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What Compstat can learn from The Russia House

The publication of a new novel by the master of the spy genre John le Carré got me thinking about one of his other works, the underrated The Russia House. If you are yet to read the book or watch the 1990 movie with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer (76% on Rotten Tomatoes), and think you will, then stop reading now because I’m going to give away the entire plot twist. But if you read on, there is a connection to Compstat meetings that is worth some consideration.


In The Russia House, "Barley" Scott Blair is a book publisher pottering around a fair in Moscow. He is approached by an attractive Russian woman and asked to publish a manuscript written by a friend of hers, Yakov. The book contains Soviet nuclear secrets. The British Secret Intelligence Service get involved, but wants to check the veracity of the information. They ask Barley to deliver a set of questions for Yakov to answer, questions that will establish the veracity of the information and the authenticity of the author.


The climax of the movie is a tense moment when Barley is approaching a meet with Yakov. As he walks towards the meeting location, the secret service officers are discussing the risks. But what risks? They haven’t given Barley any secret materials – just a list of questions.

In the movie, an agent asks the operational lead agent, “Sir, the shopping list. It’s only questions, isn’t it? It wouldn’t tell anyone anything?”

Lead agent Ned (played by the marvelous James Fox) responds “Everything. It would tell what we know, by telling what we don’t know. And it would tell what we would most like to know.”

And in that moment, as Barley enters the building, never to be seen again, it dawns on Ned that the questions themselves have immense value to the Soviets. The questions were the goal all along.

Too many commanders and chiefs running Compstat meetings fail to appreciate the power of the questions they ask. When police chiefs ask of their area commanders minutiae details about individual cases, they are unwittingly pushing everyone in the room to recognize that you have to be up-to-date on the microscopic details of every case to survive Compstat. When police chiefs ask what a Captain is going to do to immediately alleviate a problem, the signal is sent that strategy must be instantly effective, and formulated on the spot.

No wonder Inspector Don Moser (writing in the book “Reducing Crime: A Companion for Police Leaders”) notes ”Compstat was a lather, rinse, and repeat cycle with little meaning or effectiveness and therefore little buy-in. The situation drove me bananas.”

In Chapter 4 of the book, I recount some typical Compstat questions and how they might be improved. Some of these are drawn from questions I have seen in actual Compstat meetings in my visits to numerous police departments. For example:


“Burglaries have increased. How can we arrest more burglars?”


This is a bad question because it makes assumptions that an arrest strategy will be an effective solution. This type of question will push a sub-commander into a narrow course of action. Instead:


“Why are burglaries increasing?” or “How can we prevent burglaries from continuing to increase?”


These more open questions avoid a pre-determined response or tactical reaction that may skew the analysis and draw away from more imaginative solutions.

Similarly,


“What should we do about all the violence in this district?”


This is too vague and overly broad. Research evidence from problem-oriented policing shows that being more focused leads to better crime prevention outcomes. Ask:


“Why have burglaries increased in the last month?”


A why question will give you a greater chance of understanding the drivers behind the problem.

The chief running a Compstat meeting will set the tone for how people respond to crime problems, where they will invest their energies, and the focus of units and personnel.

This tone will not be set by the answers or the ‘wisdom’ the chief dole out to their sub-commanders. Area commanders are not listening – they are just trying to get out of the meeting in one piece.

The tone will be set by the questions the chief ask. If chiefs ask for minutiae, they should not complain when area commanders don’t have a strategic perspective or plan. When they ask for individual case details, they should not complain when area commanders are not looking for patterns or seeking to address long-term chronic problems. And when they berate a lack of activity from one week to another, they shouldn’t complain that their command staff do not do enough long-term, problem-oriented police work.


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