Did Performance Measurement Cause America’s Police Problem?

police-protestMalcolm K. Sparrow, professor of public management at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and one of my favorite researchers, writes in the 2015 edition of New Perspectives in Policing that most police departments are pushed to measure crime clearance and enforcement. While these are imagesimportant factors, he maintains, they have little to do with community satisfaction. Meanwhile, few departments use citizen satisfaction surveys on a regular basis.

That was one of my most important decisions during my years in Madison, Wisc.; to conduct an on-going “customer survey.” I wrote the following in Arrested Development:

“I came to understand that I needed a more official and systematic way to find out how we were doing. To find a way beyond just listening at community meetings, receiving comments from elected officials, or reading letters to the editor in our daily newspapers. I needed to find some way to directly ask citizens as to their level of satisfaction with our services.

“From my own experience, I knew this: citizens who have had no contact with their police tend to rate us quite high; out of sight, out of mind. Conversely, those who have had contact with us don’t rate us quite as high as those who have not. And, disturbingly, the more contact citizens have with us, the lower they tend to rate us…

“What I intended to do was create a survey of people who had contact with us – I called it a customer survey. A contact could be, for instance, making a verbal complaint, being the victim of a crime, or even being arrested. As it turned out, the results of this monthly survey became a valuable source of information. It helped me to more realistically evaluate how we were really doing.

“Think about it: without an ongoing survey, how will any police department know how it is doing? In the business world, customer feedback is essential. It should be no different in a police agency. How else will police know what their citizens think of their services? But more critical, how else will police know what services or functions need to be improved?”

In a recent article on the Governing website, Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene ask an important question “Did performance measurement cause America’s police problem?” It is a good question for all of us to ask who work in policing.

They go on: “The measures currently used by police do little to demonstrate their success in detecting problems at an early stage and preventing them from becoming harmful to a community’s well-being.

“As Sparrow writes, success at these critical goals ‘would not produce substantial year-to-year reductions in crime figures because genuine and substantial reductions are available only when crime problems have first grown out of control.’

“He points out that the two most commonly used measures of police work — crime reduction and enforcement productivity ‘fail to reflect the very best performance in crime control.’

“Clearly superior performance in crime control results from the citizens’ sense that the police are on their side and use force in a fair and effective way. But the commonly used measures don’t get to any of these things. As a result, according to a comment from the commissioner of the New South Wales Police Force in Australia, quoted by Sparrow: Sticking to the usual measures is unhealthy if it ‘causes police on the streets to set aside sound judgment and the public good in the pursuit of arrest quotas, lest they attract management criticism or compromise their chances of promotion.’”

Again, as I have frequently mentioned in this blog, policing is not about numbers, but about citizen satisfaction.

See the full article on the GOVERNING website by Barrett and Greene HERE.

Note: For those who want to go deeper in this problem, my friend and colleague Peter Scholtes’ article, “Performance Without Appraisal,” in The Leaders Handbook was very helpful to me in my struggle with eliminating traditional performance measures for police and our agency.




  1. Unfortunately, police performance is view by how many people they arrest and keeping numbers on whether crime is going up or down. BTW, If crime is going down, then why are street gangs, drug cartels, and organized crime groups in this country are still in existence?

    During the 1980s, the LAPD officers had their own ticket punching where if they got enough arrests, they could get promoted and leave the streets for dectectives, SWAT, etc. If you stay in patrol, you were look upon as being cracy for being a street cop. The trouble was that with the loss of experience patrol officers, you had LAPD cops with only 1 to 2 years of experience being supervised by LAPD sergeants who had only 2 to 3 years experience.

    In the book Beyond 911, one of the English cops who did community policing on foot was pass over several times for promotion to sergeant and the reason was that officers like him had their log books review for how many times they arrest people. If there was not enough arrests, then he got pass over. His supervising sergeant and superintendent had no idea of what he was doing out on the streets. He had to go back to reactive police (patrol car) in order to get promoted.


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