Building a better Comstat

Our view: Bealefeld’s effort to revamp the decade-old process makes sense

April 12, 2010

Comstat was the hallmark of a great turnaround for Baltimore's police department. The data-driven weekly analysis sessions, borrowed from New York along with a couple of police commissioners, certainly played a crucial role in focusing the department's resources in the right place and beginning a long, steady decline in the crime rate. Because of the success Baltimore has seen since Comstat began — its advent coincided with the end of a decade of 300-plus annual murders — it's understandable that Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III is facing some questions because of his decision to suspend the meetings for a month. Why mess with something that has worked?

First of all, it's important to understand that Mr. Bealefeld has no intention of ending Comstat or moving away from using data to analyze how best to deploy police. In fact, the department continues assembling statistics even during this hiatus, and giant briefing books are still landing on the commissioner's desk. What the commissioner is suggesting is not a grand rethinking of Baltimore's crime fighting strategy but that after doing something for 10 years, it's a good idea to reflect on whether it can be done more effectively.

The Comstat sessions are famous, perhaps because of their portrayal on "The Wire," as venues for the police's top brass to dress down subordinates and browbeat them into improving the numbers any way they can. And to some extent, the meetings are an opportunity for people to be held accountable for their successes and failures. That happened last summer, for example, after officers failed to take a report from a nanny who was mugged in Bolton Hill while she was walking a baby; the district commander faced tough questions at Comstat and resigned soon thereafter.

But as Commissioner Bealefeld sees it, that's not the real point of Comstat. He wants to use it as a tool to use individual cases to identify failings that can be addressed systematically. If the department discovers at Comstat that one shift in a particular district could be doing something better, he doesn't just want to make sure that group of officers improves, he wants that information shared with every shift in every district. Instead of fixing individual potholes, he wants to find a better way to pave the streets.

The commissioner also says he's worried that his district commanders spend too much time worrying about what he or the other top department leaders are going to ask them in Comstat and not enough time worrying about how to lead their departments. He wants his commanders to know the statistics, but he's more interested in seeing them marry that data-driven analysis with the intelligence officers collect on the streets.

That's a worthy goal. As it is, the planning and research division at police headquarters churns out a mountain of data every week and ships it to district commanders, who spend hours memorizing it so they don't get caught unprepared at Comstat. But the districts have data analysis capabilities of their own, and ideally, they would be taking more of the lead in spotting trends and forwarding the analysis to headquarters.

Finally, whatever people think about Comstat, there can be no arguing about the fact that Mr. Bealefeld has presided over a period of remarkable success for the Baltimore Police Department. As he rethinks this or any other element of Baltimore's crime fighting effort, he has earned the benefit of the doubt.

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