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Exclusive Audio: “Reply All” explores what happens when the NYPD got a crime-fighting computer

Exclusive Audio: “Reply All” explores what happens when the NYPD got a crime-fighting computer
[Image: courtesy of Gimlet Media]

The first time that P.J. Vogt, host of the Reply All podcast, heard about the crime-tracking computer program CompStat, he was watching the TV show The Wire. “I think they had a CompStat subplot where people were fudging numbers and hiding murders,” he says. “But I didn’t realize in real life how much the pressure from CompStat had shaped policing, both in terms of pushing cops in some cases to disappear serious crimes and also at the same time putting tremendous pressure on police officers to issue summonses and misdemeanors for low level, quality-of-life offenses.”

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Over the past year, Vogt has been researching CompStat’s use in the New York Police Department. The program, which is short for COMPare STATistic, was created by Jack Maple in the early ’90s when he was a New York City transit cop. It became the most successful crime-fighting computer program–until humans and their love of analytics and success-filled track records got in the way. Vogt’s report, including many interviews with police officers and secret recordings , is out in a two-part episode, available here.

“CompStat was designed to do something really amazing,” Vogt tells Fast Company. “It was supposed to make it so that police commanders had to focus on every single crime that happened in their neighborhood–not just the crimes that happened to affluent people. And it was supposed to show the police where crime was happening so they could figure out where to put cops and detect crime patterns much faster. Like, you could figure out that what looked like an insane huge crime wave was maybe just a couple of very busy criminals.”

While the system worked extremely well, according to Vogt, police officers started to game the system to make themselves and their neighborhoods look better in the eyes of the computer program. They would either have their officers “arrest tons of people for little crimes” like “blocking the sidewalk or drinking a beer in public,” which primarily targeted people of color. They would also artificially deflate crime numbers. “[One] way to stay on top of that number was just to hide crime. Refuse to report it, bully people out of filing police complaints, manipulate the reports themselves, all sorts of things. And that meant that serious crime went undetected. This happened even with rape and murder cases, which I found shocking,” says Vogt, adding that “a lot of the attitude that justified this kind of policing was just old-fashioned, straightforward racism.”

While the real-life results of the numbers game were startling, to some extent, Vogt could relate: “One thing that got me interested in the story was that I felt like I know the experience of working at a job that becomes numbers-obsessed, where you have to chase some analytic in a way that feels crazy. But I didn’t realize that cops had experienced that before most people–before, like, bloggers. And obviously for them, the stakes and consequences are on such a vastly different scale.”

Listen to an exclusive audio clip here and subscribe to Reply All here:

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