Police Methods | Section 2.5

Police Methods by Adam J. McKee

Section 2.5: CompStat and COP

Maximizing the Benefits of Reform

During the last quarter-century or so, Compstat and community policing have emerged as powerful engines of police reform in the United States. Compstat is a strategic management system focused on reducing serious crime by decentralizing decision-making to middle managers operating out of precincts or districts, by holding these managers accountable for performance, and by increasing the organization’s capacity to identify, understand, and monitor responses to crime problems. Community policing can be characterized as a philosophy and an organizational strategy designed to reduce crime and disorder through community partnerships, problem solving, and the delegation of greater decisionmaking authority to patrol officers and their sergeants at the beat level. It varies more than Compstat from place to place in response to local problems and community resources. To date, researchers have focused their energy on identifying the individual merits and weaknesses of each, but have given much less attention to how well these reforms operate when implemented in the same police organization. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (the COPS Office) asked us to conduct research and write a report on this co-implementation issue: Do Compstat and community policing work together, mutually supporting each other, or are there points of conflict, where pursuing one makes it harder to pursue the other successfully? Moreover, do they work separately, that is each having little consequence for the other?

This report summarizes findings from the first national study of Compstat and community policing, suggesting that these reforms operated largely independently from each other, with one having little effect on the other. Their simultaneous operation helped departments respond to a broader set of goals and to engage in a wider variety of tasks than had they implemented just one reform. Thus, they had an additive effect—one compensating for the limitations of the other in helping the organization respond more comprehensively to the diverse demands it confronted in its external environment. Put another way, what our survey suggested and what we observed during our short site visits to seven police departments that reported fully implementing Compstat and community policing was that Compstat contributed X, and community policing contributed Y. By implementing both reforms, an agency gained X + Y.

The finding that Compstat and community policing worked in parallel, but independently, suggests there may be opportunities for making these reforms work more closely with each other. This report uses these findings as an empirical basis for making recommendations for these reforms’ integration. Given our finding that Compstat and community policing were essentially stove-piped and operating independently of each other, we inferred that there were opportunities for combining their core elements in ways that may promise greater multiplicative effects to co-implementation (Compstat x community policing)—effects that could be higher than those that are simply additive (Compstat + community policing). Take, for example, a department that has fully implemented Compstat and community policing but only reinforces its Compstat crime-reduction mission through the regular reporting of official crime statistics. In this case, because there are no similar measures to underscore the importance of community policing objectives, Compstat and community policing can be viewed as coexisting rather than mutually reinforcing. In contrast, an integrated model might include the prioritization, measurement, and reporting on community policing concerns (e.g., problems identified by community members, less serious social order offenses, fear of crime) as well as traditional crime statistics at regular Compstat meetings. Among other benefits, taking such an approach allows top management to simultaneously place a high value on Compstat and community policing objectives and on monitoring the organization’s performance under each. Thus, by simply including measures of success for both crime and community policing at Compstat meetings, the department more than doubles the return on its investment in these reforms. This potential for “efficiency gains” through integration is the basis for the recommendations that follow.

We envision a Compstat/community policing model that tries to reinforce the values, objectives, and practices of community policing by integrating them with Compstat’s core organizational structures. In order for these reforms to work in ways that are mutually reinforcing rather than at cross-purposes, we also recommend a number of significant changes to how the Compstat structures we observed currently operate. Thus, integration is not simply a case of grafting some elements of community policing onto fundamentally unaltered Compstat structures. Such an approach would not counter Compstat’s tendency to reinforce the traditional hierarchical structure of the police organization.


Our research suggests that compared with Compstat, whose components constitute a single program, community policing is more multifaceted, flexible, and diverse, which can make it more challenging to implement in a systematic or coherent way. The distinctive values and policing styles that these reforms embody, at least as they are currently implemented, may also help explain why many of those we interviewed struggled to envision a more integrated Compstat/community policing model. The four recommendations we propose here seek to take advantage of the more tangible framework that Compstat provides while simultaneously countering its tendency to reinforce the traditional hierarchical structure of the police organization (through its focus on serious crime, top-down control, and centralized decision-making)—an approach that conflicts with several key community policing principles, including broadening the police mission beyond serious crime and delegating greater decision-making authority to those at the street level. Thus, our recommendations try to integrate Compstat’s core elements under the broader community policing philosophy while restructuring these elements in ways that make these reforms mutually reinforcing rather than working at cross-purposes. Our major recommendations for integrating Compstat and community policing, including specific strategies or action steps for their implementation, are as follows:

Recommendation 1: Harness community policing values, goals, and practices to Compstat. Broaden the Compstat process beyond serious crime to include the prioritization, measurement, and reporting of community policing concerns at regular Compstat meetings. 

Strategies for implementation: 

  • Routinely report on community-identified problems during Compstat meetings to focus the organization on community policing priorities 
  • Create performance measures that reinforce the fundamental importance of community policing objectives, values, and activities to the organization’s overarching existence.

Recommendation 2: Increase accountability down the chain of command for performance. Push accountability for crime and community policing down the chain of command by assigning individual officers to beat teams headed by a patrol sergeant, delegating responsibilities to these teams and not to individual community policing specialists or units, and requiring that all team members participate regularly in monthly beat meetings. 

Strategies for implementation: 

  • Assign patrol officers to permanent beat teams supervised by patrol sergeants to increase their sense of “ownership” for reducing crime and disorder problems and reconsider callmanagement policies 
  • Hold district-level Compstat meetings with beat team leaders to distribute accountability more equitably throughout the organization 
  • Provide patrol sergeants with the necessary guidance and leadership skills to carry out the organization’s Compstat and community policing mission.

Recommendation 3: Change Compstat meetings to operate more strategically. Restructure Compstat meetings to focus the organization’s attention more intensively on using scientific research and in-house evaluations to guide the identification and implementation of the most promising strategies for tackling crime and community problems, and on assessing short- and long-term outcomes. 

Strategies for implementation: 

  • Lengthen the period between department-level Compstat meetings to encourage district commanders to innovate and develop a better understanding of the nature of problems and more comprehensive long-term solutions 
  • Create small group meetings attended by key decision-makers and focused on addressing crime and community problems by thinking out loud, exchanging ideas, and querying assumptions 
  • Use evidence cops to help focus resources on solutions that research evidence shows are the most likely to reduce crime and disorder problems 
  • Build an institutional memory by systematically recording efforts and outcomes of police strategies.

Recommendation 4: Commit substantial resources to crime analysis and training in problem-oriented policing (POP), problem solving, and building partnerships. Encourage acceptance of the goals and values of Compstat and community policing and the successful application of their strategic elements by committing substantial resources to crime analysis units and to helping officers of all ranks develop new skills and knowledge. Primary responsibility for the comprehensive application of POP should be assigned to middle managers (district commanders), while the rank and file and local residents should be taught basic problem-solving skills, so that they can work together on tackling crime and neighborhood problems effectively. 

Strategies for implementation: 

  • Broaden responsibility for problem analysis to include rank-and-file officers who are knowledgeable about local crime and disorder problems 
  • Decentralize crime analysis units to support district personnel in their problem analysis efforts Increase training in problem analysis for all line personnel and provide training to community members.

These recommendations are based on what we observed at the seven sites we visited and on the experiences of this report’s senior authors who have been researching and writing about Compstat and community policing for more than a decade. Because these recommendations have not been implemented and tested in any police organization, we do not have empirical evidence that what we propose here will actually work. Despite this limitation, we suggest that the evidence of how things currently work warrants serious experimentation with our proposals. It was our goal to make practical suggestions, but it is beyond the scope of this report to lay out a step-by-step guide for how integration might be accomplished. Obviously departments vary in size, resources, and crime environment, so these recommendations would have to be adapted to an agency’s particular goals and circumstances. Despite these limitations, given the lack of research on this subject, we believe that there is considerable value in this initial effort to identify and examine the major compatibility issues, and then to describe our findings across several sites as a platform for suggesting some plausible changes. The alternative is simply to maintain the status quo. Thus, the purpose of this report is to deepen understanding among researchers, practitioners, and policymakers about the current relationship between Compstat and community policing, and also to stimulate debate about alternative combinations that have the potential to make them work together in more desirable ways. 

Because these recommendations are necessarily broad and call for a transformation in the way that most police agencies currently operate, they will undoubtedly be viewed by some as implausible. What we suggest may be ambitious and only represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of what needs to be done to bring about the kind of change we envision. Still, it is our hope that this analysis of two of the most highly touted policing innovations to emerge in the last 30 years provides a useful vision for reform and sharpens awareness of different possibilities for their co-implementation.


The Compatibility Issue

Compstat’s supporters speculate that it complements and supports community policing and even improves it. In so doing, they cast doubt on compatibility or integration as an issue at all. Given that these reforms originated at different times, from different sources, and for different purposes, we may rightly be skeptical about any viewpoint that asserts a natural synergy between them, even more-so when we consider that to date there is little scientific evidence to support these claims. This may explain why others are more cautious and adopting a “wait-and-see” approach. Our own prior research indicated that although some elements of Compstat were compatible with community policing, there were also some tensions and incompatibilities as well. Nor is this co-implementation issue insignificant: according to our national survey, 59 percent of large police agencies (>100 sworn) are pursuing both Compstat and community policing simultaneously, suggesting how these reforms work together has significant implications for how policing is done in the United States. Moreover, the reform literature suggests that there are reform elements where community policing and Compstat are similar, and there are elements where they differ. In this section, we identify eight key elements and assess where the respective reform doctrines stand on each. 


One of the key distinguishing features of community policing and Compstat is the role of the community in defining the mission of the police. Community policing requires that those who are outside of the police organization (construed generally as the “community”) play a key role in defining what the organization should be trying to accomplish. The police are obliged to bring the community into the process of selecting and prioritizing objectives. Given the diverse expectations that the public places on police, and given the diversity of communities that have an interest in what the police accomplish, community policing has necessarily encouraged a substantial broadening of the police mission from the rather singular focus on law enforcement and crime control that flourished in an earlier reform era from the 1930s until the 1970s. Thus, community policing embraces the notion that what is a high priority for one neighborhood may not be for another. And while community participation may vary widely, it is nonetheless a constant and ongoing feature of community policing—an essential part of the process of departmental guidance, rather than a preliminary step to be taken once and not repeated. Thus, community policing is all about promoting the more democratic aspects of guiding the police in setting major goals.

In contrast, Compstat emerged as a mechanism to focus and clarify the core mission of policing, namely serious crime. Indeed, its progenitors in the NYPD saw it as a way of getting back to the essential crime-control element of the police—a marked diversion from the community policing philosophy of the police administration that preceded them. The community’s role in deciding the nature of the police mission is scarcely mentioned in the Compstat reform literature, except perhaps to note that there was a strong community desire for safer streets and neighborhoods, as evidenced by the results of mayoral election campaigns and fear of crime statistics. Under Compstat, the police leader must select the core element of the organization’s mission but is not constrained by how he or she does it. Rather than defining the community as an essential partner in identifying the mission, Compstat has evolved as a management responsibility essential in the first step of acting strategically, not toward a wide range of potentially diffuse, democratically designated goals, but rather to focus department resources on the few things that matter most.

Policing Methods 

Similarly, there appear to be stark differences in the priority given to community participation in actually doing police work. Community policing places a high value on police partnership with people and organizations outside of the police department to do policing. …For community policing, the presumption is that community participation has inherent value, in addition to whatever it contributes to crime control and order maintenance. But Compstat is, at least in theory, purely instrumental. It is all about selecting the most effective method, whatever that may be for a given situation. It may involve community participation, but it may not—depending on what has proven to be, or has the best chances of achieving the mission.

Internal Accountability 

Another difference between the doctrines of these two reforms is the attention paid to accountability for performance. Compstat is first and foremost a method to hold middle managers accountable for knowing more about what is going on in the areas for which they are responsible and for devising timely, effective solutions to the most important problems. The highest priority of the Compstat meeting is to pressure middle managers to demonstrate their knowledge and initiative by exposing their performance to peers, as well as headquarters’ commanders. By contrast, there is less concern, and certainly no detailed protocol, in the community policing literature for holding police feet to the fire of accountability. Put simply, the difference between the two boils down to Compstat’s reliance on Theory X as a management philosophy (a strategy of direction and control through the exercise of authority), while community policing reformers have relied much more heavily on Theory Y, creating the proper conditions for guiding and supporting individual efforts toward organizational objectives. Community policing leaders have wanted to give the rank and file a chance to self-realize (at Maslow’s highest level by solving community problems), and they are expected to do so naturally when given sufficient training, opportunity, and reward.

Decentralization of Decision-Making 

Both community policing and Compstat promote decentralizing decision-making authority, but they have thus far pursued it to different degrees. Compstat has concentrated on the delegation of authority down to middle managers, primarily at the district/precinct commander level. All of the efforts to give them control of more resources and hold them more accountable essentially stop at the district commander level. Community policing approaches have admittedly been quite diverse, but in general, there has been far more interest in decentralizing decision-making much further down the organization. Community policing has tried to mobilize the knowledge, creativity, and skill of the lowest workers, expecting patrol officers to develop strong, direct working relationships with citizen groups and to work with them to customize policing to suit them best. Kelling and Sousa have argued that in at least some precincts in the NYPD, CompStat now attempts to reach further down the organization by holding precinct-level meetings that promote problem-solving initiative at that level. However, the only multisite study of Compstat suggests this is not a common feature of the reform as it has developed. Rather these district-level sessions appear to be focused primarily on informing district commanders about what is going on in their beats so that they can perform competently at the department-level Compstat meeting. That is, these meetings are focused more on improving the commander’s performance at the meeting than making the district more responsive to his or her direction. 

Organizational Flexibility 

The doctrines of both community policing and Compstat value organizational flexibility, data-driven decision-making, and innovative problem solving. Community policing requires flexibility to meet the varying demands of diverse constituencies, while Compstat requires flexibility to put the key resources in the hands of the right people and to alter procedural routines to do what must be done to be effective in controlling crime. In practice, community policing has attempted to develop organizational flexibility by focusing on developing a stronger neighborhood level focus in internal police operations (e.g., permanent patrol beat assignments) and in reaching out to partner with neighborhood-level community organizations. Compstat has focused more on giving district commanders control over more and varied personnel so that they can customize responses within their districts to problems as they arise. Community policing’s general focus on having individual officers become extremely familiar with everything happening in a neighborhood in order to improve its overall health or well-being is very different from Compstat’s focus on spikes in serious crime. The former, at least in theory, suggests a radical departure from the 911-reactive policing model, while Compstat tends to reinforce this traditional approach, albeit more strategically. Under Compstat, district commanders are pressured to respond quickly and decisively to emerging crime hot spots to reduce or eliminate them by the next reporting period. This does not conform well to more ambitious notions of having police ascertain the bigger picture and controlling long-term patterns of risk to prevent crime from occurring in the future.

Data-Driven Problem Identification and Assessment 

Data-driven decision-making is a core element of Compstat doctrine, while it is an important, if perhaps less-developed element of community policing when it is not combined with problem-oriented policing. There are, however, some important doctrinal differences: 

  • Compstat relies on a department’s official record-keeping systems to focus the organization’s energies on serious crime, while community policing solicits input from community residents to identify a broader range of minor crimes and social disorders deserving of police attention; 
  • Compstat empowers district commanders, along with crime analysts, to identify and analyze problems, while community policing, consistent with decentralization, places higher value on sergeants and patrol officers participating in the process; and finally 
  • Under Compstat, department responses are assessed primarily at weekly, biweekly, or monthly Compstat meetings by tracking enforcement activities (e.g., number of arrests and levels of officially reported crime); in contrast, community policing calls for the use of additional, nontraditional measures to assess success in the long term (e.g., citizen fear and satisfaction levels and indicators of physical and social disorder)  

External Accountability 

Both Compstat and community policing attempt to make police operations more transparent, but their accountability mechanisms work in different ways. The importance of the community as a source of oversight or governance of the police is well established in the community policing literature, and although Compstat innovators (such as the NYPD) did not list external accountability as an explicit goal, it is clear that Compstat has an important external dimension. Under Compstat, departments are externally accountable to the degree that they provide stakeholders with accurate and timely information about how well they are accomplishing their official crime control mission. External accountability, at least according to community policing doctrine, goes far beyond merely providing citizens with standard crime measures. Under this model, citizens are an essential partner in contributing to police policies and practices, particularly in regard to their own neighborhoods. Thus, under community policing police are accountable to the degree that they create a collaborative environment with local residents that is directly responsive to their concerns and to the degree that they foster an open dialog on what the police are doing and how well they are doing it.

Innovative Problem Solving 

Finally, under Compstat and community policing, crime data are supposed to provide a basis for searching for and implementing innovative solutions to reduce crime and disorder problems. Operationally, innovative problem solving is closely associated with Herman Goldstein’s problem-oriented policing model. Where these reforms differ to some degree, however, is that Compstat assigns most of this responsibility to middle managers while the latter foresees a greater role for the rank and file and, as noted earlier, emphasizes the involvement of the community in the problem-solving process.  Also, systematizing data analysis (especially the routinization of data collection and analysis) is a core feature of Compstat, while community policing treats empirical inquiry as a more customized or ad hoc process, designed to meet the needs of a specific problem based on a broader range of customized sources of data and information.


Source:  COPS Office.  Maximizing the Benefits of Reform: Integrating Compstat and Community Policing in America.



Modification History

File Created:  08/10/2019

Last Modified:  08/13/2019

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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