Police Methods | Section 4.3

Police Methods

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Section 4.3: Crackdowns

The article below was written by Michael S. Scott.


The Benefits and Consequences of Police Crackdowns

Defining Crackdowns 

This guide deals with crackdowns, a response police commonly use to address crime and disorder problems. The term crackdown is widely used in reference to policing and law enforcement, although it is often used rather loosely. Journalists, for example, commonly refer to almost any new police initiative as a crackdown. For the purposes of this guide, a crackdown is generally defined as follows:

“Sudden and dramatic increases in police officer presence, sanctions, and threats of apprehension either for specific offenses or for all offenses in specific places.”

Crackdowns usually, but not necessarily, involve high police visibility and numerous arrests. They may use undercover or plainclothes officers working with uniformed police, and may involve other official actions in addition to arrests.

Several other terms are commonly used in connection with crackdowns, but their use is also often imprecise. Among them are zero tolerance and sweeps. Zero tolerance, often associated with the broken windows thesis,2 implies that police suspend the level of discretion they would ordinarily use in their enforcement decisions in favor of strictly enforcing the law for all or selected offenses. Sweeps typically refer to coordinated police actions in which they seek out and arrest large numbers of offenders. Many reports relating to crackdowns refer to aggressive police methods–aggressive patrol, aggressive enforcement, and so forth. By aggressive it is meant that police make extra efforts to take official action, not that they are hostile or rude to people they contact.

The crackdowns this guide covers are larger-scale special operations authorized at a policy-making level; they are not crackdowns undertaken by a single, beat-level officer.

Related Responses 

Police often use crackdowns in combination with other responses. Responses not directly addressed in this guide include: 

  • targeting repeat offenders
  • conducting sting operations
  • educating and warning citizens, and 
  • improving place management.

Types of Crackdowns 

Crackdowns, generally defined, take many different forms. They range from highly planned, well-coordinated, intensely focused operations in which officers know the operational objectives and perform their duties precisely, to loosely planned initiatives in which officers are given only vague guidance about objectives and tasks, sometimes being told little more than to “get out there and make your presence felt.” From a problem-oriented perspective, there is a world of difference among these various crackdowns. Most of the crackdowns reported in the research literature are reasonably well-planned, coordinated, and focused: they must be to justify the research. However, in practice, police agencies conduct many operations that can be defined as crackdowns, but which are not as well-planned, coordinated, and focused. Researchers are less interested in studying these initiatives precisely because they don’t believe they will be able to systematically learn from them.

Consequently, we know less about the effects of the less well-planned, coordinated, and focused crackdowns.

Crackdowns can be classified along a few important dimensions.  Among them are: 

  • police visibility/enforcement action
  • type of action expected
  • geographic target and
  • types of offenses targeted.

Police Visibility/Enforcement Action 

Some crackdowns emphasize police visibility only, whereas others emphasize enforcement action.  Both types are intended to make potential offenders think they are more likely than usual to get caught. When a crackdown emphasizes enforcement, it obviously relies on actual sanctions being applied to offenders to enhance the deterrent effect. When a crackdown emphasizes police visibility only, additional enforcement and sanctions may or may not result; the enhanced visibility alone is intended to produce the deterrent effect. The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment is a well-known example of a crackdown that emphasized police visibility only. Such crackdowns are often referred to as saturation patrol, tactical patrol, directed patrol, or high-visibility patrol. Most research suggests that simply adding more officers to an area without necessarily increasing levels of official action is unlikely to significantly reduce crime and disorder.3 Intensive patrol around identified hot spots of crime and disorder, however, has been demonstrated to reduce crime and disorder at those hot spots.

Type of Action Expected 

Some crackdowns require that officers suspend the usual discretion they apply to situations in favor of certain prescribed enforcement actions. For example, they might make custodial arrests where once they might have issued a citation and released the offender; they might issue a citation where once they might have released the offender with a warning; they might actively look for offenders with outstanding warrants where once they might have served warrants only when encountering offenders in the routine course of their duties; and so forth.

Other crackdowns encourage officers to use a broader range of tactics to address targeted problems, exercising full discretion and initiative. In addition to taking more enforcement actions, officers might also be encouraged to apply the principles of problem-oriented policing or situational crime prevention as circumstances warrant.

Specific actions officers might take as part of a crackdown include: 

  • arresting offenders
  • issuing citations
  • conducting field interviews
  • issuing written or verbal warnings
  • taking juvenile offenders into custody for status offenses (for example, for truancy or curfew violations)
  • conducting highly visible patrols
  • conducting traffic stops
  • serving search warrants
  • erving arrest warrants
  • inspecting licenses (liquor, business, driver’s)
  • inspecting property for code violations, and enforcing them
  • establishing mobile police command posts/booking stations/neighborhood offices
  • conducting “knock and talk” operations (to gain information from citizens who are hesitant to contact the police directly, let the community know what the police hope to achieve, locate offenders, conduct voluntary searches of private premises, look for evidence in plain view, etc.)
  • searching vehicles and interviewing drivers at roadblocks or checkpoints, and 
  • seeking enhanced penalties (for example, by filing cases typically prosecuted under state laws under federal laws).

Geographic Target 

Some crackdowns are concentrated in small geographic areas–perhaps a couple of square blocks or a housing complex. Others extend to larger areas–whole neighborhoods or police districts. Others cover an entire jurisdiction–a city, a county, even a state.

Types of Offenses Targeted 

Some crackdowns focus on particular illegal conduct–robbery, burglary, drunken driving, speeding, drug dealing, gun-related crimes, etc. Others are more broadly aimed at deterring a range of illegal and problematic behavior–all crimes, all serious crimes, all calls for police service, etc.

Basic Elements of Crackdowns 

Crackdowns have three basic elements, not all of which are always fully operating during any particular crackdown. They are:

  • heightened police presence,
  • increased severity or certainty of sanctions, and
  • publicity.

At times, these elements can work against one another. For example, if police make full-blown custodial arrests of all offenders, they risk reducing the police presence in the target area when they leave it to book prisoners. Or publicity about a crackdown in a target area might cause offenders simply to avoid that area and commit crimes elsewhere.

Several researchers have asserted that the best way to maximize the benefits of crackdowns is to conduct them briefly and intensively, rotate them among several target areas, and resume them either at unpredictable times in the future or when target offenses return to certain predetermined levels.

For crackdowns to be effective, they must be sufficiently strong and long: strong enough doses of police intervention for long enough periods. Marginal increases in routine police activity are unlikely to produce significant effects. Exactly how much more intensive and extensive police action is required varies from problem to problem, but it must be sufficiently greater than normal to alter offenders’ perceptions of risk.† If a crackdown is spread too thinly over too wide an area, its overall intensity may be insufficient to have much of an effect. Follow-up crackdowns to reinforce an initial crackdown typically do not need to be as intense.

How Crackdowns Work to Reduce Crime and Disorder 

Crackdowns can reduce crime and disorder in two ways: by increasing the certainty that offenders will be caught and punished more severely than usual, or by increasing offenders’ perceptions that they are more likely to get caught and punished. Some people are deterred by crackdowns only when they get caught and punished; they are then less likely to repeat the offense. Others don’t need to get caught; just hearing about a crackdown deters them. To some extent, the perception of risk is more important than the actual risk.

Probably to a lesser degree, crackdowns can also be effective by taking high-rate offenders out of circulation. Crackdowns are designed to apprehend many offenders, some of whom will be serious and/or high-rate. Increasing the likelihood that they are caught and jailed will help reduce the crime rate. But this is more incidental to crackdowns than it is purposeful: most crackdowns target all offenders, not just high-rate ones. It is possible, though, to focus crackdown efforts on high-rate offenders (or high-risk places). Police may do so by identifying high rate offenders and/or high-risk places before the crackdown and then concentrating efforts on them, or by giving special attention to high-rate offenders they encounter during the crackdown.

Ideally, crackdowns, especially on certain kinds of drug markets, will have a snowball effect. As initial enforcement reduces the number of offenders in circulation, the remaining offenders are at even greater risk because police can focus their resources on them. Eventually, the drug market will collapse for lack of buyers and sellers. Thus, a constant level of police resources dedicated to a crackdown will prove increasingly effective. Clearly, this snowball effect will not apply to every problem against which crackdowns are directed.

Crackdowns might also be effective by reducing the numbers of potential offenders and victims coming into contact with one another. For example, if a drug enforcement crackdown clears many people out of a previously busy drug market, there are likely to be fewer opportunities for such crimes as drug-related robberies and assaults.

Drug enforcement crackdowns that reduce overall drug use will also reduce the need for cash to buy drugs, and thereby provide the added benefit of reducing some of the need to commit crimes to get cash.

Benefits of Crackdowns 

Crackdowns hold substantial appeal for the public, police, and government officials. They offer the promise of firm, immediate action and quick, decisive results. They appeal to demands that order be restored when crime and disorder seem out of control.

Research and practice have demonstrated that crackdowns can be effective–at least in the short term–at reducing crime and disorder in targeted areas, and can do so without necessarily displacing the problem. Furthermore, the positive effects of crackdowns sometimes continue after the crackdowns end (these ongoing effects are sometimes referred to as residual deterrence effects).13 In addition, crackdowns can reduce crime and disorder outside the target area or reduce offenses not targeted in the crackdowns, a phenomenon criminologists commonly refer to as a diffusion of benefits.

Crackdowns appear to be most effective when used with other responses that address the underlying conditions that contribute to the particular problem.  The sequence in which police implement the various responses can sometimes be important. Often, crackdowns help reduce problems to more manageable levels, which gives longer term responses a better chance to take hold.

Potential Criticisms and Negative Consequences of Crackdowns 

Even when a crackdown would likely be effective, it might not necessarily be the best approach to use. There are a number of possible pitfalls to crackdowns, as discussed below. As Lawrence Sherman noted in his review of crackdowns, “It is possible for well-intentioned efforts to make things worse.”

Short-term impact. Most crackdown studies have found that any positive impact they have in reducing crime and disorder tends to disappear (or decay) rather quickly, and occasionally even before the crackdown ends. The effect can wear off for various reasons, including the tendency for police implementation to become less rigorous over time and for offenders to adapt to the crackdown.

Whatever short-term reductions in crime and disorder they might provide, crackdowns do not address any of the physical or social conditions that often contribute to crime and disorder, either in general or at particular locations. Broader situational crime prevention and problem-solving approaches are better suited to address these underlying conditions.

This tendency for short-term impact does not necessarily make crackdowns inadvisable: for some problems and some areas, even short-term relief can justify the effort, particularly if that relief creates new opportunities to implement longer-term responses.

Displacement. While crackdowns do not inevitably lead to displacement of crime and disorder, it does occur in some cases. The same rationality that police count on to deter some offenders causes others to adapt to police tactics and continue offending at the same rate.21 Depending on the extent and direction of displacement, police risk criticism for creating problems in areas previously unaffected. Once again, the potential for criticism does not necessarily make crackdowns inadvisable; sometimes, displacing a problem from an area that has suffered disproportionately, to other areas that haven’t, can be justified as a more equitable distribution of suffering. Displacement, where and when it does occur, seldom occurs at 100 percent. That is, the problem usually decreases in some way, even as it shifts. The key is to be aware of the various possibilities for displacement, develop intelligence systems that inform you how the problem is shifting, and counteract it if possible.

Impact on police-community relations. Improperly conducted, crackdowns can worsen police-community relations and thereby undermine police legitimacy. Indeed, many of the urban riots in U.S. cities in the 1960s were at least partly due to widespread crackdowns in minority neighborhoods. Particularly when crackdowns are aimed at street activity, they can be criticized for their disparate impact on the poor, who typically spend more time on the street than do the affluent. Moreover, when police use highly aggressive tactics in crackdowns–such as using military strategies, weapons, and attire for relatively routine enforcement and patrol activities–they risk heightening fear among offenders and casual observers.

Said police scholar Herman Goldstein: 

It’s one thing to realize a quick dramatic decrease in some types of offenses, but if that’s at the cost of creating great antagonism toward the police on the part of youth and future generations, then police departments are going to have to deal with the consequences of that hostility. 

But loss of public support is not inevitable. Several studies have shown that when police explain the purpose and Bob Morris Combat uniforms and military-style gear and weaponry, designed to better protect officers as well as convey an image of seriousness, can also heighten fear among casual observers. The Benefits and Consequences of Police Crackdowns scope of crackdowns to the public ahead of time, as well as to the people they stop during crackdowns, they can gain public support, support that continues while the crackdown is in effect.

Potential for abuse. Without proper planning and supervision, crackdowns hold the potential for abuse of police authority. If officers are excessively pressured to make arrests and seize contraband, some might be tempted to take shortcuts that can compromise due process. Overzealous and poorly managed crackdowns can violate citizens’ rights. Where officers receive overtime pay for crackdowns, they risk being accused–however fairly or unfairly–of conducting them primarily to earn that pay. When officers conduct a crackdown in a target area they are not normally assigned to, there is a heightened risk that they will not be able to distinguish the truly suspicious from the ordinary as effectively as locally assigned officers.

Expense. Crackdowns are usually expensive. Many crackdowns require overtime funds to provide the necessary staffing. In addition to officer wages, crackdowns generate higher costs for booking prisoners, processing arrest files, and processing cases through the legal system, and may incur new equipment and training costs. Substantial increases in police presence in an area are usually hard to sustain for long periods due to the costs. Whether or not crackdown-related expenses are justified depends on how sure you are that the crackdown prevented crime and disorder. A cost-effectiveness analysis is recommended.

Impact on the rest of the criminal justice system. In addition to the financial costs crackdowns create for prosecutors, courts, and jails, they create pressure on those operations to adapt to the new workload by forcing other cases and prisoners out of the system.32 Often, that means that offenders are offered lenient sentences in exchange for guilty pleas, which undercuts, to some extent, the crackdown’s intended benefits. Or worse, prosecutors may choose not to prosecute the cases at all. At a minimum, police should coordinate crackdowns with other agencies the increased workload will affect.

Opportunity costs. Obviously, for police to devote a larger share of resources to one particular area or problem, they must divert resources from other areas and problems.33 Thus, there is not only the cost of conducting the crackdown, but there is also the cost of not doing something else with the resources. You should not spread resources too widely just to avoid this criticism, lest you undermine the crackdown’s potential to have a significant impact.

Source:  COPS Office. The Benefits and Consequences of Police Crackdowns.



Modification History

File Created:  08/10/2019

Last Modified:  08/13/2019

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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