Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
Section 5.2: COP and Crime Prevention
The article below was written by Joel B. Plant and Michael S. Scott.
Effective Policing and Crime Prevention
How Local Governments Can Control and Prevent Crime and Disorder
The modern policing age has spawned many new approaches to policing operating under a variety of labels and terms, many of which you will have at least heard in passing, but perhaps never completely understood. And while you rely on your police chief executive to understand these approaches and to craft a sensible local approach from among them, having some familiarity with and understanding of the most common approaches will enhance your ability to provide knowledgeable support and oversight to your police agency.
Community policing is perhaps the most familiar term in modern policing. Nearly all modern policing reforms, including most of those described below, have been variously associated with community policing, as variations on or subsets of it. The exact relationship between and among these concepts remains a matter of some academic debate. For our purposes here, community policing is based on the idea that police should work closely with citizens to cultivate public trust in the police and to better address citizens’ public safety concerns. The COPS Office defines community policing as follows:
“Community policing is a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies, which support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques, to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.”
Below is a synopsis of the other leading policing and public safety approaches:
This guide is part of a larger body of work known as problem-oriented policing, a comprehensive approach to policing and public safety that takes into account the variety and complexity of public safety issues. The original proponent of the problem-oriented approach, renowned police scholar Herman Goldstein, of the University of Wisconsin Law School, summarized the approach as follows:
“Problem-oriented policing is an approach to policing in which discrete pieces of police business (each consisting of a cluster of similar incidents, whether crime or acts of disorder, that the police are expected to handle) are subject to microscopic examination (drawing on the especially honed skills of crime analysts and the accumulated experience of operating field personnel) in hopes that what is freshly learned about each problem will lead to discovering a new and more effective strategy for dealing with it. Problem-oriented policing places a high value on new responses that are preventive in nature, that are not dependent on the use of the criminal justice system, and that engage other public agencies, the community, and the private sector when their involvement has the potential for significantly contributing to the reduction of the problem. Problem-oriented policing carries a commitment to implementing the new strategy, rigorously evaluating its effectiveness, and, subsequently, reporting the results in ways that will benefit other police agencies and that will ultimately contribute to building a body of knowledge that supports the further professionalization of the police.”
Problem-oriented policing is not a simplistic approach to crime, disorder, and public safety. It does not promise a single solution to all problems. Consequently, it can lack the pizzazz and sound-bite appeal of some other policing approaches. What it does offer is very real potential for local government to have a positive and sustainable impact on specific public safety problems. Considerable research and measurable practice back up the approach. For a comprehensive treatment of this body of research and practice, see the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing web site, www.popcenter.org.
Situational Crime Prevention
Situational crime prevention originated not as a policing approach, but more broadly as a scientific approach to crime prevention. The approach focuses on reducing crime by designing safer environments and more-secure consumer products. It shifts the crime prevention focus away from merely trying to deter offenders through punishment and rehabilitation, and toward convincing offenders that committing a particular crime in a particular place at a particular time is not worthwhile. In five main ways it does so by:
- Increasing the effort to offend
- Increasing the risk to offenders of getting caught
- Reducing the rewards of offending
- Reducing provocations to offend
- Removing excuses for offending
Situational crime prevention has implications well beyond just the police function. As a local government executive, you have significant influence over the design of safe environments through zoning, planning, and land-use regulations, and perhaps even some influence over the design and sale of some consumer products that are likely to be either stolen or used as tools in crime. The situational crime prevention approach is widely considered to be compatible with problem-oriented policing, and you can read more about its practice on the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing web site.
Originating in British police forces, intelligence-led policing helps police managers to better use crime and intelligence data to direct police resources and investigations aimed at disrupting organized crime networks and activities, and apprehending active and prolific offenders. The concept has become a standard police management model among British police forces under its official title, the National Intelligence Model. The model heavily emphasizes data collection and analysis to inform policing operations. This approach, too, is generally considered compatible with community policing and problem-oriented policing, although its practice in American police agencies is still evolving.
Broken Windows Policing
“Broken Windows” is a phrase coined by political scientist James Q. Wilson and police scholar George Kelling. It asserts that unaddressed signs of minor disorder can cause more serious crime in an area. The idea has significantly influenced American policing over the past several decades, leading police to address lower-level disorder problems more than they previously have. This thesis has been the subject of significant critique by some criminologists who do not believe that low-level disorder causes serious crime, and that excessive police enforcement of low-level offenses can overwhelm the criminal justice system without necessarily reducing serious crime. Other scholars and practitioners firmly believe that police attention to minor disorder has substantially reduced more serious crime. Regardless of whether disorder causes more serious crime, it is more firmly established that disorder can generate apprehension among citizens, a matter worthy of police attention in its own right.
Zero-tolerance policing refers to the strict enforcement of laws that police officers might otherwise not have enforced, exercising their discretionary authority. The concept has been linked, rather inappropriately and unfortunately, with the Broken Windows approach. While the idea of strict police enforcement is often popular with frustrated and frightened citizens, as well as with some police officers, widespread and indiscriminate police enforcement can have unintended negative consequences for both the local criminal justice system’s operations and for police-community relations. Many police officials and scholars are harshly critical of the concept.
CompStat (shorthand for “computerized statistics”) is a police management tool that originated in the New York City Police Department in the 1990s. It emphasizes statistics-based identification of crime patterns, rapid deployment of police resources to the locations where those patterns exist, and police-command accountability for reducing reported crime figures. Many police agencies have replicated this model, often with variations. To the extent that the approach emphasizes using data to inform police operations and focuses police commanders on crime control, it is commendable and compatible with problem-oriented policing. On the other hand, to the extent that it focuses exclusively on a few types of reported crimes rather than on the broader range of public safety problems of concern to the public, and to the extent that it emphasizes only short-term reductions in reported crime through intensive police presence and enforcement, it can yield only short-term and expensive responses to selected crime problems, and thus be incompatible with problem-oriented policing.
The Traditional Policing Model
As important as the distinctions between and among the above innovative approaches to policing and public safety are, it is equally important to recognize that all of these approaches represent in some respects improvements on what is known in the policing profession as the “traditional” or “professional” policing model. The traditional or professional policing model emphasized crime control through high visibility policing, random police patrols, rapid response to all citizen calls to the police, and follow-up criminal investigations by detectives. All of these elements were intended to discourage crime by increasing the likelihood that police would catch offenders, who would then be punished through criminal prosecution. While it is not a completely flawed model, the evidence is quite strong that it has not controlled crime, increased the public’s sense of safety and security, or enhanced public confidence in the police and local government as much as was hoped. That is why most police scholars and many police officials have long concluded that while the traditional policing model represented a vast improvement over approaches that preceded it, more of the same is not likely to improve policing or public safety.
Specific Responses to Some Common Public Safety Problems
This section of the guide is intended to give you a sampling of what local government and police can do to effectively prevent and control specific crime and disorder problems. It is not a comprehensive set of recommendations for addressing all public safety problems or even for addressing any particular problem. It does, however, touch on many of the sorts of concerns that commonly generate public fear and therefore demand the attention of political leaders as well as police. Moreover, effectively controlling some of these problems can help prevent even more serious crimes.
You can find more-complete coverage of how to address specific types of public safety problems, and the supporting research evidence and examples of good practice, in the various Problem-Oriented Guides for Police (www.popcenter.org). Titles of POP Guides related to each topic below are listed at the end of each topic section. You can find summaries of exemplary problem-oriented policing initiatives in this guide’s Appendix.
Control Alcohol Distribution and Consumption
Alcohol abuse contributes perhaps more than any other factor to crime and disorder. It contributes strongly to noise complaints, disorderly conduct, public urination, litter, property damage, assaults, sexual assaults, domestic violence, drunken driving, and homicide. Strong policies governing alcohol distribution and consumption can have wide crime and disorder-control benefits. More specifically, you should do the following:
- Ensure there is meaningful enforcement of alcohol regulations.
- Set a tone that promotes responsible alcohol distribution and consumption in your community. Publicly acknowledge both the legitimate interest that licensed establishments have in making a profit, as well as their responsibility to serve alcohol in ways that do not generate crime and disorder problems.
- Encourage and compel responsible licensed-establishment management. Responsible management is the most important factor in determining whether a licensed establishment is safe or unsafe.
- Ensure that sufficient alcohol detoxification and treatment services are available.
Close Drug Markets
If alcohol abuse is the primary contributor to crime and disorder, drug abuse—of both illegal and legal drugs—is a close second. Drug markets generate tremendous spin-off crime and disorder problems such as assault, robbery, prostitution, gangs, noise, hazardous waste, and loitering. Simply arresting drug dealers and users will not effectively address local drug markets and the problems they create. Work to disrupt and close known markets, especially those operating out in the open. Think of drug markets as business enterprises, albeit illegal ones. Do what you can to make it more difficult for those drug businesses to operate profitably. More specifically, do the following:
- Hold business and residential property owners accountable for managing their properties in ways that do not facilitate nearby drug markets. Use licensing, zoning, code enforcement, civil abatement, asset forfeiture, and other civil law tools to compel responsible property management. Make sure that your local government attorney’s office has the knowledge and skill to enforce property management laws.
- Consider changing traffic or parking patterns to make it more difficult for drug dealers and buyers to conduct business.
- Solicit and facilitate community opposition to drug markets. A vocal and visible community stand against drug markets, when combined with effective drug enforcement, can be effective.
- Support the development and operation of drug courts.
- Ensure there are sufficient community drug treatment services available. Enforcement approaches to drug control are not as effective without adequate drug treatment, and vice versa.
Expect Property Managers to Control Activity
Residential rental properties, and motels and lodging houses requiring the most police attention are usually those that are not managed or maintained properly. Sometimes, you simply need to remind property owners of their duties and nudge them toward compliance. Occasionally, owners may not know how to manage challenging properties and will benefit from property management training the local government or landlord association provides. Other times, owners refuse to accept their responsibilities, requiring more persuasive measures to get them to take remedial action.
Do not allow irresponsible owners to shift all responsibility for problems at their properties to the police. It is well established that responsible property management reduces crime and disorder problems at and around properties. Police can help, but the owners and managers should have primary responsibility.
Specific measures local government can take include the following:
- Establish a normal or acceptable level of problems at rental properties, motels, and lodging houses, and put owners and managers on official notice when problems exceed that level, after which special government interventions will apply. You might also direct them to resources to improve their management practices.
- Publicly praise responsibly run properties and publicly criticize irresponsibly run ones.
- Bring together property owners and managers to discuss specific problems and how they control them. Owners and managers themselves can pressure and educate one another toward better management.
- Use nuisance abatement procedures to recover the costs associated with policing problem establishments.
- Enforce relevant building and health codes, and business license requirements.
- If the properties are financed, engage the mortgage holders to persuade property owners to address problems at the property.
- Ensure that zoning ordinances do not create incompatible land uses likely to generate crime, disorder, and fear.
Design and Manage Parks
Safety problems in public parks range from underage drinking, public urination, and gambling to prostitution, drug use, and sexual assault. Apply crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) principles to park design and maintenance. More specifically, do the following:
- Control access to the parks through signs, gates, locks, use of natural boundaries like waterways, etc.
- Ensure that park users can both see and be seen by means of lighting, landscaping, roads and paths, site orientation, equipment placement, etc.
- Clearly establish and promote legitimate park uses and prohibit and discourage illegitimate park uses through signs, landscaping, equipment, organized activities, enforcement, etc.
- Attract natural guardians to your parks, such as parents to safeguard their children, coaches to safeguard their players, and licensed park users to protect their park-use privilege.
Promote Safe Schools
Local government shares with parents and school officials a responsibility to ensure that students are safe in and on their way to and from school. Some public safety problems that affect the wider community have links to the schools, such as the following:
- Daytime residential burglary (that truant students might commit)
- Vengeance shootings (that might relate to bullying in school)
- Child abuse and neglect (that school officials might first detect)
- Bomb threats (that mischievous students might call in)
- Retail theft (that students might commit at nearby shops)
- Acquaintance rape (that students might commit)
- School break-ins and vandalism (that students might commit)
- Pedestrian safety (of students coming and going to school).
More specifically, local government can do the following:
- Help negotiate the respective responsibilities of local government, schools, parents, students, and neighboring businesses and residents for preventing and resolving school-related problems.
- Assign police officers in and around local schools to help maintain order, protect students, enforce laws, provide safety and security advice, and promote good behavior among students.
- Work with school officials to improve the design and maintenance of school buildings and grounds to decrease crime and disorder risks.
- Work with school and transportation officials to reduce opportunities for conflict and violence as students arrive at and leave school by, for example, staggering class start and release times, monitoring paths and buses to and from school, creating and monitoring after-school activities, and regulating student conduct in the neighborhood during and immediately after school hours.
Reduce Vehicle Crime
any crimes occur between people who are both somehow complicit in the crime, such as between drug dealers and buyers, prostitutes and clients, or mutual combatants. By contrast, thefts of and from, and vandalism to, parked vehicles account for a substantial number of crimes against innocent victims. These sorts of crimes therefore contribute significantly to the public perception that a community is not safe or secure. These crimes typically occur to vehicles when they are parked either on the street or in parking lots or structures. Careful crime analysis should show you where they are concentrated. Among the specific measures to prevent such crimes are the following:
- Concentrate prevention measures on those lots, structures, streets, blocks, and neighborhoods where the crimes are concentrated.
- Put people in the parking lots and structures. Attendants, whether stationary or roving, are effective in preventing thefts. Unattended lots and structures are especially risky.
- Design parking lots and structures properly: secure the lots’ and structures’ perimeters with transparent barriers, improve lighting and signs, use video surveillance, and/or require drivers to present a time-stamped ticket received at entry in order to exit.
- Develop a security rating system for parking facilities based on an audit of security features.
Prevent Repeat Burglaries
Most houses and businesses will never be burgled, but some are repeatedly and merit special attention. More specifically, you should do the following:
- Do not depend solely on alarms to prevent burglary. While alarms can help, once burglars trigger an alarm, they typically have sufficient time to steal and flee the scene before someone arrives to check the building. Police do occasionally apprehend burglars in the act, but the odds of doing so are low.
- Neighborhood watch programs, although popular, are not always effective in preventing burglary. High-crime neighborhoods that might benefit from watch programs often have difficulty organizing and sustaining them, while watch programs in relatively safe neighborhoods may increase residents’ fear of crime without actually reducing crime.
- Modify building codes to encourage or require good burglary prevention design and construction.
- Monitor and regulate common outlets for stolen property, such as pawn shops, secondhand shops, and scrap-metal dealerships.
Retail establishment managers—be they managers of liquor stores, grocery stores, big-box appliance outlets, or mall jewelry stores—are in the best position to prevent shoplifting through their security and merchandising practices. Depending on stores’ reporting policies, police can spend a lot of time processing shoplifting cases, many of which retailers could have prevented. Some retailers even account for unexplained losses by reporting them to police as thefts. Specific measures that local government can take to help retailers prevent shoplifting include the following:
- Clarify the circumstances under which police will respond to retail thefts, and the respective responsibilities of the police and merchants.
- Persuade retailers to improve store layout and merchandise displays based on an analysis of what types of merchandise are being stolen, and where.
- Work with the courts to establish a first-time offender program to streamline the adjudication process and minimize the costs to local government agencies.
- Promote the use of effective shoplifting prevention and detection technology.
- Be sure that corporate loss-prevention managers and insurance carriers are aware of chronic theft problems.
Control Speeding in Residential Neighborhoods
Regardless of your jurisdiction’s size, you are sure to hear complaints about speeders. Whether on a freeway, a county highway, a major arterial, or a residential street, excessive speed is dangerous and anxiety-provoking, particularly in residential areas and around schools. The most important principle in speed control is that motorists tend to drive at the speed at which they feel safe and comfortable, given the road conditions. Therefore, the key to reducing speed is to alter road conditions such that motorists feel uncomfortable speeding.
Consider the following specific measures:
- Identify the most problematic areas based on complaints and crashes, and focus enforcement resources accordingly. Enforcing speed laws merely to generate revenue tends to alienate the driving public and is not particularly effective anyway, at least not for very long.
- Where permitted by law and warranted by complaint and crash data, use photo radar enforcement, varying the camera locations and operation hours. Bear in mind that photo radar enforcement is unpopular in some communities because it is viewed as unfair enforcement, too intrusive, or an unfair revenue generator.
- Install traffic-calming devices like roundabouts, traffic circles, and speed humps or tables. Be cautious of speed bumps, however, as they can be dangerous to drivers and are problematic for emergency vehicles. Pay attention to design details; they can mean all the difference in whether citizens support them.
- Have your traffic engineer evaluate parking patterns, traffic flow, and street widths. Narrower streets—or streets that appear to be narrow—slow drivers down.
- Encourage citizens to report speeding to police or conduct a publicity campaign to persuade motorists to slow down. Chronic neighborhood speeders—including the teenager with a new license, the commuter rushing to work, or the parent dropping children off at school—may respond to peer pressure from their neighbors.
Graffiti, or “tagging,” is generally categorized as either “artistic” or “gang” and can be found everywhere from street signs and public transportation to buildings and billboards. Many people consider graffiti unsightly and intimidating. Specific responses include the following:
- Clean graffiti early and often. It denies graffiti writers the satisfaction of seeing their graffiti on display, thereby undermining its primary purpose.
- Enact an ordinance requiring property owners to remove graffiti within a certain amount of time (typically 24 to 72 hours after the graffiti is detected).
- Use some government funds to defray the costs to citizens of graffiti removal.
- Set up a graffiti hotline to encourage citizen reporting.
- Establish a graffiti abatement team that includes staff from the police, code enforcement, prosecutor’s office, and public works.
- Design building walls and other surfaces so that they are not conducive to graffiti.
Control Disorderly Behavior on the Streets
Panhandlers begging aggressively, chronic inebriates staggering around or passed out on the streets, mentally ill people acting strangely or menacingly, disorderly youth intimidating passersby, and other such disorder, particularly in busy commercial districts, can undermine the general public’s perception of safety and the area’s legitimate commerce. Police must handle such people and behavior with care. They are obliged to respect constitutionally protected speech and conduct, and protect even disorderly people from harm, while maintaining reasonable order and minimizing undue fear and intimidation. You should do the following:
- Recognize that most courts deem panhandling constitutionally protected activity, but governments can prohibit aggressive panhandling and panhandling at certain locations.
- Ensure that truly needy people have access to emergency food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. If you can ensure that, then discourage people from contributing to panhandlers because doing so typically only enables self-destructive lifestyles that also compromise community order.
- Ensure that police can quickly access mental health services to help them deal with people in mental crisis.
- Restrict chronic inebriates’ access to alcohol. Prohibit the sale of alcohol to intoxicated people and known chronic inebriates, and enforce those prohibitions.
- Figure out why youth choose to hang out in places where they are disruptive to others and work with the youth to find more acceptable places to go. Condition any hanging-out privileges you might grant on the youths’ appropriate behavior.
Control Street Prostitution
Street prostitution demands police attention for various reasons: it offends uninvolved citizens, children may be involved in the prostitution trade, prostitutes are at high risk of being assaulted, prostitutes and their pimps sometimes rob clients, it undermines the area’s legitimate commerce, it is often connected with organized crime, and it contributes to the spread of disease. Arresting prostitutes and their clients in undercover operations can be an important part of an effective strategy, but will not suffice by itself. Other specific effective measures include the following:
- Change the physical and commercial environment where prostitution markets exist to make them less attractive to prostitutes.
- Enhance lighting, redevelop abandoned or blighted property, increase the legitimate use of space, and alter traffic patterns and rules to discourage vehicle soliciting.
- Establish or support programs to educate, counsel, and deter prostitutes and their clients from continuing their activity. These programs are often more effective when reinforced by the threat of criminal prosecution for failing to complete them.
- Be careful about publicly shaming prostitutes or their clients. Some citizens and media outlets find this excessive or unnecessary, and its efficacy is unknown.
Discourage businesses near prostitution markets such as motels, rental housing, and taverns from allowing their properties to be used to facilitate prostitution. Use a variety of civil and criminal enforcement tools, as well as negative publicity.
Source: COPS Office. Effective Policing and Crime Prevention: A Problem-Oriented Guide for Mayors, City Managers, and County Executives.
Modification History File Created: 08/10/2019 Last Modified: 08/10/2019
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.