Measuring Performance in a Modern Police Organization

New Perspectives in Policing

March 23, 2015
Author: Malcolm K. Sparrow

Policing in America is at a turning point. For two decades the emphasis in many departments has been on relentlessly driving down reported crime rates, often using technical means, aggressive street-order maintenance tactics, and huge numbers of arrests. While effective crime control still counts, recent events have highlighted the importance of paying attention as well to means, moderating policing styles, respecting constitutional rights, eliminating bias, using no more force or coercion than necessary, and engaging effectively with  communities. The puzzle of how to define success in a more appropriate, more comprehensive, and more balanced way – and then how to measure it – is tackled in Measuring Performance in a Modern Police Organization by Malcolm K. Sparrow, a member of the Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety and Professor of the Practice of Public Management at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

In this timely report Sparrow addresses one of the key obstacles to progress:  The police profession has long used narrow definitions of success which place inordinate emphasis on a very short list of quantitative indicators – reported crime rates, arrest rates, clearance rates, and response times.

  • ‘We need a clear vision of where Policing in America is headed. We have to pick the right combination and balance of goals from the myriad possibilities that different folks would nominate. We surely need a broader view of what it means to  succeed in the vital but enormously complex enterprise of policing. This is indeed a critical subject, and Sparrow has provided a rich and very timely paper to help the profession think through this issue. Every police chief will find ideas here they can use, and I suspect their communities will be better served as a result.’ 
    – Charles Ramsey, Co-Chair, President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing; Commissioner, Philadelphia Police Department

Police executives, Sparrow says, now need a much broader conception of the policing mission, a more expansive view of the range of community problems they can affect, and a clear understanding of the different types of work that must be integrated within one organization (functional work, process-based work, risk-based work, and crisis-response). They need to become sophisticated users of a significantly broader range of indicators, and as well as discrete frameworks, to help them gauge and manage the multiple dimensions of their departments' performance. 

This report demonstrates how the two classes of metrics that still seem to wield the most influence in many departments — crime reduction and enforcement productivity — would utterly fail to reflect the very best performance in crime control. Real success in crime control, would mean spotting emerging problems early and suppressing them before they did much harm. This performance depends on vigilance, nimbleness in response, and skill. Curiously, success of that type 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. Neither would best practice produce enormous numbers of arrests, coercive interventions, or any other specific activity; because skill demands economy in the use of force and financial resources and rests on the production of artful and well-tailored responses, rather than extensive and costly campaigns.


Measuring Performance in a Modern Police Organization was published as part of the New Perspectives in Policing Series from the Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety (2008-2014) and was funded by the OJP National Institute of Justice (NIJ).



Findings and conclusions in these publications are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice

Malcolm K. Sparrow

Photo: Martha Stewart

‘Yes, of course crime control counts. But what will happen if relentless pressure is applied to lower the reported crime rate, and no counterbalancing controls are imposed on methods, the use of force, or the integrity of the recording and reporting systems?

From the public’s perspective, the resulting organizational behaviors can be ineffective, inappropriate, and even disastrous.’– Malcolm Sparrow

Measuring Performance in a Modern Police Organization