What is the best thing the police can do to reduce crime?
Crime is highly concentrated: the evidence shows that most of it is associated with only a small proportion of places, victims and offenders. This has important potential implications for the targeting of police resources.
Focusing action on crime and anti-social behaviour hotspots, repeat victims, and prolific or high volume offenders is, therefore, an effective way to allocate resources for crime reduction. Understanding what is causing high volume offending or problems in hotspots, and coming up with specific solutions – often in partnership with others – allows the police to drive down crime.
As well as preventing crime and deterring offenders, the way the police treat individuals and communities day-to-day in any encounter (and historically, over time) can also make a difference to crime. By treating people equally, making decisions fairly, explaining them, and being respectful, the police can encourage people to cooperate with them and not break the law.
In summary, the best thing that police can do to reduce crime is to target resources based on analysis of the problem and at the same time ensure the fair treatment of all those they have contact with.
Shouldn’t we just have more bobbies on the beat?
Just having more people or responding more quickly to calls from the public (unless the suspect is on the scene) does not necessarily reduce crime or reassure people. Patrolling on foot can reduce crime where it is targeted in crime hotspots, and it also reassures the public when it sends out a signal that the police are taking action.
To cut crime and reassure the public, careful analysis is needed to make sure officers and staff are doing the right things (including patrol) at the right times and in the right places. The police also need to make sure they find out what matters to the public and why, and tackle these problems.
What about zero-tolerance – isn’t that how they reduced crime in New York?
Crime came down in New York City during the 1990s by more than in other US cities – and, unlike those other cities, rates of imprisonment did not increase. The reasons for the decline aren’t certain, but police activity is thought to have played a part.
The New York police chief at the time has said that zero-tolerance (blanket enforcement of all laws without targeting) does not describe what happened, and that community policing and an organisational focus on crime reduction and quality of life issues were key. Regular performance meetings, called Compstat, were also believed to have helped encourage problem-solving and a focus on crime hotspots.
How should the police get a grip on performance?
To get to grips with longer term problems and deliver sustained crime reduction, the performance focus should be on trends over time, repeat patterns, and how an area is doing compared to other similar areas. When there are short term spikes in the crime figures, the police will need to analyse further to find out whether they face a new emerging trend which needs targeting, or whether the change was temporary, for example linked to unexpected hot weather, and can no longer be affected by police action.
The analysis of crime hotspots or prolific offenders – to understand what’s causing the problem and inform a concrete plan to tackle it – needs to be part of the performance management approach.