Baltimore police idle Comstat meetings

Data-sharing lauded as tool for fighting crime, criticized for generating staff friction

April 09, 2010|By Justin Fenton | justin.fenton@baltsun.com

The Baltimore Police Department has suspended a statistics-based management tool that has been a hallmark of the department for more than a decade, saying weekly information-sharing meetings had grown "stale" and "laborious."

Using numbers and maps to spot problem areas, connect incidents and discuss tactics, police commanders and investigators had gathered in a room each Thursday for years as part of a process called Comstat. The concept has become a national law enforcement standard, and it was the inspiration for Gov. Martin O'Malley's acclaimed numbers-driven management programs.

But the meetings have been criticized by some officers who say they often devolve into browbeatings. Commanders often take a day or more to compile thick binders of information and are holed up for hours memorizing facts so as not to be caught off-guard. Confrontations are frequent.

"It's a beat-down session," said Robert F. Cherry, president of the Fraternal Order of Police union. "It's become a forum for finger-pointing and just running through a lot of numbers without giving some concrete strategies for fighting crime."

The concept, known elsewhere as Compstat, drives policing philosophies in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Newark, N.J., as well as in an increasing number of smaller jurisdictions. But Baltimore's potential move away from it comes two months after a study in New York - where the statistical method was developed - showed that more than 100 retired high-ranking officers believed it created intense pressure to manipulate crime figures.

Anthony Guglielmi, the Baltimore department's chief spokesman, confirmed that the meeting has been suspended starting this week and for the next 30 days as Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III looks for "creative ideas to revamp Comstat," which Guglielmi called "laborious" and "stale."

Guglielmi cautioned that the move did not mean police were ending a statistical-based approach to crime-fighting or that major changes were certain, though law enforcement sources said Bealefeld has been floating the prospect of change for months.

"It's not like we're going to stop looking at the stats," Guglielmi said.

An intensive look at statistics has been a major part not only of police operations, but also of the career of O'Malley.

Vowing to get tough on crime, O'Malley as mayor instilled the New York philosophies into the Police Department's operations and expanded it across agencies. The broader program, known as CitiStat, won a Harvard innovation award in 2004, and as governor, O'Malley was named one of nine "public officials of the year" by Governing magazine last year after adopting CitiStat to become the StateStat management tool.

His administration moved to broaden the concept by making grant money available to police forces across the state to implement statistics analysis.

Through a spokesman, the governor shrugged off the department's decision. While Comstat had "proven to be successful," Rick Abbruzzese said, management strategies "need to continually evolve."

Former Baltimore police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who led Comstat sessions in New York and here, said the weekly meetings were necessary and revealing.

"It allows the strongest commander to shine, and it exposes the fakers very quickly," said Norris, now a radio host. "I don't care what company it is. If you are a good employee, do you want to be buried or get a chance each week to stand in front of the CEO and show him how smart you are?"

But Phyllis McDonald, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership who helped implement Compstat in New York, said she was "delighted" that Baltimore police were interrupting the process for a month. McDonald said the department had become too focused on artificial benchmarks, and is "not getting the most out of it that they could."

It was not immediately clear how police commanders would share intelligence in the coming weeks. Total city killings are at a 33-year low this year, but the summer months traditionally bring new challenges.

Asked for comment via e-mail, Bealefeld said he had "nothing to add."

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said she supports "new ways to enhance accountability and increase use of technology to reduce gun violence, gang activity and crime."

"She knows that Commissioner Bealefeld wants to deliver the best results in the most effective and efficient way possible," said spokesman Ryan O'Doherty in an e-mail.

Sources who have attended the meetings cite progress in several recent cases because of the Comstat process, including those involving DNA and links between killings. Officials linked a rash of church burglaries along Poplar Grove in Southwest Baltimore, and zeroed in on a suspect in a series of sexual assaults, one including a 13-year-old girl.

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