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By-the-Numbers Policing

August 19, 2003

Los Angeles Police Capt. Walt Schick, who orchestrates the weekly meetings on crime statistics that are key to Chief William J. Bratton's reform strategy, likes to know what he's up against. He's not just talking gangbangers and auto thieves. Scrawled on a white board in his Parker Center office is this quote: "Let's don't change anything. It just confuses everybody, and I'm sure whoever thought of it originally knew what they were doing."

The mild-mannered Schick won't say who made the remark, but he figures the officer spoke for about 40% of the Los Angeles Police Department. The biggest challenge to Bratton's reforms, he says, is resistance to change. That may turn out to be true outside the tradition-bound LAPD as well.

Key to the revolution that Schick helps organize every week is a computer-mapping program called Compstat, which went into operation in Los Angeles in the spring. It pinpoints crime hot spots in the city's 18 police divisions. Each week Bratton and other top LAPD brass gather to look for patterns in dots denoting homicides, car thefts and other crimes. Commanders don't get in trouble for having dots, Bratton stresses. But they do for not having a plan.

If the dots show a string of stolen cars, the brass want to know whether the station captain has looked for chop shops to close down. If the dots show gang shootings, they want to know which gang is likely to retaliate, where the commander has assigned extra patrols and whether cops have alerted community groups in order to cool things down.

They even want to know why dots are missing. At a recent Compstat meeting, Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell pointed to a housing project notorious for crime and asked if the new immigrants living there were afraid to call the police. The commander promised to send a liaison to work on improving relations.

Computerized crime analysis allows the LAPD to identify patterns and assign officers where they are needed most. To understand how something that sounds so sensible can be controversial, consider the recent City Council uproar when the LAPD tried to get out of the business of answering privately installed burglar alarms that more than nine times out of 10 turn out to be false.

Still to come is a debate over how the LAPD should allocate homicide detectives after a Times analysis showed that those assigned to South and Central Los Angeles had the heaviest caseloads and huge backlogs.

If Los Angeles is to embrace a more preventive policing style, it will have to give up an old notion that answering false alarms, assigning random patrols and dividing police resources evenly among 15 City Council districts is the only way to police Los Angeles. Bratton at least had a record of reducing crime when he headed the Police Department in New York City. Los Angeles has only its title, as of last year, as murder capital of the nation.

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