative CompStat policing system took a big bit out of crime. It can happen here, too.


The time has come for Houston to adopt a fundamental change in policing similar to programs implemented in New York City and Boston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Austin, Seattle, Durham, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Diego, to name a few.

Over the past few years a variety of concerns and problems have arisen at HPD. These problems include: Crime lab mismanagement, the K-Mart parking lot arrest fiasco, the recent spike in murders, HPD’s risky chase policy, manpower shortages, missing guns from the HPD property room, promiscuous Taser use, out-of-control overtime and problems with crime statistics record-keeping.

It’s our opinion that Focusing on these problems as individual concerns misses the point. We believe “the point” is that HPD has long been poorly managed, unfocused and not nearly as effective as it might be in performing its charge of protecting Houstonians ‘s citizens from crime. It’s time for a change.

Any serious business person would agree that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt admitted in January of this year that HPD was slow to discern crime patterns due to outmoded tools for crime analysis. The bottom line is that Crime statistics should be the police departmentHPD’s bottom line, the absolute best indicator of how the policedepartment is doing, beat by beat, district by district and citywide.

One would naturally assume that all police departments work this way, with command staff watching crime trends with the same hawk-like attention that private corporations’ management staffs pay to profit and loss, or cash flow. One would specifically think that the police department of Houston, , Texas the fourth largest city in America, an organization with an annual budget approaching $600 million, would operate this way. One would be wrong.

To get some perspective on why we think a new approach to policing needs to be implemented here, let’s look back at New York City in the early 1990s: Crime was out of control; low-level drug dealing was prevalent; public spaces were marred by ubiquitous graffiti; omnipresent “squeegee men” preyed on motorists; homeless people took up residence on sidewalks and in building entrances; public intoxication was rife; loud music’s base beat pulsed incessantly; and aggressive panhandlers plied their trade citywide.

These quality-of-life problems conveyed a message that disorder and incivility prevailed, that social controls had broken down and that no one really cared about the neighborhoods in which they occurred.

Enter Bill Bratton. When Bratton first came to New York as newly appointed chief of the transit police in 1990, a transit police lieutenant, Jack Maple, asked Bratton to look at the 55-foot maps that he used to chart crime on the subways. Maple called them “maps of the future.” He talked about his theory of policing and, fortunately for the people of New York City, Bratton paid attention.

The transit police took on a zero-tolerance policy and cracked down on quality-of-life crimes in the subways, such as panhandling, public urination and turnstile jumping.

Perpetrators were stopped and frisked. Warrants were checked. Many of these misdeameanants were found to possess illegal guns and/or drugs. They were arrested and questioned. In turn, they often gave up their weapon and drug suppliers, and occasionally burglars, robbers, rapists and murderers of whom they knew.

By taking a zero tolerance approach throughout the subway system, and by specifically using maps to identify patterns of illegal activity such as gang robberies, the transit police were able to cut their incidence in the subways by an astounding 99 percent, from 1,200 such robberies per year to 12.

When newly elected Mayor Rudolph Giuliani chose Bratton to be the New York Police Department commissioner in 1994, Bratton tapped Jack Maple for the job of deputy commissioner. This dynamic duo then took the methodology they had used in attacking crime in the subway system above ground.

In a relatively brief period, NYPD transformed itself from a passive and reactive agency lacking energy and focus to an agency that responded quickly and strategically to crime. Bratton and Maple sold the rank and file on the idea that sustained, aggressive and highly coordinated enforcement aimed at reducing quality-of-life offenses could tip the balance on serious violent crime. They reiterated the “broken-windows” truth that petty offenders and hard-core criminals are often one and the same people.

NYPD used timely and accurate intelligence to identify emerging patterns of crime and quality-of-life problems, swiftly deployed personnel and other resources to bring a comprehensive array of effective tactics to bear on the problem, and relentlessly followed up and assessed results to ensure the problem was truly solved. Elevating the level of responsibility for gathering crime statistics from a clerical task to an administrative obligation signaled that there was a new regime in town.

This revolution in the way NYPD conducted its business was the result of a radically new and dynamic police management process known as CompStat.

During the Giuliani administration, murders dropped from 1,960 in 1993 to 640 in 2003, and the overall crime rate dropped by an astounding 66 percent. New York City, in the effective form of NYPD, shattered criminology’s central myth, but most criminologists remain in denial. Policing, they still insist, can do little to lower crime. Economic inequality, demographic trends, changing drug-use patterns, these determine crime levels, they say, not police tactics.

Nevertheless, since 1994, New York City has enjoyed a crime drop unmatched in the rest of the country, in fact unparalleled in history. Only NYPD’s revolutionary style of policing can explain it. Yet, rather than flooding the city to study this paradigm-breaking phenomenon, most criminologists are busy looking the other way. Though crime fell across the country, in New York City it plummeted at twice the national average. How were these results achieved?

CompStat was the greatest organizational change in policing in the 20th century. CompStat (Comparative Statistics or Computer Statistics) was an entirely new way of gathering and using information to fight crime. How does CompStat work? Simply put, it uses information about criminal activity to outsmart criminals. Computerized pin mapping and other cutting-edge crime analysis techniques serve as the NYPD’s radar system, greatly simplifying the early identification of crime patterns.

The GIS (Geographic Information System) component is key to pattern recognition; it enables the police to see when crime is only near bus routes or only near parks or playgrounds, or schools. It can highlight banks, ATMs, convenience stores and other targets to speed pattern recognition. Other information such as the location of probationers or parolees, residences of those with outstanding warrants, homeless shelters, pawn shops and known “chop shops,” can be overlaid.

The aim is to identify any and all common denominators — time of day, escape routes, perpetrators’ descriptions and weapons involved — to discern patterns. Twice a week in New York, precinct captains pored over detailed crime information in each precinct. They had printouts for each type of infraction, maps to identify crime clusters and lists of every precinct resident on probation or parole.

Though HPD had a system for a period of years called STAARS (Statistical Analysis for Active Response System), it is no longer used. Today in Houston, crime statistics, such as they are, take almost six weeks to reach the chief’s desk, and longer to reach the public domain.

The criminals aren’t waiting at the scene of the crime for six weeks in order to get caught! Crime is dynamic and changing. Police tactics need to reflect that reality and adjust to it. In order for the police to keep ahead of the bad guys, it is essential that the command staff conducting the CompStat weekly meeting (in some cities, twice weekly) communicate clearly that the department is committed to effectively measuring police performance and that poor or ineffective efforts will not be accepted. Obviously, “buy in” from the mayor and police chief is critical to the success of CompStat.

Despite the many accolades and attention it has received, CompStat has also been greatly misunderstood as a management system. CompStat has been variously portrayed as a high-pressure meeting between executives and middle managers, as a technology system, as a computer program or as a system for sharing important management information.

The fact that the CompStat management style involves all of these things (and a great deal more) may account for some misconceptions that surround it.

The fact that 14 years ago NYPD had no functional system in place to rapidly and accurately capture crime statistics or to use them for strategic planning until the advent of CompStat was damning. The fact that NYPD executives in previous mayoral administrations never bothered or never saw a compelling need to get accurate and timely crime intelligence is emblematic of the overall lack of concern that characterized many of the departments’ managers.

In our opinion, that attitude epitomizes that of many of HPD’s current upper-ranking officers. Many here still yearn for the days of the feel-good but feckless “community policing” once practiced in New York and later in Houston.

CompStat is an unmatched mechanism for disseminating the department’s cumulative knowledge about tactics and for evaluating what does and doesn’t work.

CompStat is not just a crime-control or crime-prevention tool either; it is a formidable management tool. When CompStat was first instituted in 1994, the CompStat analysis office analyzed the online booking system to see how many officers had not effected an arrest during the year. The results were shocking: 28 percent of the police in the borough of Queens, for example, had not produced an arrest in the first half of the year.

CompStat also focuses on morale in each command by examining sick rates, the number and type of disciplinary actions taken, the number of civilian complaints made against officers, and a host of other statistical data necessary to properly run a big city police department. It also enables senior management to gauge each commander’s performance in managing such important functions as overtime expense, traffic safety and even the number of automobile/motorcycle accidents involving department vehicles.

As to those who say CompStat won’t work here because of HPD’s understaffing and the huge geographic area that it must police (633 square miles), we would ask you to look at the Los Angeles Police Department, where former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton implemented the CompStat system.

When Bratton arrived in L.A., he found a shrinking department, crime rates that had been climbing for three years and a demoralized organization. During his four-year tenure as LAPD’s chief, morale within the department has skyrocketed, relations with the minority community have improved and crime has fallen 25 percent. The LAPD was manpower-challenged, too, with 2.25 officers per 1,000 population and a 468-square mile territory to police. The “won’t work here” argument won’t hold water.

Houston Mayor Bill White has shown little or no interest in implementing CompStat for HPD. We believed that a mayor elected based on his promise to bring “best practices” to city government would have instituted a version of CompStat a long time ago.

CompStat can and will bring accountability to HPD. It would empower HPD’s middle management and allow the cream of both its managerial and front line forces to rise to the top.

Energizing the stodgy command at HPD, forcing city departments to work together and ultimately altering public behavior will take hard work and guts. We hope our city leaders will step up and meet the challenge. It’s about time.

Helfman is a local automobile dealer. J.W. “Jay” Wall III and William A.Wolff are commercial real estate brokers specializing in tenant representation.

Originally published in the Houston Chronicle, May 13, 2007

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