Making sense of COMPSTAT: A theory-based analysis of organizational change in three police departments

James J. Willis*, Stephen D. Mastrofski, David Weisburd

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

155 Scopus citations


COMPSTAT, the latest innovation in American policing, has been widely heralded as a management and technological system whose elements work together to transform police organizations radically. Skeptical observers suggest that COMPSTAT merely reinforces existing structures and practices. However, in trying to assess how much COMPSTAT has altered police organizations, research has failed to provide a broader theoretical basis for explaining how COMPSTAT operates and for understanding the implications of this reform. This article compares two different perspectives on organizations - technical/rational and institutional - to COMPSTAT's adoption and operation in three municipal police departments. Based on fieldwork, our analysis suggests that relative to technical considerations for changing each organization to improve its effectiveness, all three sites adopted COMPSTAT in response to strong institutional pressures to appear progressive and successful. Furthermore, institutional theory better explained the nature of the changes we observed under COMPSTAT than the technical/rational model. The greatest collective emphasis was on those COMPSTAT elements that were most likely to confer legitimacy, and on implementing them in ways that would minimize disruption to existing organizational routines. COMPSTAT was less successful when trying to provide a basis for rigorously assessing organizational performance, and when trying to change those structures and routines widely accepted as being "appropriate." We posit that it will take profound changes in the technical and institutional environments of American police agencies for police departments to restructure in the ways anticipated by a technically efficient COMPSTAT.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)147-188
Number of pages42
JournalLaw and Society Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2007


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