This is the eighth in a series from Dana Goldstein of the Justice Lab at The Marshall Project, Top 10 (Not Entirely Crazy) Theories Explaining the Great Crime Decline:
Police on the beat
There are two theories of how policing prevented crime. The first is that Clinton administration funding for police departments allowed cities to put more cops on the beat, and that their increased presence prevented crime, regardless of what those officers were doing. The second is that particular policing tactics, like the broken windows approach or hot spot policing, were effective.
Hot spot, or place-based policing, in which departments use real-time crime data to flood dangerous micro-neighborhoods with officers, was effective in reducing crime, according to the work of David Weisburd, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University. “In virtually every city in which it has been studied, the growth of hot spot policing tends to reduce crime without, fortunately, displacing it to other areas,” Rosenfeld explains.
Hot spot policing is often implemented in conjunction with the much heralded and critiqued broken windows strategy, in which police focus on making arrests for low-level misdemeanors—so-called “quality of life” crimes, such as public display of marijuana or selling single, untaxed cigarettes on the street. One of the best recent studies of policing tactics was conducted in Lowell, Mass., by Anthony Braga of Harvard and Brenda Bond of Suffolk University. It found that place-based strategies—such as increasing police presence around an abandoned building—were successful, but that broken windows-type arrests had the disadvantage of seeding distrust between communities and police.
Roman, however, is unsure if policing impacts crime rates as much as its proponents argue. He points out that three cities that experienced large crime declines—Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Diego—pursued vastly different policing strategies. In New York, the size of the police force quadrupled in the 1990s and the use of stop, question, and frisk created an “oppositional” relationship between neighborhoods and officers, Roman says. In San Diego, crime declined without a significant increase in the number of police on the beat. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., police chief Cathy Lanier has critiqued hot spot policing and stop, question, and frisk and has focused on community-oriented policing, even speaking about the need to hire officers who display “empathy.”
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