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by Peter Moskos

August 17, 2016

"The Light's Better Here"

A nice critique of quantitative data over at City Observatory. It's about transportation planning, but the lesson can be applied to anything, especially policing:
Reliance on data to solve complex problems is subject to what’s sometimes called the “drunk under the streetlamp” effect: An obviously intoxicated man is on his hands and knees on the sidewalk, under a streetlamp. A passing cop asks him what he’s doing. “Looking for my keys,” the man replies. “Well, where did you drop them?” the cop inquires. “About a block away, but the light’s better here.
If anything, we have too much data on arrests, response time, clearance, even (sometimes) use of force. These are easy things to count. That doesn't make them particularly useful or qualitatively significant. Things you can count won't lead us to solutions that involve foot patrol, discretion, and positive interactions with the public. In policing, a job well done is just too hard to count.


LemmusLemmus said...

Shouldn't that be "quantitative data" in the first sentence?

Moskos said...

Yes. Thank you. That was a test. (No, it wasn't.) You passed.

hotrod said...

"Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted" - sometime credited to Albert Einstein, but credit is probably owed to William Bruce Cameron who apparently was, appropriately enough, a sociologist.

More recently, USN Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Victoria Stattel said this about her mission in Afghanistan - "I learned that I am deeply concerned about our policies. Though the best of intentions may be from where we start, I have come to realize our objectives are almost always lost in metrics and want for numbers…"

Personally - I (hotrod) was working on a police training team in Iraq and was, frequently, driven nuts by the required reporting. Not that we had to do it, but that we spent a great deal of time talking things that could be quantified, e.g. # of stations, pistols, cops, bullets on hand, whatever. All important, to be sure, but was equivalent time spent on leader descriptions, corruption indicators or specialty unit narratives? eh... the State Dept guys were better at talking the intangibles, but they were by no means perfect.

The overemphasis (imo) on quantifiable sits certianly an Army characteristic across the board. It obviously exists outside of the military. I suspect it's in in our national culture.