Ex-NYC Police Commissioner Takes Credit for RFID’s Success

William Bratton says CompStat led to the dramatic decline in auto theft in the 1990s, but it was actually radio frequency identification that accomplished this.
Published: February 18, 2010

Last week, I wrote about a report claiming the New York City Police Department had manipulated information in a database designed to help it analyze where crimes are happening, so that it could better deploy police officers (see Numbers Don’t Lie, But People Do). This week, while riding the train into Manhattan, I read an opinion piece in The New York Times by William Bratton, a former New York City police commissioner, who defended CompStat (see Crime by the Numbers).

In the article, Bratton writes: “The notion that there has been widespread downgrading of felony crime under CompStat is way off-base. First, categories of crime that are nearly impossible to downgrade, notably homicide and auto theft, have declined much more than the categories that might be more readily manipulated. Auto thefts, which must be reported accurately because victims need crime reports to make insurance claims, are down 90 percent since 1993, the year before CompStat was inaugurated.”

Actually, the decline in auto theft had nothing to do with CompStat, and everything to do with radio frequency identification. Really! RFID reduced auto theft. It’s one of the technology’s greatest successes. Let me explain.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, car theft in Europe soared. People in Eastern Europe crossed into Western Europe, stole cars and drove them back to the East, where they were safe from prosecution. The insurance companies were getting killed making payouts on these stolen vehicles, so they searched for a solution. RFID was the answer.

In 1994, to reduce auto theft, European manufacturers introduced car immobilizers. These consisted of a key with an RFID transponder in a plastic housing around the key, and an interrogator in the steering column. To start the vehicle, the reader must first receive the correct serial number from the RFID tag in the key. So even if a key were to be duplicated, it wouldn’t be able to start the car, because the reader wouldn’t get the serial number from the RFID tag.

The result? Overnight, the theft of cars with RFID immobilizers went down dramatically. The system was expanded to vehicles made worldwide, and such theft also declined dramatically. As a result, consumers got a big benefit from RFID—their car insurance is now lower because RFID has reduced theft.

I don’t point this out to say CompStat was useless. I’m all in favor of using information to improve the way you do things. But Mr. Bratton, RFID hasn’t received much good press—don’t steal its proper credit for its success in lowering crime in New York.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.