Effects of CompStat and Zero-Tolerance Policies in Communities

 As usual when I share one of my research papers, please know that it is now in TurnItIn; so if you try to use it as your own paper, you’ll get caught. Please do not plagiarize. Thanks.

Effects of CompStat and Zero-Tolerance Policies in Communities

Reagen Dandridge Desilets

Trident Technical College

14SP_F1 CRJ130 Police Administration (W04)

February 1, 2014





Since the New York Police Department launched CompStat, short for Computer Statistics, and changed to a zero tolerance model of policing using the “broken window” theory of crime control, they claim great success in lowering crime rates.  However, there are questions as to the true measure of these programs’ success on affecting crime rates.  From accusations of not giving officers discretion on minor issues to CompStat’s possible problematic implementation and use, there seems to be serious questions arising as to the true implications of these programs.  This paper will explore if they are successful in helping crime rates drop, or if there some other trend on a macro level in the country that can account for these reductions.  Problems and possible solutions will also be explored in regards to CompStat and zero tolerance policies.


Effects of CompStat and Zero-Tolerance Policies in Communities

In 1994, Rudy Guiliani took over the office of Mayor of New York City, and appointed William Bratton as New York City Police Department Commissioner (Levitt, 2004).  CompStat, short for Computer Statistics, was introduced by Bratton to help identify crime “hot spots” and to try to apply accountability within the police department.  This was done alongside the implementation of order maintenance policies, in line with the “broken window” theory of crime, and zero-tolerance policing  (Eterno & Silverman, 2012) (Howell, 2009).  In social psychology there is the theory that if there is an unrepaired broken window, then eventually all the other windows will be broken (Kelling & Wilson, 1982).  Other people will come in and take out whatever windows they can that are not protected.  This is done just because it can be done, for fun or malice, since it’s a sign that no one cares anymore.  While the broken windows theory focused on physical appearances and things that are typically offenses not arrested for such as code enforcement and pan-handling, zero-tolerance policing brought in a very different approach (Howell, 2009).  Zero-tolerance policing is the idea that even the most minor of offenses can result in an arrest (Thacher, 2004).  For police, it was thought that cracking down on quality of life issues, such as vandalism, prostitution, loitering and more, would help drive more serious crime rates down. Before long, some researchers began to credit these new methods with the reduction in crime in New York City (Greenberg, 2014).

However, there is no empirical evidence showing that New York City’s methods actually work to reduce crime (Harcourt & Ludwig, 2006).  There are other things that likely contributed to the decline in their crime rates.  One of the possible contributing factors that critics point out  is that crime was already in a downward trend nationwide, as well as in New York City, when Giliani and Bratton took their offices (Bowling, 1999).  In the past, homicides in New York City had risen from 1985 to 1990 by 63%, alongside the introduction of cocaine freebase, more commonly known as crack or crack-cocaine.  Studies have shown that the rise in homicides was more as a result of systematic drug crimes rather than economic drug crimes (Goldstein, Brownstein, Ryan, & Bellucci, 1989).  That is to say that the homicides were more related to violent turf wars between rival dealers and gangs than to users committing violent crimes to fund their addictions.  However, the market for crack-cocaine reached its peak in the early 1990s (Bowling, 1999).  Once the dangers of being a “crack-head” became known, it began to lose its appeal. It’s relatively short high compared to other drugs as well as the severe damage of long term use contributed to it falling out of favor.

At the same time as the beginning of crack-cocaine’s fall, there was increase in the number of police officers being hired (Levitt, 2004).  According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the number of police officers being hired increased nationally by about 14 percent in the 1990s.  Levitt also showed from other studies that a rise in the number of police officers can be associated with a drop in crime in the near future.  However, he specifically shows that Bratton’s policies on policing did not start the decline in crime in New York City. Crime in New York City began to fall in 1990, years before Bratton was appointed as commissioner.  The rise in the number of police officers in New York City grew 45 percent from 1991 to 2001, three times greater than the national average.  The result is a drop by 18 percent in the city’s homicides, bringing the homicide rate down to the average for other large cities.  Crime rates had also declined in cities that had not implemented Bratton’s methods, so the correlation between his methods of policing and a drop in crime rates in New York City is likely to be a minor, if any, factor.

Levitt included two other factors that may have contributed to the drop in crime rates (Levitt, 2004).  Those were legalized abortion, where unwanted children were not having to be subjected to abusive and neglectful households resulting in their later activities in crime, and increased incarceration rates.  While increased incarceration rates, particularly for minor offenses targeted by zero tolerance policing, may have an immediate effect on crime rates, the tradeoff down the road may have far reaching negative effects.  Without rehabilitation and reentry programs, recidivism rates remained high (Balko, Beyond Bars, 2010).  Crime rates may also raise when the needs of people in poorer communities cannot be met and social order is disrupted due to the imprisonment of nonviolent people for minor violations of the law (Clear, 2008).  When someone is imprisoned for minor offenses, which were previously not resulting in arrests, it produced a hidden cost that can generate many more problems, from families and communities, to the criminal justice system itself (Howell, 2009).  Heavier burdens, such as now single parent homes and the now perceived loss of legitimacy in criminal justice, created a sense of unfair treatment.  Those people suffering may lash out and reject laws since they no longer view the law and law enforcers as having legitimate authority.  Arrests and convictions created a loss of home, employment, and education which contributed to part of the collateral damage when someone is imprisoned, particularly for nonviolent crimes.  This may create a cycle that is hard to break for future generations that witness this breakdown as children.

CompStat is not without its critics as well.  There was a survey of NYPD retirees done by Long Island’s Molloy College and they revealed that there was a lot of push from higher ranks and those in charge to change the crime stats, such as reducing felonies to misdemeanors to make the numbers look better (Balko, The Other Broken Windows Fallacy, 2010).  One even went so far as to report that victims were talked out of filing reports and some officers refused to take any reports at all. Meant to be a failsafe for tracking and targeting high crime, CompStat is still dependent on humans to run and maintain.  With politically motivated people, there can be a manipulation of data to make things look good in their favor. Concerns for civil liability may arise since the crimes were being treated differently; either a crime was treated too harshly resulting in wrongful prosecution and/or cruel and unusual punishment or a crime was not treated with the right amount of attention it truly required. Such events can happen when misdemeanors are treated as felonies and vice versa. Victims have been made to feel as if they somehow participated in the crime against them (Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc., 2010). The failure to act on the part of the criminal justice system can leave the victim open to more targeting by criminals as they are unlikely to report anymore crimes.

The same month of that study, Bronx police officer Adhyl Polanco blew the whistle on policies of requiring a certain number of citations and arrests each month (Balko, The Other Broken Windows Fallacy, 2010) (Carver, 2013).  He claimed that he could no longer continue “arresting innocent people” and other activities that he felt compromised his goals of helping and assisting people.  He claimed that these quotas motivated officers to arrest people that haven’t committed a crime and that most were released the following day with no charges having ever been filed.  Another Bronx officer, Pedro Serrano, also came forward about the quotas (Carver, 2013).  He added that, as a Hispanic male, he had been targeted for stop and frisks while off duty and that he could relate to how it made targeted people feel.  He said he was told by his superiors to specifically target one age group of black males in a high crime area.  He began to refuse to meet quotas and, in turn, faced retaliation from his commanding officers and other higher-ups.  Once he reported everything to Internal Affairs, he became a target while on duty for harassment from other officers.

There was also manipulation through loopholes in the law to help create an offense that can result in an arrest with a legal charge (Balko, The Other Broken Windows Fallacy, 2010).  For example, a small amount of marijuana in one’s personal possession was an offense that might generate a fine; however, public display of marijuana was an arrest offense.  So doing stop and frisks, asking people to empty their pockets would create that public display, instigating an arrest that would have otherwise never happened if rampant stop and frisks were not being pushed.  There clearly needs to be a reassessment of how to report crimes to ensure that serious crimes are not being underreported and that minor offenses aren’t being heavily targeted.

Questions remain as to the trustworthiness of data from CompStat statistics (Chen, 2010).  The issues surrounding CompStat data may have more and more people second guessing the police and not being able to trust their methods.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City after Giliani, even admitted to the inevitability of “fudging” small amounts, but is it really so small (Huspeni, 2013) (Chen, 2010)?  There is data to show that an astonishing rise in the number of stop and frisks have not reduced the number of people shot (Weiss, 2012).  Mayor Bloomberg tried to justify the vast increase in stop and frisk policing by comparing it to the number of people murdered; however, a more accurate comparison is drawn by looking at the number of people shot.  Advancements in emergency medicine, “a good EMT or doctor in the E.R.”, as well as near misses to vital organs all play a role in keeping those assaults from becoming homicides.  In the period when Mayor Bloomberg was bragging about reducing crime, the hospitals had sharp increases of patients due to assault (Moses, 2005).  This difference in numbers may have been driven as a political move by the mayor for his bid for reelection, hoping that the reduced number of murders would be the more likeable statistic versus an increase in gunshot victims.  Either way, this one set of statistics alone is enough to draw the entire process in question.

There are a number of ways to help tackle the issues surrounding CompStat and zero-tolerance policing.  One is to undertake non-arrest order maintenance (Howell, 2009).  Decriminalizing minor offenses would go a very long way to curb high numbers of arrests and would allow for the community to continue their lives.  People would not lose jobs because of an arrest, parents would not be put in jail, and the community could stay as a cohesive unit.  Arrest procedures could also be altered so that when an arrest is made for a misdemeanor they are booked but released if there are no other warrants.  They would still be required to be at arraignment, but they would not miss any work days.  This would also likely shorten the booking process and help officers get back on the streets quicker.  Less overtime would be required of the officers having to book people after their shifts end and the costs of putting people in jail would be greatly reduced.

Changes in policing models would also go a long way to help reduce the rift in police-community relations.  For example, San Diego did not take on a zero-tolerance model but rather problem-oriented community policing (Howell, 2009).  They were able to reduce crime by getting the community involved and striking at the roots of the problems instead of targeting citizens with minor offenses.  Boston focused on the more serious criminals instead of the low level offenders.  Both models helped to reduce crime but, at the same time, allowed the community to feel satisfied with the police departments.  These types of policing models work to also reduce, or even eliminate, the sense of unfair treatment by young men of color.  Since the NYPD stop and frisks targeted mostly Latino and black communities, it is something that should be taken into consideration regarding what model of policing helps more than hurts the communities.  The evidence exists to show that aggressive policing for minor offenses is not necessary to reduce overall crime rates, so perhaps it is time to try something different and help bridge the gap that has continued to grow between the criminal justice system and communities.

Furthermore, it may help to implement CompStat in such a way that it is monitored by an outside, independent entity (Eterno & Silverman, 2012).  An unbiased scientific assessment of CompStat data may help in reducing the chances of misuse, under or over reporting, and misrepresentation of statistics and crime rates.  If quotas and certain requirements of numbers of citations, tickets, and arrests are dropped, then the data provided to CompStat would become a more reliable telling of the story of crime prevention, law enforcement, and crime trends.

It is imperative that crime rate trends be separated wholly and completely from politics.  Politicians take credit for things such as the hard work of those under them or for trends that are caused by something other than that politician’s election to office.  That needs to stop.  With the political motivation removed, then the truly scientific application that CompStat should provide will become clear and that data will be far more trustworthy.  Crime and policing isn’t about numbers; it’s about lives.  Each individual’s worth, no matter their history, is far more important than any politician’s political campaign.  Focusing back on the people, and not the politicians, will provide a better end result with fewer chances for corruption and manipulation to occur.

In conclusion, it is obvious that there are problems surrounding the implementation of policies such as broken windows and zero-tolerance policing as well as CompStat data manipulation.  However, there are several factors that could help to clean up crime data, keep communities together while still addressing crime, and bridge the gap that remains between those communities and the criminal justice system.  Decriminalizing order maintenance violations, aiming to take down the bigger criminals instead of focusing primarily on minor crimes, externalizing the collection and analysis of data, and depoliticizing police management and crime statistics all can help to improve the problems seen so far in areas with these types of policies and police management.


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