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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Use Compstat Against Terror

Cities, Public Safety, Cities New York City, Policing, Crime Control

Over the last eight years, the New York Police Department waged the most successful war on crime in the city's history. The NYPD conquered fear as well as crime, and in so doing, sparked an economic boom and a civic rebirth that drew millions of visitors each year.

Now, fear once again threatens to shut the city down. In less than two hours, the maniacs who destroyed the World Trade Center killed more than twice the number of people murdered in all of 1990 (2,245), the pinnacle of New York's homicide epidemic. The city’s economy is reeling from the blow.

Closing the country’s borders to potential terrorists is essential to prevent future attacks. But even if U.S. immigration policies were immediately and sufficiently strengthened (a doubtful outcome), New York and the nation still face the likelihood of attacks from people already in the country.

Fortunately, the tools the NYPD developed to fight street crime — above all, the intelligence and accountability mechanism known as Compstat — are tailor-made for combating terrorism. Applying them to America’s new war, however, will require solving one of the most enduring problems in policing: turf jealousy, especially between the FBI and local law enforcement agencies.

It was to solve similar turf problems within the NYPD that Deputy Commissioner for Operations Jack Maple and Chief of Department Louis Anemone created Compstat in 1994. Police precincts were keeping crime and arrest information from each other for fear of giving a rival commander an advantage. But crime could not be conquered without maximum intelligence sharing, Maple and Anemone understood. So they began biweekly strategy meetings with precinct commanders and top brass in which all participants were required to share everything they knew.

At one early meeting, sensing a commander’s continuing reticence, Maple asked incredulously: “Whom in this room don’t we trust?”

Maple’s insistence that law enforcement commanders should be presumed equal and trustworthy partners in the fight against crime produced spectacular results. With information pooled and subjected to intense analysis and sophisticated computer mapping, previously unseen crime patterns emerged. Compstat participants forged strategies to crush problems before they became major. Within months, crime was plummeting.

Compstat had another purpose: accountability. If a commander had no plan for attacking a local crime problem — worse, if he was not even aware of the problem — grilling from top brass would expose his managerial failure. At the next meeting, if he had made no progress, there was no place to hide. For the first time in the department’s history, police officials were held accountable for reducing crime rather than solving crimes after they had occurred.

The FBI’s anti-terrorism efforts should be Compstated in every city where the bureau operates. Where a Joint Terrorism Task Force exists, the commanders of the agencies represented should meet on a biweekly basis to interrogate task force members about the progress of their investigations. Where joint task forces don’t exist, the FBI should assemble comparable meetings with all relevant agency heads. The new Fedstat meetings would have two purposes: to ensure that each ongoing investigation is being relentlessly and competently pursued, and to share intelligence.

The only fail-safe defense against terrorism is information, but it must be made available to those who can best use it. In many cases, that will be local law enforcement.

What about security objections? Doesn’t enlarging the circle of supervisors overseeing terrorist investigations increase the risk of leaks or tip-offs? While such intelligence-sharing meetings need to take great precautions to protect sources, the possibility of leaking by top law enforcement officials is overblown, argues former Chief Lou Anemone.

“You need to be accountable,” he insists. “Secrecy only covers up incompetency.”

Members of Congress are granted terrorist briefings upon request; the nation’s police commanders have at least as much need for that information to keep their communities secure and are certainly far more aware of the possibly lethal consequences of security breaches than hot-house politicians. Requiring Fedstat participants to obtain security clearances would meet the security concerns.

Even a former FBI bigwig agrees that a Fedstat for terrorism makes sense.

“The notion of bringing more people in to see if investigations are focused properly is appropriate,” says Lewis Shiliro, the recent assistant director of the FBI’s New York office. “We have to share information on a more real-time basis with any affected institution.”

Once agency heads are meeting on a regular basis to monitor terrorist investigations, the information-gathering resources available would increase dramatically. The NYPD, for instance, could target enforcement activities on suspected terrorist groups and then apply the strategy that worked so well for street crime: treat every arrest as an opportunity to get information about other crimes.

Eight years ago, no one would have believed that the NYPD could possibly cut crime by 60%, but it did. Now the lessons that it learned can help the nation rise to a new challenge.