The First Crime-Fighting Nerd
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he helped save thousands of lives.
By Farah Halime
One evening, at the now-defunct New York eatery Elaine’s, a guy in a bow tie and Allen Edmonds spectator shoes scribbled on a napkin a plan that would forever change the fabric of the city’s police force. It was 1994, and the flamboyant Jack Maple had just been named the NYPD’s second-in-command under Bill Bratton, the police commissioner appointed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. What followed was a miraculous reduction in crime.
In just 27 months as deputy police commissioner for crime-control strategies, Maple wiped out decades of accepted wisdom about police work and crime fighting by introducing CompStat, a computerized statistical system for tracking lawlessness. Obsessed with visualizing crime stats, Maple — who died of colon cancer at age 48 in 2001 — first created “charts of the future” to track robberies in subways. He then translated the system for the NYPD to predict crime patterns, and police were dispatched accordingly. The system hinged on a four-point mantra: timely intelligence, having a plan, deploying it quickly and relentless follow-up.
Jack liked the challenge when people said it was too Herculean a task.
Lt. Eugene Whyte
It all seems logical enough, but for Bratton — currently in his second stint as commissioner — Maple’s ideas were radical. “In hindsight it all made common sense, but back then it just wasn’t,” Bratton tells OZY, in a rare interview outside of a press conference. “I can remember being at a dinner with him, talking about his ideas and seeing everyone rolling their eyes, thinking, ��Here we go again with Jack Maple.’ They didn’t recognize his genius.” But, Bratton says, Maple was an example of eccentricity over convention, pulling off his “crazy ideas” in ways many could not have imagined. “It’s not nearly as much fun without Jack,” he adds.
The son of a post office employee and a nurse’s aide from Queens, Maple was a high school dropout whose trajectory didn’t look promising. But when he landed a job in the transit police, considered one of the most dangerous jobs in New York, he thrived, and at just 27 he became the youngest detective in the department, making hundreds of arrests. Maple, who fancied the nickname “crookologist,” often joked that crime fighting was better than sex.
He was only a lieutenant when Bratton took a liking to him and hired him as his deputy — a promotion that was compared in his New York Times obituary to making a Coast Guard lieutenant a three-star Navy admiral. The gamble paid off, and with the enforcement of CompStat, New York experienced a breathtaking reduction in crime.
According to an internal NYPD publication from 1996, CompStat obliterated old-fashioned policing, where crime statistics often lagged months behind events. Now, the report said, “commanders watch weekly crime trends with the same hawklike attention private corporations pay to profits and loss,” with crime statistics essentially serving as the “department’s bottom line.”
“The idea was to run it like a business,” says Lt. Eugene Whyte, who knew Maple back in 1994. “Jack liked the challenge when people said it was too Herculean a task.” In the first year, crime dropped 12 percent; the next year it dropped in every one of the city’s 76 police precincts. From 1993 to 1998, homicides dropped 67 percent, burglary was down 53 percent and robberies fell by 54 percent. Today, crime levels are at unprecedented record lows, and more than a third of the country’s big-city police departments use Maple’s system. Maples’ “apostles” have ensured the NYPD is nimble and fast-moving, Whyte says.
Despite the roaring success of CompStat, politics soon got in the way. Partly due to Giuliani’s reported belief that Bratton was getting more credit for crime reduction than he was, Bratton resigned in 1996 amid a public dispute, and Maple loyally followed. The former mayor’s spokeswoman denies there was any such dispute, adding that they are “personal friends and have been for many years.” But in the years after the rollout of CompStat, there were also more pressing questions about the reliability of the data.
For professor Eli Silverman, author of The Crime Numbers Game: Management by Manipulation, the early success of CompStat later gave way to an expectation that numbers must improve every year, no matter what, even if they are fudged.
Still, Maple, who was married three times and fathered three children — one of whom serves in the NYPD today — remains an example of triumph over established policing tactics. Twenty years after CompStat was created, replicas of the napkin on which he jotted his intentions were given to guests on hand to witness the CompStat Center being renamed the Jack Maple CompStat Center.
- Farah Halime, Farah is a British-Palestinian transplant to Brooklyn who is still trying to figure out the strange habits of New Yorkers. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, and she’s the founder of a blog called Rebel Economy. Follow Farah Halime on TwitterContact Farah Halime