Friday, December 5, 2014

policing driven by the numbers


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

December 5, 2014


                Since my dissertation on police decisions to report offenses (summarized in July 1976 in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency), my criminological focus has been on effects of how we measure crime and criminality.  The latest great awakening to police brutality in communities of color is at hand, the underlying fear, demonization, and use of excessive police force against young members of today’s dangerous classes is in our faces once again.  I believe that a police accountability system called CompStat, first utilized for officer and precinct evaluation in 1995 in New York City in 1995, now adopted by police departments across the country, has further institutionalized and rewarded arrests, especially on felony charges, and punished crime reporting and recording.  I wrote an early critique of CompStat and its early effects in a 2001 book chapter, “living criminologically with naked emperors,” under books (A Criminologist’s Quest for Peace) at; a summary of my conclusions also appears as an epilogue to Myths That Cause Crime, another book at the same website.

                Under CompStat, every shift sergeant gets a monthly printout of his or her officers’ patrol performance: how many arrests they have made, and how many reports of any of seven federally defined offenses: murder and non-negligent homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, arson, and auto theft.  Most arrests are for public order or drug offenses that don’t count as index crimes.  From the individual officer on up the managerial chain, the pressure is on to keep arrests up, and crime counts down.  When I rode with police forty years ago in a “high-crime” area, some officers already recognized that their opinion of those they supposedly served was distorted by hearing complaints and by seeing people at their worst all the time.  Doing the paperwork was an added burden on those who filed offense reports.  CompStat further discourages officers from what little opportunity they have to get to know people they police personally, from being at all responsive to those among whom they patrol.  Meanwhile, what counts most is finding bad guys out on the streets where it is relatively safe.  As CompStat heightens attention to law enforcement, policing becomes more proactive, and for better or worse, less reactive…more impersonal, more subject to stereotypes, more self-fulfillingly dangerous in police minds and to black and brown bodies in police practice.

                Now, from NYC Mayor De Blasio and from President Obama, we hear calls and movement to get police to know, feel and respect the full humanity of people of color they work among.  Since the late 1960s, there have been models of “service-style” policing cited, notably in middle-class neighborhoods with children, for treating community members in the manner of social workers who know their clients and the groups to which they belong.  The perceived and learned needs of community members play a larger role in officers’ lives and professional advancement than crime-fighting numbers.  But where CompStat has taken hold, it will take conscious effort to substitute the importance of community members’ police evaluations, in their own terms and words, for the importance of CompStat numbers they create.  Here as elsewhere, peacemaking entails letting go of attachment to counting crime and criminality.  Love and peace, hal

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