America’s safer streets: The great crime decline continues. No one is sure why
HIGH-SPEED car chases, shoot-outs, dealing with politicians: life for a Los Angeles police officer can be trying. Yet for sheer stress little can compete with the ordeal of the Compstat meeting. Every seven weeks bureau commanders are grilled by a senior panel, often including the police chief himself, on the whys and wherefores of crime in their jurisdictions. They are expected to have an on-the-spot grasp of the statistics: if there has been a spike in burglaries from vehicles, the captain’s interrogators will want to know what is being done about it. There is no hiding from the numbers: data-laden documents are distributed before the meeting, and overhead map projections pinpoint the sites of individual incidents in pitiless detail. The pressure has reduced officers to tears.
Although some think Compstat introduces incentives for police to fiddle the figures (or “juke the stats”), most analysts agree that it has improved the effectiveness and efficiency of the police in Los Angeles, and other cities with similar systems. (Compstat was brought to Los Angeles from New York by Bill Bratton, a tough-talking police chief who oversaw declines in crime in both cities.) It helps in two ways. First, by mandating the collection and management of detailed crime data it makes it easier to allocate police resources. Second, it introduces accountability of the strictest sort. If you are not reducing crime in your bureau, it doesn’t matter if your children play baseball with the mayor’s: you can forget about that promotion.
Crime in America has plummeted since its numerical peak in 1992; the violent sort by 38%, according to FBI statistics. To what extent can innovations in policing like Compstat explain the decline? Naturally, police departments and politicians take much of the credit. In July Charlie Beck, chief of the LAPD, said that new crime figures showed Los Angeles to be the “safest big city” in the country (though only three other cities matched his definition of “big”: New York, Chicago and Houston). The mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, boasts that the city is safer than at any time since 1952. Both agree that the police have been doing a fine job