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How to Build Trust in Policing

Measure what really matters.

Following recent deadly police-citizen encounters, such as those in Ferguson, Charleston, New York City, Baltimore, and elsewhere, trust in the police has plummeted. Gallup recently reported that confidence in the police has reached a 22-year low and is much lower among blacks, who have borne the brunt of both crime and overly aggressive policing. This is an urgent matter of public safety, because in communities that feel estranged, citizens are less likely to work in collaboration with the police, reporting crimes, or acting as witnesses. And research and practice tell us that people are more likely to obey the law when they believe in the legitimacy of police authority. For these reasons, restoring this trust is at the core of the various recent prescriptions for police reform.

In the 1980s, a few large police departments sought to establish healthy relationships with those they serve through community policing, such as the Community Patrol Officer Program (CPOP), developed in New York with advice from the Vera Institute. Under CPOP, officers were assigned to a beat and charged with getting to know neighborhood residents and merchants, and working with them to identify and resolve conditions that bred crime. The program was successful: community patrol officers integrated activities such as attending community meetings and organizing block associations into their crime-fighting responsibilities, and received fewer civilian complaints than other officers.

Yet the concept has never fully taken root. In part, this is because around the same time that CPOP and other community policing programs were piloted, police agencies started intensively measuring success based on crime statistics and trends in specific neighborhoods or precincts. They developed a management system — Compstat — around this. Compstat (the term is derived from “Compare Statistics”) is now central to police management decisions regarding who, what, where, and when to police. Compstat has been adopted by both large and small police agencies across the U.S.; its beauty is that it can be customized to an agency’s priorities and resources. In many police departments — where Compstat meetings occur every week or two and bring together police executives, precinct commanders, and crime analysts — crime statistics are regarded as the best indicator of police success. Precinct commanders who are unable to keep crime numbers low are often under scrutiny and pressure to drive down their numbers. We manage what we measure.

How can the policing profession hold itself accountable for building and nurturing the trust of its communities? The solution requires integrating the community back into policing, from philosophy to management and operations. But this must go beyond training, citizen oversight, body cameras, and other important reforms. Police managers need a new Compstat that focuses on more than crime stats and crime reduction.

The next frontier for police reform is enhancing Compstat so that it responds to the goals of community policing. This is possible. Research shows that Compstat can be modified to align with community policing goals so that it achieves public safety in the way that the community wants and needs. By integrating data from community satisfaction surveys into a Compstat system, precinct commanders can get a real sense of their communities’ public safety priorities and trust in law enforcement, and compare it with data on neighborhood crime patterns. If a neighborhood has both a low rate of reported crime and a low level of citizen satisfaction, commanders may deduce that the crime stats are not reflecting reality on the ground so much as a reluctance to report.

And there are indeed signs of a growing national appetite for a Compstat expansion. Leading criminal justice researchers Cynthia Lum and Daniel Nagin note the need for law enforcement to “create and install systems that monitor citizen reactions to the police and routinely report results back to the public” in their Blueprint for Reinvention. The Chicago Police Department is working with Dennis Rosenbaum at the University of Illinois at Chicago to mail a police-community interaction survey to every person who was stopped for traffic violations or was a victim of a crime excluding sexual assault.

The survey is part of a new RespectStat system that will be integrated into existing Compstat meetings. The power of the Compstat model is also being used by the New York Police Department (the originators of Compstat) to identify problem officers. And earlier this month, the Vera Institute of Justice and the Police Foundation launched a new initiative to develop, test, and implement a national “Compstat 2.0” model for law enforcement agencies aiming to integrate community concerns with more traditional Compstat metrics.

At a time where community trust in police is low in many parts of the country, updating Compstat is critical as we help cultivate, rebuild, and sustain community trust.

Susan Shah is Chief of Staff at the Vera Institute of Justice. Jim Burch is Vice President, Strategic Initiatives at the Police Foundation. They are co-directors of the new initiative Compstat 2.0.