Did Performance Measurement Cause America's Police Problem?

Some argue it can be traced back to how departments evaluate their officers.

Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene

Katherine and Richard are Governing columnists with expertise in government management. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

You’ve doubtless heard the maxim “what gets measured, gets managed.” Sometimes it’s attributed to management guru Peter Drucker, though others also get credit for it. But whoever actually coined the phrase, we remember the first time we became aware of it, about a quarter of a century ago.

It seemed like a purely positive sentiment to us back in the days when we naively believed that performance measurement could cure most governmental ills. If gathering data about inputs, outputs and outcomes could solve all management problems, then cities and states had access to a golden key to a more effective and efficient future. Then reality intervened and we recognized that even good measurements don’t necessarily result in the right policy or practice changes.

But, somewhat more ominously, we’ve become aware of a troubling question that lurks in the field of performance measurement: What happens if we’re not measuring the right things in the first place? If Drucker -- or whoever -- was right, doesn’t that mean that we may manage government programs in a way that leads to more problems? Sometimes, for example, states and localities focus their measurements on the speed with which a service is delivered. Faster always seems better. But often delivering a service quickly means doing so less effectively.

For fire departments, response times are a commonly used measure of service quality.  But "the requirement for low response times may incentivize firefighters to drive fast," said Amy Donahue, professor and vice-provost for academic operations at the University of Connecticut. "And it has been shown that while speeding saves very little in terms of total driving time, it is much more dangerous -- both to those in the emergency vehicle and other innocents who might get in their way. The potential for accidents is high, and when they happen, the consequences can be very tragic."

As the field has become aware of these dangers, many agencies are trying to mitigate them by improving education, prohibiting responders from exceeding speed limits, and requiring responders to participate in emergency vehicle operators programs.

Examples like this one are everywhere. But we just came across something in the March 2015 edition of New Perspectives in Policing that had never occurred to us before and that seems to be widely ignored by public safety organizations around the country. It was written by Malcolm K. Sparrow, professor of practice of public management at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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As violent incidents in several of America’s cities show the underlying tensions between police and the public they serve, Sparrow argues that some of this dissonance has actually been encouraged by the fact that most police departments are pushed to measure crime clearance and enforcement. These are important factors, but they have little to do with community satisfaction. Meanwhile, he points out that “a few departments now use citizen satisfaction surveys on a regular basis, but most do not.”

The measures currently used do little to demonstrate the success of police departments in detecting problems at an early stage and preventing them from becoming harmful to a community’s well-being. As he 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.”

Sparrow 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.”

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