Curbing Violent Crime Through Place-based Policing

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Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Violent crime is up in cities across the country, but it is concentrated among a small number of people and places. Implementing targeted policing could be the answer to reducing crime.

With all the recent news headlines about crime, it would be understandable if most Americans believed that violence is everywhere—and random. But in most cases, it’s not. 

In Oakland, California, for example, 60% of murders occur within a network of fewer than 2,000 individuals—about 0.3% of the city’s population. In Boston, 70% of all shootings over three decades concentrated in areas covering just 5% of the city. And research in Minneapolis showed that just 3% of locations in the city accounted for 50% of calls for service over a year’s time.

Given these patterns, it makes sense for cities seeking solutions to the recent spike in homicides to consider place-based policing, a crime-fighting approach that recognizes that violence is highly concentrated in small sets of people and places.

Place-based policing is essentially a subset of problem-oriented policing, an approach based on the belief that police should address chronic problems proactively, rather than reacting after crime occurs. The Community Safety Partnership in Los Angeles is one successful example of this philosophy.

While implementation varies, place-based policing generally involves focusing police resources on concentrated hotspots using precise patrols. This type of policing has been associated with impressive outcomes, especially when combined with investment to help calm violent spaces, and when carried out in collaboration with the community. Research suggests a 33.8% reduction in crime in areas where problem-oriented policing is practiced.

In a recent report from the Council on Criminal Justice’s Violent Crime Working Group, on which I serve, we recommended place-based policing as among the handful of key actions that cities can take to curb violent crime–without passing new legislation or adding enormous budget expenditures.

We also recommended that when cities focus on hot spots, their strategy should include a blend of supports and sanctions for those at elevated risk for violence.

Anticipating and Analyzing Crime

The great hockey player Wayne Gretzky is famous for saying he skated to where he anticipated the puck to go, rather than where it was. Police leaders should take a page from Gretzky’s playbook. 

If police departments anticipated and analyzed their crime problem, collaborated with other municipal agencies and then focused on key crime “hot spots” by placing officers and resources there, it would make these locations less convenient and comfortable for perpetrators. In short, officers should investigate a location in the same method and with the same urgency that they investigate a violent crime.

This work should happen as part of a broader, rigorous problem analysis, an exercise essential to any violence-reduction plan. A successful problem analysis typically includes these activities:

Reviewing homicide and shooting data to determine context and motives, as well as connections between incidents.
Mapping social networks of those involved and identifying the connections between individuals, groups and locations.
Mapping violent criminal incidents citywide to identify geographic concentrations, or hot spots.

Uncovering the infrastructure facilitating crime locations—obtaining information from confidential sources that the owner, manager or landlord is aware of illegal activity at a particular location, and then using applicable legal sanctions.

Tailoring the Response to Crime

Once this assessment phase has identified crime hot spots, cities can tailor their responses to fit their needs. In the Philadelphia Foot Patrol Experiment, hot spots were patrolled for 16 hours a day, five days a week, by new police academy recruits. As a result, the hot spots experienced 23% fewer crimes than did control areas.

Putting a “cop on the dot” in areas where crime takes place might not be realistic for a resource-strapped police department whose officers are running from call to call. But if police leaders can place an officer in that hot spot for 15 minutes at a time, unpredictably and sporadically, research shows it will cause a resulting decrease in crime that lasts about two hours.

Sometimes the mere appearance of a police presence is enough to reduce crime. In my Northern California city of Vallejo, our police department created a randomized controlled trial to investigate the effectiveness of using flashing police lights (blue, red and amber) for reducing crime in a specified shopping area.

Officers patrolled with lights on or off during their entire shift for a 34-day trial period. Our findings showed that running these lights during a shift reduced motor vehicle crimes by 50%. This suggests that increased visibility of law enforcement in high-crime areas—a step that does not require excessive resources—can significantly reduce crime. The study’s results may have broad implications for agencies seeking to increase the effectiveness of policing while limiting costs.

Collaborating to Reduce Violent Crime

While place-based policing is successful, it cannot be sustained through police action alone. Rather, a collaborative effort among mayors, city managers and municipal departments is required to treat violent crime as not just a law enforcement problem, but a public health crisis deserving of everyone’s urgent attention.

One example of collaborative efforts to influence the trajectory of crime hot spots is addressing environmental conditions. For example, the "cleaning-and-greening" initiative in Philadelphia transformed blighted, vacant urban lots into clean, green spaces and has delivered multiple dividends for residents, including a 29% decrease in gun violence.

Other environmental approaches can be as simple as changing traffic patterns or adding LED streetlights. Los Angeles, for example, used street barricades to limit access to the hottest spots in the city for gang homicides and assaults. Thanks to these newly created cul de sacs, murders and assaults dropped significantly. 

Similarly, New York City found that improving street lighting in selected public housing projects resulted in a 36% reduction in murder, robbery, assault and other serious felonies after dark.

While reducing violent crime is a complex challenge, these and other actions highlighted in our group’s report are concrete measures cities can put in place and carry out within one year. Let’s fully acknowledge the epidemic of violence claiming so many lives, and the traumatic legacy left in its wake. And let’s treat it with the urgency it deserves.

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