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Which Police Strategies Work?

A new report examines data from more than 1,400 studies of programs such as broken windows policing, gun buybacks, therapy, and other attempts to curtail death and violence in American cities.
(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Problems surrounding gun and street violence can seem impossible to solve—but they're not. These issues are certainly complicated, and solutions won't be fast or easy, but researchers have a greater grasp than you might think on which specific programs can reduce violence. And they've shared some answers in a new meta-analysis published last week.

Here's a brief rundown: The analysis examined 43 reviews, comprising more than 1,400 studies, all centered on 30 different violence-prevention programs. There were two violence-prevention strategies that rose to the top: a policing strategy called focused deterrence, and the use of cognitive behavioral therapy to teach criminal offenders skills such as anger control and problem-solving in relationships. Meanwhile, two clearly ineffective strategies included gun buybacks and "Scared Straight" programs. In fact, juvenile offenders who went through Scared Straight were slightly more likely to commit a crime afterward.

And while the evidence wasn't very strong for all of the other programs the researchers studied, they might still be effective if used together. "Success may lie in the accumulation of individually modest but collectively robust programmatic effects," the analysis' authors, Thomas Abt and Christopher Winship of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, wrote in their report. For communities plagued by violence, even one powerful strategy might not be enough to help eliminate the problem.

Here's a closer look at a few of the most interesting strategies from Abt and Winship's report:

Focused deterrence: Policing in America has received a lot of criticism recently for being unjust and ineffective. What might work instead? Studies suggest focused deterrence can cut cities' homicide rates by 34 to 63 percent, all while working with the community and without targeting innocent residents.

In focused deterrence, police work with social services and community organizations to identify the most important, specific problem and violent individuals within a community. Let's say the problem is shootings (which is specific; "being in a gang" is not). Then, to reduce shootings, everyone collaborates to find out who's most often responsible for shootings. They make sure he knows he'll be caught and imprisoned for a shooting, but also that he can get rewards such as job-hunting help if he isn't involved in a shooting. In other words, it puts the focus not on the penalties, but on the rewards for being crime-free. Focused deterrence works in part because often only a few people are responsible for most of the violence in a community. In Boston, for example, just one percent of youths aged 15 to 24 account for more than half of the shootings in the city.

"Broken windows" policing: New York City made famous this controversial strategy, which involves strict policing of small infractions that make a neighborhood look dicey, such as vandalism, or failing to maintain a property. Abt and Winship's analysis found broken windows policing to be only moderately effective. It works best in tandem with policing strategies such as focused deterrence, but can create tension and fear among residents if it's used alongside more aggressive law enforcement.

Stricter gun laws: The evidence for whether gun-control laws reduce violence is "mixed," and their effects are only "modest," Abt and Winship find. That makes sense, as there's a wide range of gun legislation, and to lump them all into one "Does it work?" question is simplistic. "Policymakers should not necessarily focus on restricting access to all guns, but instead focus efforts on those guns most likely to be used based on where they are carried and who is carrying them," Abt and Winship suggest.

Cognitive behavioral therapy: This is a kind of therapy that teaches people to change how they think and behave. Abt and Winship's analysis found that cognitive behavioral therapy works both in prison and in the outside world, and for both adults and juvenile offenders. On average, it reduced the chances a criminal offender would commit another crime by 25 percent. The most effective programs reduced re-offending by 52 percent.


Abt and Winship's report provides a great resource for American policymakers and voters thinking about which programs to support. And while the evidence mostly comes from cities in the United States, it could apply elsewhere in the world too. Indeed, the U.S. Agency for International Development commissioned Abt and Winship's analysis in hopes of identifying what might work to reduce violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which have homicide rates more than 10 times that of the U.S. Violence there has driven 10 percent of the population to immigrate throughout the Americas and has sent tens of thousands of unaccompanied children to the U.S. border.

Violence can happen anywhere, but the evidence suggests there's lots we can do to prevent it.