Police Strategies Reduce Crime
A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine provides an extensive literature review of research as it pertains to proactive policing. It may be one of the most significant studies of law enforcement tactics in America. It was financed by the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
The focus is proactive policing versus traditional law enforcement (i.e., responding to calls and routine patrol).
Back in the 1970’s, we were promised a golden age of criminal justice research where we would find the right approached and ingredients to reduce crime. The resulting decades have posed more questions than answers.
The principal finding of the report is that research is not robust enough to draw firm, long-term conclusions for many efforts. The collective data indicate that most proactive police efforts work in the short run with larger and longer effects in question.
The report is simply stating that the existing research has its limitations. But the short-term results of many proactive policing efforts are encouraging. Remember that there were a considerable number of criminologists suggesting (as late as the mid-1990’s) that police tactics had little impact on crime.
Everyone (including this site) makes grand pronouncements as to law enforcement strategies and their effect on the community, but when it comes to impact, the evidence is often limited.
For example, we endlessly hear of support for community-oriented policing. But this and previous research suggest that COP models have little to no effect on crime.
All crime control strategies were not the emphasis of the report. For example, target hardening (i.e., good doors or locks, using security surveys) have consistently shown their value to reduce crime without displacement. Target hardening tactics used by law enforcement may be one of the most effective strategies for reducing property crime.
The report addresses an array of issues. Race and policing is an immensely hot topic but, once again, the evidence is limited. The authors state that there simply isn’t enough data to come to a firm conclusion. They do suggest that if you are going to target a community because of high crime, people who live in that community are going to be disproportionately affected. That doesn’t make proactive policing a defacto racist endeavor, it’s more of a mathematical equation. Regardless of a troubled history or community perceptions, residents of high crime communities have an enhanced risk of interacting with extended policing strategies.
We do not offer everything provided by the report; the focus of this article is on police-initiated crime reduction programs. For example, we exclude observations on legal arguments, fear of crime or CCTV cameras for the sake of brevity.
Finally, a major issue with the report is that it doesn’t offer a percentage assessment of crime reductions for each strategy, thus we don’t know “how” strong a reduction was.
For example, you can state that offender rehabilitation efforts reduce recidivism, but a more detailed review reveals that some programs work, some don’t, but most of the recidivism reductions were ten percent or less, Crime in America-Program Recidivism. Yes, there are decreases, but if more than 90 percent of offenders fail (arrested-prosecuted-incarcerated) is it truly a success?
Other corrections evaluations provide an overall assessment of impact (i.e., 8 to 14 percent reductions) for drug courts, Crime in America-Drug Courts. It would help is this report offered similar conclusions per strategy.
Proactive policing refers to policing strategies with the intent to prevent and reduce crime. They differ from traditional reactive approaches in policing, which focus primarily on responding to crime once it has occurred and answering citizen requests for police service. The shift toward proactive policing began in the 1980s and 1990s, and today these strategies are used widely in the United States.
The report reviews evidence on specific proactive policing strategies’ impacts on crime and disorder, including the strategies below. Evidence suggests that a number of these methods can be successful in reducing crime and disorder. However, evidence in many cases is restricted to localized crime prevention impacts, such as specific places, or to specific individuals or groups of individuals; relatively little is known about whether and to what extent they will have benefits at the larger jurisdictional level or across all offenders.
The evidence is generally on short-term crime-prevention effects and is seldom able to speak about long-term ones.
Hot Spots policing focuses resources on locations where crime is concentrated—for example, by proactively increasing police patrols (by car or by foot), or through police crackdowns in order to deter and respond more effectively to vandalism, break-ins, robberies, drug dealing, prostitution, and other crimes. The available research suggests that hot spot policing interventions produce short-term crime-reduction effects without simply displacing crime into surrounding areas. Instead, studies tend to find that areas nearby improve as well.
Predictive Policing uses sophisticated computer algorithms to predict changing patterns of future crime, often promising to be able to identify the exact locations where specific types of crimes are likely to occur next. There are currently insufficient rigorous empirical studies to support a firm conclusion for or against the efficacy of crime-prediction software or of associated police response tactics.
Problem-Oriented Policing seeks to identify and analyze the underlying causes of crime problems and to respond using a wide variety of methods and tactics, from improving lighting and repairing fences to cling lighting and repairing fences to cleaning up parks and improving recreational opportunities for youth. Although this strategy has been popular, there are surprisingly few rigorous program evaluations of it. Overall, the small group of rigorous studies show that problem-oriented policing programs lead to short-term reductions in crime. The studies generally do not assess long-term impacts or possible jurisdictional impacts.
In Third-Party Policing, police seek to persuade or coerce property owners, business owners, public housing agencies, and other organizations to take some responsibility for preventing crime or reducing crime problems. While there are only a small number of evaluations of these programs, the available evidence supports a conclusion that third-party policing generates short-term reductions in crime and disorder; evidence of long-term impacts is more limited.
Focused Deterrence Strategies attempt to deter crime among repeat offenders by understanding underlying crime-producing dynamics and implementing a blended strategy of law enforcement, community mobilization, and social service actions in response. These strategies also allow police to increase the certainty, swiftness, and severity of punishment. Evaluations of focused deterrence programs show consistent crime-control impacts in reducing gang violence, street crime driven by drug markets, and repeat individual offending. The available literature suggests that these programs have both short-term and long-term areawide impacts on crime.
Stop-Question-Frisk (SQF) programs rely upon the legal authority granted by court decisions to engage in frequent stops in which suspects are questioned about their activities, frisked, and often searched. Evaluations of focused uses of SQF targeting places with violence or serious gun crimes and focusing on high-risk repeat offenders consistently report short-term crime-reduction effects; there is an absence of evidence on long-term impacts. Evidence on the crime-reduction impact of SQF when implemented as a general, citywide crime control strategy is mixed.
Broken Windows Policing intends to disrupt the forces of disorder before they overwhelm a neighborhood or to restore afflicted neighborhoods to a point where community sources of order can maintain it. Implementations vary from informal enforcement tactics (warnings, rousting disorderly people) to formal or more intrusive ones (arrests, citations). Broken windows policing interventions that use broadly applied aggressive tactics for increasing misdemeanor arrests to control disorder generate little or no impact on crime. On the other hand, interventions that use neighborhood-based problem-oriented practices to reduce social and physical disorder have reported consistent short-term crime-reduction impacts; there is an absence of evidence on long-term impacts.
Community-Oriented Policing involves citizens in identifying and addressing public safety concerns, decentralizes decision making to develop responses to those concerns, and works to solve them. Existing studies do not identify consistent crime-prevention benefit for community-oriented policing programs, though many of the studies have weak evaluation designs.
Procedural Justice Policing seeks to impress upon citizens and the wider community that the police exercise their authority in legitimate ways, with the expectation that if citizens accord legitimacy to police activity, they are more inclined to collaborate with police and abide by laws. While there is only a very small evidence base from which to draw conclusions, existing research does not support a conclusion that procedural justice policing impacts crime or disorder.
Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.