The controversy over police use of force in the United States can often pit the conversation in overly simplistic terms: You must choose between a police force that works to prevent crime, or one that's respectful of, and respected by, its constituents—and less effective. But it turns out you don't have to sacrifice one for the other, according to a new analysis.
"There are a number of proactive policing strategies that have impacts on crime and, for the most part, they don't cause those negative outcomes in the community," says David Weisburd, a criminologist at George Mason University and the lead author of the analysis.
Research showed strategies like problem-oriented policing and hot spots policing to be particularly effective. However, while stop-and-frisk—a method made infamous by the New York Police Department that has brought about numerous lawsuits charging that its practice infringes on people's civil rights—was found to be effective against crime in certain circumstances, it was also found to be harmful to individuals. Weisburd and his colleagues are hoping police chiefs around the country will use the new report to help them implement evidence-based programs for whatever challenges they face at home.
"Maybe a department is doing well, crime is going down, but the community seems unhappy. Then they can use these community policing ideas to develop better relations," Weisburd says. (Weisburd's team found that community policing improved people's perception of police.) "Maybe another chief is facing a situation where there's a sudden increase in violent crime. That person can read this report and say, 'There's an evidence base to use hot spots.'"
Jim Bueermann, a former police chief, current president of the Police Foundation, and one of Weisburd's co-authors, was optimistic that police departments are becoming "increasingly likely" to take reports like his and Weisburd's to heart. "There is a movement called evidence-based policing that is gaining a great deal of traction," he says.
Weisburg and Bueermann worked with a panel of 15 other experts, including criminologists, lawyers, statisticians, and another former police chief, although no police-reform activists were on the official panel. They analyzed existing studies of several popular, proactive policing strategies. Their results are publicly available in a report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine, and Engineering. We've got some highlights below.
Problem-oriented policing was one of the most promising strategies Weisburd and his team studied. There was evidence suggesting that the approach both reduces crime in the short term and improves community relations slightly. (There is little long-term data, which was true of everything the panel examined.) To count as problem-oriented policing, a program had to identify an issue in a community, sometimes with input from community members, and develop strategies to solve it. The issue might be specific, like juvenile crime in one park, or it might be broader, like "physical disorder."
Many studies of problem-oriented policing programs found they increased community members' satisfaction with the police. Some also found they improved people's perception of their quality of life, lowered their fear of crime, and bolstered their belief in the legitimacy of the police. But other studies found no effect. One study found backlash in one community.
Hot Spots Policing
Hot spots policing takes advantage of research that's shown that a large portion of a city's crime will often occur on just a few streets. Hot spots policing programs invest in these streets more intensely—and studies show that the strategy helps reduce crime there in the short term, without pushing off crime to surrounding areas. The researchers also found that hot spots policing rarely created backlash from the community.
Stop-and-Frisk and Traffic Stops
Stop-and-frisk and aggressive traffic stops have become some of the most controversial police tactics in America, the former because of civil rights lawsuits and the latter because of police killings of unarmed black men pulled over for minor infractions.
Research shows that, when applied to specific areas, stop-and-frisk can reduce crime. But studies also document that people perceive stop-and-frisk and traffic stops for small problems—such as an unlit license-plate light, or driving too slowly—very negatively. And no wonder: Even before the now-infamous deaths of the past few years, police in many cities had been found to disproportionately stop black Americans, and to stop innocent people a large majority of the time.
American police departments deploy so-called "community policing" in a lot of different ways, from having a police representative attend community meetings to publishing newsletters to bike patrols. The researchers found that, when they separated the "community engagement" strategies from other police tactics they studied—such as problem-oriented policing, which often solicits community input—community engagement alone didn't reduce crime. But big reviews of community policing did find it improved community members' satisfaction with police. Whether it improved people's perceived disorder in their neighborhoods, fear of crime, and belief in the police's legitimacy was less clear.
It's possible community policing does reduce crime, but researchers couldn't tell because studies of it don't tend to last longer than a year, Weisburd says. The theory behind community policing suggests it should take a while to work against crime because police need to build up trust among their constituents, first. But major crime-study funders, such as the Department of Justice, often give out grants that last only a year, Weisburd says.
Indeed, there's a lot left to learn, as Weisburd's and his colleagues' analysis makes clear. Best studied is whether different police tactics reduce crime rates. Less studied, but emerging, is evidence about how those tactics affect the attitudes of the people the police are supposed to serve. And scarcely studied at all are important questions that make up the second half of "What works in policing?" Although the team members looked for them, they found no studies about whether certain police strategies are more likely to violate civil rights. They also didn't find convincing evidence about why some programs lead police officers to target racial minorities disproportionately. Is it implicit or explicit bias? Something else? What can police departments do about it?
"There's been a long history of racial injustice in the United States, in particular in criminal justice and policing," Weisburd says. "The police are often the agents of society that carried out rules that were unjust involving discrimination in the United States and with that in mind, this, in our view, is an extremely important area for us to look at more carefully in the future."