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.
COMPSTAT: NEW WEAPON FOR POLICE
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.
ORIGINATED IN NEW YORK
Compstat - the word is an amalgam of "computer" and "statistics" - is an invention of the New York Police Department and was a key element in the NYPD's successful attack on crime several years ago.
It's based on the premise that crime can be stopped if incidents are placed on a map. Once commanders see exactly what's happening, they can deploy uniformed officers, plainclothes officers and detectives to zero in on the problems. With frequent questioning by their superiors, officials will learn whether the efforts are working and, if not, try something else.
The system relies on accurate crime data - something new for Philadelphia.
And it relies on a new mindset.
"In my career, I don't remember being in a room with so many police officials discussing crime.
Sounds weird, eh?" said Capt. Joseph O'Brien, commander of the 35th District, which takes in roughly Oak Lane, Fern Rock and Olney.
LOOKING FOR A LARGE ROOM
No room at Police Headquarters is large enough to hold the meetings. Yesterday's was held at the Convention Center. Next week, the department will use a conference room at the University of Pennsylvania Police Department. The following two weeks, Compstat convenes in a classroom at the Police Academy.
Chief Inspector Frank Pryor, tall and lanky, runs the meeting with a perpetually pained expression and a gravel voice that thunders annoyance, astonishment and admonition, and masks a lively sense of humor.
"But they hear my wrath sometimes," he says. "If they're not doing the job, I tell 'em, don't give me any more bull, what are you doing about the problem?"
He's flanked by Timoney and deputy commissioners. Across the room sit officials from the Highway Patrol, sexual assault, Detectives and Narcotics Divisions, along with those division commanders and district captains whose turn it is for the third degree. Each week, two of the city's eight police divisions get the treatment. Thus each division comes back for scrutiny once every four weeks.
Pryor began yesterday's session at 8 a.m. with an admonition. Police reports are going to be written correctly. Period. Commanders should spread the word.
"This is not just for 1998. This is our culture from now on," says Pryor, a veteran with 33 years on the job, now a passionate convert to accuracy in incident-writing and coding. "Next year, the year after, it's going to be as much a part of our culture as a cop with a cup of coffee."
A civilian techie projects a street grid on the screen. With digital magic, dots wash over the map, zeroing in on different areas of the city: burglaries or stolen cars or aggravated assaults.
Officials thumb through pages of statistics tracking crime citywide and in the North and Northwest Divisions - this week's subjects of study. Last week's stats are compared to the week before. The most recent 28 days are compared to the previous 28 days. The year-to-date totals are compared to last year's - mostly unreliable - year-to-date totals.
Citywide, most numbers are up, the result of crime finally being tallied correctly, without large percentages of incidents being downgraded to lesser offenses, officials say.
But in homicide and auto theft, categories known to be generally accurate in their count, the department is making headway. With just a month to go in 1998, killings are down 18 percent after years of a basically static murder rate. Car theft is down 15 percent, the first major decrease in 24 years.
It's O'Brien's turn in the spotlight. Pryor asks him: "What's the biggest problem up in the 35th, and what are you doing about it?"
Armed robbery, O'Brien says - 56 in the last four weeks. Most of the victims were LaSalle University students and employees. He's set up more patrols and surveillance.
Timoney speaks up. "I see robbery arrests are way up. Are you debriefing everybody? Are you getting any information from these 23 people you've arrested?"
It's one of Timoney's constant themes: Pump the suspects. Press harder. Keep looking for ways to get smarter than the bad guys.
Timoney has said repeatedly: "We're not here to intimidate. We're here to learn and to find out how to solve problems."
But the lessons can be stinging. At a session earlier this year, Timoney asked one captain how many of the aggravated assaults in his district were tied to domestic violence and how many to drugs.
"I didn't have the breakdown. I didn't have the answer," recalled the captain, who asked not to be identified. Timoney responded with an expletive and a warning that the captain should come prepared next time. "It was obvious he wanted the true scoop," the captain said.
"It's a tremendous process," said Officer Edward Salamon, a Compstat regular. That cell phone trick, for instance. "That happened in North Division, and the inspector from Central Division heard that, and he'll talk to his captains, and those captains will call up other captains, and the patrol people will talk to the Detective Division.
"A year from now," he said, "we're going to sit back and see those crime numbers drop and say, 'Wow, we're doing our job.' "