New York City in the late 1980’s was a city plagued by crime and engulfed in a culture of rampant corruption. The subway was considered incredibly dangerous, and petty crime had a strangle-hold on the streets. To put it bluntly, it was a not safe place. But over the course of several years and under new direction from the police chief and mayor, the city began to see a positive change. Looking back, people are struck by the reduction of crime that occurred during the 1990’s and what caused it. This dramatic improvement captured our attention as well, and so, in an interview with former New York City Police Chief, Bill Bratton, we asked his opinion on why and how this social transformation happened.
While he described a number of factors, we were most intrigued by the use of data to drive culture change throughout the department – and its drastic implications for the reduction of crime in the city. Specifically, the creation of a system called CompStat changed the way the city handled its daily business with regard to crime. Bratton broke down the philosophy of the CompStat process into four parts for us, saying that in order for data to effectively solve a problem, one must have:
1) Timely, accurate information to allow trends to be identified quickly.
2) Rapid response based on that information, enabling resources to be mobilized in a highly targeted manner before trends escalate.
3) Effective tactics for the situation, which rely on the data to inform the selection of the best strategy to solve the problem at hand.
4) Relentless follow-up, to create an ongoing loop that analyzes the efficacy of the strategy deployed based on new information about the problem. This triggers the rest of the CompStat process and maximizes its effectiveness.
While the process seems straightforward, Bratton himself admits that prior to the 1990’s the police force in New York City had a bad habit of letting powerful data go to waste. In truth, police officers are in a unique position to capture a lot of data and information – after all, they do everything from book criminals to issue parking tickets. But prior to Bratton’s tenure as police chief, this data was merely shipped to Washington D.C. to be analyzed by federal agencies.
Essentially, Bratton created discipline around the use of data through CompStat, and by so doing, gave new life to his police force. Ultimately, the results created a sense of accomplishment that led to a culture that embraced the discipline of data collection and analysis — they used the data to celebrate and perpetuate success.
The significance of the CompStat transformation is that the lessons are widely applicable to any social change effort. The Police Department didn’t have to make a big investment in technology to acquire perfect data and devise new strategies to address problems. They simply leveraged their assets in new ways: they used data they were already collecting , applied known strategies to address the problem, learned from their attempts, made changes based on the data, and repeated the cycle. That’s a strategy we can all use to transform our work and communities.