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Measuring What Matters in Policing

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brenda J. Bond
September 5, 2017

The policing profession has come a long way in the last century in terms of utilizing data to assess their performance. The explosion of policing research, the integration of new technologies and increased demands from diverse constituency groups has pushed the police to take ownership for their work and their outcomes. Indeed, we now know what the police do operationally and managerially makes a huge difference in the safety of residents and communities. This is welcomed news. As we think about the next act of the police profession in terms of measuring what matters, we should push even harder for new measures for community safety outcomes. Some will say this idea is old news; and I agree it is. However, we continue to rely on old performance measurement systems that limit our understanding of resident and community safety, and impede opportunities for learning and improvement.

For decades, the only real standardized measure of police effectiveness and community safety was the Uniform Crime Report (UCR). The UCR, developed in the early 20th century, was the police profession’s first attempt to professionalize performance measurement. Designed and overseen by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the UCR captured the eight most serious offenses reported to the police. Police agencies were not “required” to complete and submit their UCR crime data to the FBI, but as time went on, local police agencies that did not submit their data were seen as noncompliant. As the UCR system diffused across American police agencies, research and the insights of police leaders and policymakers began to highlight the limitations and short comings of the age-old system.

In the latter years of the 20th century, a new system was introduced — the police-1010933_640National Incident-based Reporting System (NIBRS). NIBRS was created to address the shortcomings of the UCR, including capturing all crimes rather than those on a ranked scale, and capturing more details about the nature of the crime and the parties involved. As police agencies become more “data-driven” and were called upon to be more transparent and accountable for their performance, many agencies moved towards the adoption and use of NIBRS.

In the spirit of recognizing great progress, we should not overlook the significant strides made by the policing profession through the use of UCR and NIBRS. A great many agencies utilize Compstat, or some form of performance management, to monitor their progress and direct resources. What has happened in police performance measurement in the last 30-40 years is a sea of change. However, most of the agencies which have systematic performance management systems rely on either UCR or NIBRS as the center of their discussions. It is time to capture more nuanced information about community safety, fear and community opinion, as part of a systematic performance measurement and management system.

Many attempts have been made to identify measures that matter. These measures that matter include specific community policing and problem-solving measures, as well as standard measures of community fear and safety. Instruments that capture these activities and feelings have been developed and utilized in some communities. I have worked on many projects where we went door-to-door in urban crime hot spots, surveying the community about their fears, concerns and interactions with police. Countless other researchers and police leaders/practitioners have surveyed community members. However, these varied measures have not been standardized, nor have they been institutionalized within police agency performance management systems.

We are long overdue for a more community-centered performance management system. My colleague, George Kelling, and I have been working with the Police Foundation and other thought leaders, to propose a more methodical way for measuring how safe residents feel, the nature and quality of the police-community interface, and whether the outcomes of resource distributions align with community priorities and needs. Through a community-centered performance management system, police can measure and appreciate if and how they are meeting the needs and priorities of the community.

This enhanced system would require the police and community come together to identify what it is that matters. I would assume traditional measures such as homicides, assaults, motor vehicle crimes and the like would remain. But, other measures such as the ability to walk in the neighborhood, play in the park and sit on the front porch unharmed would also rise to the top. Moreover, resident ideas about police-community interactions would be captured and utilized to further the goals of community policing and a community-centered approach to community safety. This new system would truly measure what matters.

Author: Brenda J. Bond, PhD is Associate Professor and Chair of the Institute for Public Service in Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School. Dr. Bond’s research centers on the introduction and implementation of organizational change and evidence-based practices in public safety institutions. Email: [email protected]

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