Computing Crime: Information Technology, Police Effectiveness and the Organization of Policing
ABSTRACT How does information technology (IT) affect the organization of police work? How does it in turn affect police crime-fighting effectiveness? To answer these questions, we construct a new panel data set of police departments covering 1987-2003. We find that while IT adoption had substantial effects on a wide range of police organizational practices, it had, by itself, a negligible impact on crime-fighting effectiveness. These results are robust to various methods for controlling for agency-level characteristics and the endogeneity of IT use. We then suggest and test two explanations for this puzzle. First, we demonstrate that use of a particular technology, computerized record-keeping, increased recorded crime rates. Second, we provide evidence that IT investments only had a substantial impact on crime clearance rates and crime rates when undertaken as part of a broad set of complementary organizational practices such as those in the Compstat program.
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Computing Crime: Information Technology, Police
Effectiveness, and the Organization of Policing∗
University of Chicago
University of Chicago
December 4, 2006
How does information technology (IT) affect the organization of police work?
How does it in turn affect police crime-fighting effectiveness? To answer these
questions, we construct a new panel data set of police departments covering
1987-2003. We find that while IT adoption had substantial effects on a wide
range of police organizational practices, it had, by itself, a negligible impact on
crime-fighting effectiveness. These results are robust to various methods for con-
trolling for agency-level characteristics and the endogeneity of IT use. We then
suggest and test two explanations for this puzzle. First, we demonstrate that
use of a particular technology, computerized record-keeping, increased recorded
crime rates. Second, we provide evidence that IT investments only had a sub-
stantial impact on crime clearance rates and crime rates when undertaken as
part of a broad set of complementary organizational practices such as those in
the Compstat program.
JEL Classification: L23, M5, O33, K42
∗Garicano thanks the Toulouse Network for Information Technology (TNIT) and Heaton the Na-
tional Consortium on Violence Research (NCOVR) for financial support. We also thank Daron Ace-
moglu, David Autor, Austan Goolsbee, Robert Topel, and Toulouse Network members for their com-
ments. The authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Crime fighting is essentially an information processing task – police agents must use
the information available at the local and aggregate levels to prevent and solve crimes.1
Thus, we should expect large changes in the cost of processing information to have an
important impact on the organization of police work. In this paper we study the impact
of IT on the organization and effectiveness of policing using a newly constructed panel
data set of police agencies covering the period 1987-2003, which we have merged with
FBI local-level crime data.
Our paper contributes to a large literature on the impact of IT on the organization
of work. Despite the growing size of this literature, our knowledge of IT’s impact is still
spotty, in part due to the lack of availability of firm-level data on organizational change
and information technology adoption over time. Some previous studies of the impact
of IT cannot examine organizational changes because they use the industry as the unit
of analysis [e.g. Stiroh (2002), Autor, Katz, and Krueger (1998), and Berman, Bound,
and Griliches (1994)], or because they rely on a cross-section of firms [e.g. Acemoglu,
Aghion, Lelarge, Reenan, and Zilibotti (2006) and Bresnahan, Brynjolfsson, and Hitt
(2002)2]. Others do follow individual firms over time, but either have no data on
information technology adoption [e.g. Rajan and Wulf (2006), Berman, Bound, and
Griliches (1994)], or no information on organizational change [e.g. Brynjolfsson and
Hitt (2003)]. Only a very small number of previous papers provide firm-level evidence
on the evolution of information technology, skill usage, and organizational change;
notably Caroli and Reenen (2001), which reports data for the 1980s in the UK, and from
the early 1990s for France, and Doms, Dunne, and Troske (1997), who study a panel
of manufacturing firms between 1987 and 1992. Like these papers, our paper utilizes
firm-level data on the evolution of skills, organization, and information technology
1Following Arrow (1974), a large literature studies organizations as information processing and
problem solving institutions – e.g. Radner and Zandt (1992), Bolton and Dewatripont (1994), and
2This paper has panel data on IT and inputs, but cross-sectional information for organizational
adoption. However, it is the first to systematically examine non-manufacturing firms
– in our case, public organizations – and the first to study the majority of the firms
within the observed industry. Moreover, it is the only paper to include a long panel
(16 years) covering most of the period of the recent IT revolution. Finally, by merging
in agency-level data on crime rates and arrest levels, we are able to incorporate rich
productivity measures into our analysis.
We start by studying the impact of computerization on productivity and organiza-
tion using a panel of police departments. Our main identification strategy compares,
controlling for city size and other characteristics, the organization and productivity
of departments that adopted more computing technology to that of departments that
adopted less. Consistent with previous research,3we find that IT adoption and skill
are complementary: departments that adopt IT increase police training and introduce
college requirements for new recruits. The evidence suggests that this increase in train-
ing is primarily related to the need to learn to use new devices, rather than IT-induced
enhancement in the training process. Moreover, adopting departments become larger,
increasingly employ special units, and include a larger fraction of support personnel.
In sum, departments become more highly skilled and their organization in many ways
more complex. Despite these changes, we find little evidence that general IT adoption
resulted by itself in an increase in the effectiveness of police work, as manifested both
in clearance rates and in crime rates. We carefully analyze the generality of these re-
sults, and find them robust to alternative samples (by size, by period, early adopters,
growing versus non-growing cities, etc.) and specifications of the IT measure.
Correctly interpreting the underlying causal mechanisms at work is an important
consideration here–our findings indicating that IT promotes organizational change
could reflect reverse causality or omitted variable bias. Given the nature of organi-
zational change, which often involves simultaneous adjustments on a number of dimen-
sions and which may be driven by factors unobserved to researchers, sorting out causal
pathways can be challenging. Using the available data, we attempt to address several
3See, for example, Autor, Katz, and Krueger (1998) and Lehr and Lichtenberg (1999).
alternative explanations for the strong relationship between IT use and our organiza-
tional measures. By including both year and agency fixed effects in our specifications,
we first remove variation that may be due to systematic differences across departments
(such as geography) and well as macroeconomic trends. We also find our results robust
to inclusion of time trends by state or initial level of computerization.
If, as agencies increase in size, their optimal structure involves increasing use of IT
and changes in organizational form, failure to adequately account for agency size could
suggest a spurious effect of IT on organization. In each of our baseline regressions we
flexibly control for the relevant aspect of agency size or workload. As additional checks,
we rerun our regressions first limiting the sample to the largest and smallest agencies
and then including a full set of agency-size decile and year interactions as controls.
The strong positive relationships between IT, worker training, and worker skill persist
in these specifications.
Poorly managed departments may undergo overhauls that affect both IT use and
organizational variables. Using civil litigation cases filed against an agency in 1987 as a
measure of initial department quality, we uncover little evidence suggesting differential
IT adoption by poorly functioning agencies. Alternatively, younger, dynamic cities,
such as Houston or Seattle, may have unobserved characteristics that promote both
IT use and different bureaucratic evolution. Limiting the sample to shrinking cities or
cities with little population change does not alter our conclusions, however.
We also estimate specifications including leads of IT intensity as additional ex-
planatory variables to assess whether exogenous organizational reform could prompt
IT adoption (reverse causality), but obtain little indication of such effects. Another
possibility is that agencies with larger budgets are able to implement both information
technology and superior organizational practices such as increased training. However,
the strong relationship between IT and organization persists when we directly control
for equipment expenditure in our regressions, suggesting that this relationship is not
driven primarily by resource availability.
As a final check, we employ two different instrumental variables (PC availability in
the broader area and body armor use) that attempt to capture variation in the supply of
and demand for IT exogenous to our organization and effectiveness measures. Although
limited, our instrumental variables analysis supports the hypothesis that IT adoption
leads to organizational change. Taken as a whole, our evidence is most consistent
with a causal effect of information technology on organizational structure, with the
large technological changes driving IT adoption in the broader economy contributing
to both computerization and organizational change in the police sector but having little
apparent effect on productivity.
These findings are puzzling: while computers matter organizationally, their effects
do not show up in the productivity numbers.4We propose two possible explanations
for this puzzle, and test them: improvements in crime measurement and complemen-
First, although some information technologies, such as those that identify crime
‘hot-spots’, should improve deterrence, others could actually worsen crime statistics.
For example, if crime reporting is improved, reported crime rates will increase while
clearance rates will drop. Our data contain detailed questions on computer functions,
such as record-keeping, police dispatch, fleet management, etc. We test for heteroge-
nous effects of different technologies by simultaneously entering record-keeping and
deployment measures in our panel regressions. Offense reports increase by 10% when
computers are used for record keeping. Consistent with this hypothesis, such increases
take place for crimes that are more likely to suffer from under-reporting, e.g. larceny,
rather than those which are severe and thus always reported such as homicide. Deploy-
ment technologies, in contrast, are negatively (albeit weakly) associated with offense
Second, we consider the complementarities hypothesis, first advanced formally by
Milgrom and Roberts (1990).5Although IT by itself may have little impact, its impact
4There are precedents in the public sector for large increases in IT that lead to no observable
efficiency gains. Goolsbee and Guryan (2006), for example, find that more access to the Internet by
schools does not measurably increase student achievement.
5In their analysis of modern manufacturing, Milgrom and Roberts (1990) argue that, given the
existence of complementarities among organizational practices, a range of organizational choices may