CompStat vs. community policing

Proposed ballot measure triggers debate over what principles should guide SFPD

CompStat creates maps generated by crime data in San Francisco, but some say there's more to policing than studying numbers

By Alex Emslie

Two competing visions for the San Francisco Police Department are central to a looming debate involving the mayor and his police chief, who favor the high-tech yet impersonal CompStat model, and progressive members of the Board of Supervisors who are pushing for a community-based, cops-walking-beats blueprint for SFPD.

District 5 Sup. Ross Mirkarimi introduced a proposed ballot measure on June 7 that would require the police chief to institute foot patrols in all districts and ask the Police Commission to establish a written community policing policy. SFPD Chief George Gascón opposes the initiative, instead favoring a reliance on the new CompStat system to determine how best to use police resources.

The terms "CompStat" and "community policing" have become trendy buzz words, UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring told the Guardian, so they mean different things to the police departments that employ them, muddying the waters of the current debate.

"When labels get popular, they get pasted into lots of different things," said Zimring, who wrote The Great American Crime Decline (Oxford University Press, 2006) and is working on a second book about the crime rate drop in the 1990s in New York City, where CompStat orginated. Yet the two models point to differing law enforcement philosophies.

At its most basic, CompStat uses computerized crime mapping software to drive police deployment decisions. It emphasizes lowering a city's crime rate by centralizing authority, spotting statistical trends, and targeting crime hot spots. Community policing, a model embraced by many U.S. police departments in the 1980s and '90s before CompStat swept the nation, grounds police officers in the neighborhoods they serve, decentralizing authority. The model seeks to prevent crime with regular patrols that develop relationships on their beats and lets the community help set law enforcement priorities.

"There is not community policing in San Francisco," Mirkarimi — the only member of the board to go through the police academy — told the Guardian. "I don't care what anybody says. If they say there is, then it is isolated. It's unique to that particular experience or location."

Proponents of CompStat insist the new model is really just a part of community policing. Gascón wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors in February saying the proposed legislation "oversteps the jurisdiction of the legislative branch," "attempts to give district station captains authority and discretion that rightfully belong to the chief of police," and "will deprive the department of the flexibility it needs to address public safety throughout the city."

Mirkarimi doesn't oppose CompStat and said he sees merit in the program's statistical collection, which has long been a shortcoming in the SFPD. "But I caution against any over-reliance on CompStat as a method that dictates how policing and public safety should be applied," Mirkarimi told us. "Because the casualty of this over-reliance will be a compromising of any hopes of having true community policing."

The SFPD website portrays CompStat as starting with data collection and then, similar to community policing, encouraging officers to find creative solutions to ongoing problems, anything from singular incidents of burglary to repeated graffiti or even a spike in murders. The crime triangle, a lasting symbol of community policing, illustrates that victims, suspects, and locations are all necessary for crime to thrive, and successfully policing even one of those factors can prevent crime.