Upping the numbers game in Oakland PD

There is a lot of public pressure and public expectation in Oakland these days as a result of the increased oversight and monitoring of our police department.  The public has been promised much in the way of reforms, better service, smarter policing, something about community policing (but noone is quite sure what that means), better management (by having multiple people in charge presumably?) and a safer city overall.  All the high powered, well compensated experts and consultants in town come with varied baggage and success and all have something important to offer this city.  There is one thing that does seem to unify them all (Frazier, Wasserman, Bratton): data. They all talk up the importance of having and using good data. Data to drive geographic policing or hotspot policing, data for investigations, data for tracking processes and data to spot trends and patterns.

We’ve had some version of the popular model of CompStat in Oakland for a few years now, Batts implemented it when we were still contracting for him to do crime analysis.  Every city does it differently, as they should, and every city understands it slightly differently.  If you still see that word and think it means a computer system or program then please consider yourself corrected- it’s not a program, a piece of software, despite its name. It’s a method, a process. You could do it with pen and paper if you were a genius. Most of us prefer computers however. When things get tight in any city or company you have two options commonly considered- do much less, or try to be smarter and do more with less. Sure there are other options, but this is a blog, not a PhD.  With ~635 sworn officers Oakland has to get smarter. CompStat approaches can help but they are not THE answer. (Given this post was drafted a week ago, new today from Bratton’s report is important context for this: “The city’s Compstat process was more of a "presentation by a captain than a system of vigorous strategic oversight.”“ Source)

There is a fascinating battle raging (perhaps that’s overdramatic- but it’s saturday and I have a good beer open), between some respected academics overtheir opinions/statements on the validity of things like the actual impact of CompStat and other policing strategies, especially from NYCPD. New York is a favorite because of the huge size and corresponding huge samples in data availability, it’s massive drop in crime counts over 20 years and it’s scandals and successes.

When we move to a model where our police department is truly/heavily data driven (no I do not believe it is this way currently) we must be aware of the good and the bad of this approach, and more importantly be aware of the ways this approach can be abused.  Trust in police in Oakland is incredibly low and this is sad, wrong, broken, disgusting etc etc. On all angles. There is much to do to repair this and I propose that we must, it’s not an ok thing to maintain the status quo here.  But with more numbers involved, better reporting and better analysis and communication of these data (that’s the plan right?) comes an increase in the types of activities that have sullied new York City’s reputation and cast valid doubts over the veracity of the crime reduction facts touted there.

Whenever there is a major change in policy or practice we should, as a smart society, be evaluating the impact of these changes. Better sign-up process for food stamps online? You should see an uptake in enrollment – if not you’re missing something. That kind of simple evaluation.  Change the police reporting for multiple types of basic crimes including burglaries so people can only report them online now and no officer will show? You should be providing solid numbers to the public and the city administration on the trends in all those crimes as well as numbers on closure and conviction for those crimes. Things don’t stop at a report- if your reports go up, are you finding more people, less, no change? Any answer means something and should be critically be considered to see what it tells us.

When OPD ramps up it’s technology (Oh God let it be soon) and data use and builds its capacity for dynamic use of CompStat methods we will need to be ever more vigilant of the types of manipulation that have been documented in New York City.  Eterno & Silverman have a book in print that does a stunning job of documenting the abuses of the NYCPD to manipulate the numbers used in the CompStat program, it’s expensive, sorry.  It provides what to me are the most comprehensive and broad analytical assessments of the claims of crime reduction in New York City and shows them to be fraudulent and false overall.  Knowing the kinds of improbable realities they describe should position Oakland’s city staff and our community well to judge if these things begin to occur in Oakland.  For example, if we hear claims of reduction in assaults by 50%, yet our hospitalization reports increase by 90% we should be asking what the hell is going on.  Crime data are in my experience the most manipulated and most misleading figures in common use. Pressure from senior officers to suppress major crime statistics is something that will erode the remaining trust in OPD and will not have a positive impact on crime and violence prevention in our city.

If you want to see more of the critique of Zimring’s ideas that are quite relevant to Oakland check out this brief -then buy the book 😉


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