Expert Commentary

Hot spots policing and crime prevention strategies: Ongoing research

2013 review of scholarship on new policing programs to reduce crime and their outcomes. Also discussed are data analytics and "predictive policing."

Some areas have higher crime rates, and even within troubled neighborhoods, specific locations often stand out. Police have spent decades trying to perfect techniques for distributing resources efficiently to cope with these “hot spots.” Increased patrols can produce significant reduction in crime in specific areas, but does criminal activity simply move elsewhere? While there have been anecdotal successes in some cities, is there a more-effective policing model that all law enforcement could adopt?

Research in this area continues to unfold as law enforcement officials pilot new techniques, and scholars isolate certain variables and try to reduce uncertainties. Many studies have been inconclusive or suggest that apparent police successes may be unique to a given circumstance.

For example, a 2005 Harvard University metastudy published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, “Hot Spots Policing and Crime Prevention: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials,” examined the effects of five randomized controlled trials of concentrating police enforcement efforts. Two of the five trials took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota; two in Jersey City, New Jersey; and one in Kansas City. The results of the analysis include: Four of five evaluations reported noteworthy crime and disorder reductions; in the two studies that measured crime displacement, shifts were found to be very limited; finally, hot spots policing programs had unintended crime prevention benefits. But the metastudy concludes that the overall results provide “little insight” into the kinds of policing strategies that are most effective: The “small body” of research analyzed does not “unravel the important question of whether enforcement-oriented programs result in long-term crime reductions in hot spot areas,” the researchers wrote.

Building on that 2005 research, a 2012 metastudy published in Justice Quarterly, “The Effects of Hot Spots Policing on Crime: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” updates the prior findings and provides a more definitive look at the scholarship over the decades by searching through more than 4,000 studies on the topic and identifying the 19 most rigorous. The researchers were Andrew V. Papachristos of Yale, David M. Hureau of Harvard and Anthony Braga of Rutgers (who authored the prior metastudy in 2005); all of the scholars were also affiliated with the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School. Seventeen of the 19 the studies looked at policing programs in the United States, and 10 were randomized control studies, the gold standard for research.

The findings include:

  • Despite more than a decade of improved research methods and analysis, there are still significant uncertainties: “Hot spots policing programs generate modest crime control gains and are likely to produce a diffusion of crime control benefits into areas immediately surrounding targeted high-activity crime places.”
  • However, some insights emerge that appear to have scientific validity and practical application. The findings “make a new and very important substantive contribution to crime control theory and practice by identifying problem-oriented policing as a preferable strategy for reducing crime in hot spot locations. Relative to simply increasing police visibility and making additional arrests in crime hot spots, problem-oriented interventions that attempted to alter place characteristics and dynamics produced larger crime prevention benefits.”
  • Further research must take better account, the scholars note, of those arrested and detained as a result of increased police presence and activity: “Short-term crime gains produced by particular types of hot spots policing initiatives could undermine the long-term stability of specific neighborhoods through the increased involvement of mostly low-income minority men in the criminal justice system.” (The scholars point to the findings of a 2008 study in the journal Criminology titled “Targeted Enforcement and Adverse System Side Effects: The Generation of Fugitives in Philadelphia.”)

“The potential impacts of hot spots policing on police-community relations may depend in good part on the context of the hot spots affected and the types of strategies used,” the authors conclude. “An increased enforcement program to control a repeat shoplifting problem in a shopping mall, for instance, may be welcomed by store owners and legitimate customers alike. However, police actions that seek to prevent crime by changing places, such as problem-oriented policing interventions, seem better positioned to generate both crime control gains and positive community perceptions of the police relative to simply increasing police presence and arresting large numbers of offenders.”

The researchers also mention that more studies need to focus on the economics of policing strategies and to perform cost/benefit analyses. A related 2013 study, “Could Innovations in Policing Have Contributed to the New York City Crime Drop even in a Period of Declining Police Strength? The Case of Stop, Question and Frisk as a Hot Spots Policing Strategy,” examines New York’s controversial crime-fighting strategy and how it was executed even as law enforcement resources declined. A study published the same year in the Annual Review of Economics, “Deterrence: A Review of the Evidence by a Criminologist for Economists,” looks at outcomes for different kinds of policing, arrest, sentencing and punitive strategies.

Related research: As computer analytics software has improved, policing has become more data-driven in some cities, giving rise to “predictive policing.” Cities such as Los Angeles have harnessed the power of “Big Data”; in Memphis, police have created programs such as the Blue CRUSH (Crime Reduction Using Statistical History). The National Institute of Justice has held conferences exploring the potential of these new techniques. For more, also see “Reducing Crime through Prevention Not Incarceration,” published in Criminology & Public Policy, and “Predictive Policing: What Can We Learn from Wal-Mart and Amazon about Fighting Crime in a Recession?”

Keywords: safety, crime, metastudy, policing

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