Friday, December 11, 1998

Policing gets smarter

Philadelphia had one of the nation's most brutal and backward police forces in America in the 1970s. In the late '90s the city decided, finally, to change. Here's one of many stories I wrote on how the new police commissioner went about it.


The intense weekly meetings zero in on Phila. crime statistics - and how to thwart criminals
Howard Goodman, Inquirer staff writer
LOCAL: Pg. A01

So there's this cop up in the 14th District, see, and he goes to investigate the theft of a cell phone.

What's he do? He calls the number.

And - can you believe this? - the knucklehead answers.

The cop pretends he's the owner. Tells the thief: "Hey, this phone really likes me. Will you take $50 for it?"

Sure enough, the guy agrees, they meet. Bingo! An arrest.

Captain Joseph Marker told that story yesterday, and the assembled brass roared.

"But here's why I wanted to tell you this," Marker said. "In the 14th now, we have standing orders. Every time we investigate a stolen cell phone, we dial the number."

Celebrating ingenuity, sharing information. That's the essence of a new ritual in Philadelphia policing - the weekly meeting called Compstat.

Compstat is the organizational centerpiece of the Police Department's new crime-fighting initiatives, the chief apparatus for turning the long-slumbering department into a unified, focused force.

Conducted in the half-light of one meeting room or another, with more than 50 police officials from all over the city seated at a U-shaped table with computer-generated crime maps splashed on a screen, Compstat is where district captains and the heads of special units are confronted with up-to-date statistics about crime in their areas, and questioned about them in exquisite detail.

With Police Commissioner John F. Timoney and top aides leading the grilling, it's where captains must defend the steps they have taken to fight crime.

For the commanders on the hot seat, it's a chance to show they are getting ahead of the criminals in their districts.

But if they don't know their facts, if they haven't aggressively and creatively attacked the problems on their streets, Compstat can be an occasion of intense embarrassment.

Yesterday, for the first time since the sessions began in March, Timoney opened a Compstat session to reporters.