The Patriot Entrepreneur (Summer 2007 - Volume 2  Issue 1)

George Mason University

Mason Professors awarded funding by DOJ to pursue study of COMPSTAT & Community Policing


Dr. James Willis (pictured left)
and Dr. Stephen Mastrofski

The Patriot Entrepreneur sat down with Dr. James Willis in the Administration of Justice Program at Mason who, along with his colleague, Dr. Stephen Mastrofski, was recently awarded over $150,000 to conduct research into COMPSTAT and Community Policing by the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS). The purpose of their project is to examine the relationship between two powerful engines of police reform that have appeared over the last twenty years, COMPSTAT and community policing. Community policing, a term associated with a broad range of priorities, organizational changes, and activities, promises law enforcement a host of benefits. COMPSTAT, an innovation in police organization that combines clearly defined management principles with cutting-edge crime analysis and geographic information systems technology, promises to focus like a laser on just reducing crime. Prior research has suggested that both innovations diffused rapidly, and that many police organizations are trying to pursue both simultaneously. In spite of the popularity of these programs among police and policy makers, there is virtually no systematic research on how these reforms work together.

1. Dr. Willis, this sounds like exciting and very useful research to the law enforcement community. What are some of the immediate benefits that law enforcement would gain from your research?

What we hope to do is learn about some of the particular benefits and challenges that police departments have experienced by operating these two reforms simultaneously. On paper at least there are some reasons to believe that they are compatible, but there is also some evidence to suggest that they may work at cross-purposes. For instance, both reforms address crime, but COMPSTAT takes a more top-down approach while community policing attempts to empower officers at the ground level. We might well ask, then, does this result in some kind of tension between the two, and if so, how might it be resolved? Based on our national survey findings and the site visits we conducted at large and small departments across the country, we shall provide some insights on the kinds of problems that have arisen from the co-implementation of these reforms, what agencies have tried to do to overcome these challenges, and some suggestions for how these reforms can be integrated more closely. We expect our report, which will be written specifically for an audience of policy makers and practitioners, to be available through COPS by the end of the year.

2. Community policing seems to be more popular considering that DC Mayor Adrian Fenty recently appointed a police chief committed to implementing that policy. To make their program of community policing work effectively in DC, do they need to include COMPSTAT principles?

Tech Transfer Series
Mayor Adrian Fenty joins Acting Police
Chief Cathy Lanier and members of the DC
Council to roll out a customized community
policing agenda for the District of Columbia.
Picture from DC Govt. website

Community policing has certainly been around much longer than COMPSTAT, and you are right to note that it is very popular. Nevertheless our research shows that COMPSTAT is rapidly gaining ground. The short answer to your question is, "It depends on what the Chief is looking for." If the Chief wants to narrow the department's focus to serious crime, then COMPSTAT is a mechanism that is designed for this end. It does so by making middle managers directly accountable for accomplishing a specific crime reduction goal and providing consequences for those individuals who don't perform up to these expectations. On the other hand, if the chief wants to address a broad range of concerns that match the diverse communities in DC and wants to promote creative problem solving among the rank and file, then COMPSTAT might not work so well. COMPSTAT programs tend not to collect data on the kinds of non-crime problems, such as abandoned cars, that cause citizens the greatest concern, and its strict accountability mechanism can work to discourage the kind of risk-taking environment that fosters creativity. We learn through our mistakes, but if we are punished for erring there is little incentive to innovate. What a chief needs to do, is to find the balance between these two programs that best suits the department’s needs and those of its constituents. Fortunately, COMPSTAT and community policing are flexible and, with some thought and effort, can be adapted to a department’s unique environment. Indeed, they need to be; a “one size fits all” approach is unlikely to deliver the expected results.

3. What is the advantage to law enforcement by combining the efforts of COMPSTAT and Community policing?

Both programs promise to add something a little different to the stew, so perhaps there is a combination of their principles that could make for a better tasting dish. For example, we know that community members report a wide variety of problems to the police that are not captured in official crime statistics. COMPSTAT offers the opportunity for these data to be collected and measured, so that a department could have a better idea of the kind of job it was doing in addressing the wide variety of concerns of its constituents in addition to serious crime. Again, the art of police leadership is in figuring out which combination works best for a particular department and the citizens it serves.

4. This project sounds like it could be turned into a small company that might contract with Police Departments to help them implement these policies. Is that something that you have considered, or is the process here really just for the DOJ to recommend policy changes to law enforcement agencies based on the outcome of your research?

We certainly want our research to be useful for police departments, and this is the goal of our COPS report: How can we help police departments learn from one another about what works well and what doesn't work so well when operating COMPSTAT and community policing? Police departments are also always welcome to contact us in Administration of Justice and the Center for Justice Leadership and Management should they want to learn more. We, along with our colleagues, are always happy to work with police departments and help in whatever way we can.

5. Where can we learn more about your project, and the eventual results that will come out of your research?

Our contact information and some brief summaries of our other research in this area can be found on the department Web site at http://adj.gmu.edu/. Those who are interested in receiving a copy of the final report for this project can also contact us directly, and we shall be sure to provide them with a copy when it is available, or let them know where they can lay their hands on one.

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