New York City has more than 8.5 million people and fewer than 300 murders so far in 2017. That puts its body count lower than much-smaller jurisdictions including Baltimore, a city of fewer than 620,000 people where 303 people have been murdered this year, and Chicago, where the number has risen above 580 in a population of 2.7 million.
So what factors can really help drive down crime? Dina Fine Maron of National Scientific writes that writes that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said in a recent report that certain “proactive” policies aimed at preventing crime before it happens—including stop and frisk—show mixed results. Yet it is not enough to simply identify what policies appear to reduce crime, a panel convened by the National Academies cautions in the report. Authorities must also consider the real-world risks of applying these approaches in ways that are racist, biased or illegal, they wrote.
Historically, policing has focused largely on responding to calls and investigating crimes. But in the past few decades there has been a shift toward preventing crime by routinely sending officers into communities and identifying potential problem areas. Not all police departments are using these strategies, notes David Weisburd, chair of the expert panel and director of the center for evidence-based crime policy at George Mason University. But it is becoming relatively common and is a big departure from the standard model, in which police mostly respond to crimes that already occurred, Weisburd says.
“For police chiefs who want to do something, increases in violent crime are often very localized and occur among specific people and on specific streets—and the evidence from the report is that when you focus on those, you can produce reductions in crime,” Weisburd says. “Hot-spotting,” for example—a practice in which police are disproportionately stationed in areas with higher crime rates—seems to help, and does not just displace crime into immediately surrounding areas, the committee says. And stop and frisk can be effective when it is highly focused on areas with high concentrations of crime or robberies, Weisburd adds. His committee also found that third-party policing—in which businesses or building owners partner with police or are pressured to work with them—can help. When police officers identify specific problems, try to understand them and make a tailored plan to solve them, it can reduce crime, too. Finally, focusing police resources on high-rate offenders (to either get them off the street or reduce crime) has good evidence behind it.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
The report also identified police strategies that do not seem to work. “Broken windows” policing, in which officers crack down on even small instances of disorder before they overwhelm a neighborhood, does not typically lead to less crime, the panel says. But it adds that if such efforts are much more nuanced—focused on a small number of high-crime streets—they can sometimes make a positive difference.
Another topic under the panel’s scrutiny is community policing, which generally refers to police building relationships with local residents and involving them in their decision-making about problems. Politicians and others have pushed the concept hard, but the panel says it does not have strong evidence that community policing reduces crime. “If you can increase cooperation with the public, you would assume they report crime more often. But programs so far that encourage community policing—that use newsletters to involve the public, meet often with the public and spend a lot of time dealing with the public in a cooperative way—those projects, at least from the evidence we have now, don’t seem to have crime prevention effects,” Weisburd says.
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