By the Numbers

ATF uses statistics to pump up its crime-fighting skills.

"A 1,050 percent gain in firearms trafficking referrals, 96 percent gain in total defendants referred, 58 percent gain in gang referrals. Congratulations!"

-ATF Headquarters

Oh, what a difference statistics can make. That's what the Los Angeles field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives learned after turning to comparative statistics, or COMPSTAT, to reduce firearms trafficking. The proof is in the numbers, highlighted in this congratulatory e-mail. Comparative statistics is a performance measure strategy aimed at ensuring that resources are deployed where they will be most effective. The Los Angeles Police Department has used the scientific methodology for several years as a primary tool in fighting violent crime. The concept offers a versatile and effective model that could benefit other local, state and federal agencies. After researching the Los Angeles Police Department's COMPSTAT process, ATF implemented a similar program in its 10 Southern California field offices in January 2006.

ATF found that with COMPSTAT it could measure its internal performance and its efforts in conjunction with the Los Angeles Police Department. The system could show, for example, whether the division was pursuing all firearms trafficking cases referred by its intelligence group. And it could reveal whether gun-related homicides were increasing or decreasing in certain sections of the city. COMPSTAT could assist the command staff in measuring what ATF was doing and, more important, what it wasn't doing.

Any law enforcement agency that wants to cut violent crime while increasing accountability should consider these basic principles of COMPSTAT:

  • Accurate and timely intelligence to determine which hot spots can be improved with a redirection of resources. For ATF in Los Angeles, certain street gangs and firearms traffickers are the targets.
  • Effective tactics that involve initiating any and all investigative techniques to aggressively attack the problem. These include undercover operatives, federal search warrants and even surveillance aircraft.
  • Rapid deployment of personnel and resources to identify gangs and firearms traffickers and address trouble spots.
  • Relentless follow-up by investigators to ensure long-term success once the problems are addressed and leads are developed.

Where to Start

For any agency, the ability to measure results requires baseline data. ATF derives those statistics from NFORCE, an internal system that stores investigation reports, arrest data and defendant information. Using NFORCE, the Los Angeles field division can get a snapshot of its results.

For instance, numbers for arrests, defendants submitted for prosecution, firearms trafficking and gang cases all were compiled. These statistics have been respectable, but the division believed it could improve conviction rates and reduce violent crime by redirecting its resources.

When ATF leaders challenged special agents in charge to develop strategies to curb firearms-related crime, the Los Angeles division developed COMPSTAT ATF. The strategy allows them to ensure that resources are commensurate with performance measures.

Prior to initiating any long-term case, supervisors would have to ask, "What impact will this case have on violent crime and is it measurable?" One innovative group supervisor justified the initiation of an undercover storefront operation by reviewing crime statistics in a certain area of Southern California and projecting that the operation would significantly reduce firearms-related offenses in that area. The operation was successful, credited with dismantling a violent home invasion crew just before its planned takeover of a local residence.

Measuring Up

The adage of "what gets measured gets done" has been key to implementing COMPSTAT ATF. The division identified the following performance measures to assess its effectiveness, though the process is fluid and will be evaluated and adjusted every quarter:

  • Number of defendants convicted.
  • Percentage of criminal cases resulting in at least one defendant being convicted.
  • Percentage of defendants convicted who are armed career criminals.
  • Percentage of defendants convicted who are gang members or associates.
  • Percentage of defendants convicted who are involved in firearms trafficking.
  • Percentage of investigations with three or more defendants that result in a conviction.
At a recent Federal Executive Board briefing, Navy Rear Adm. Mark Skinner recommended sharing performance measure data with everyone involved in a process to promote buy-in from subordinates and superiors. Sharing all data-not just the positive kind-with the community and other law enforcement agencies is a prime goal of COMPSTAT. ATF's stakeholders include local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and citizens.

The Los Angeles field division's COMPSTAT program is still young, but it's clearly headed in the right direction. As evidenced in the e-mail from headquarters, gains in firearms trafficking and defendant and gang referrals have been significant.

Other agencies considering this approach must meet several requirements. First is to select a data collection tool. Second, develop and closely monitor performance measures. Most important, managers should avoid a cookie-cutter approach to addressing performance and customize a strategy that achieves accountability, crime reduction and public awareness of their law enforcement mission.

John A. Torres, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles field division, is a 24- year veteran of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

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