9 Ideas from Research on Improving Police Efforts to Control Crime

Preventing crime, securing public safety in fair and lawful ways, and building public confidence and trust in the police, should be core missions of law enforcement in democratic societies.1 To achieve these missions, the police use a variety of tactics, including responding to calls for service, conducting generalized and directed patrol, performing investigations and making arrests, proactively targeting problems, engaging the community, and employing an assortment of technologies and analyses. Given their breadth, prioritizing these diverse tactics and establishing policies on the circumstances of their use is not easy. Sensitivity to the political, economic, and social climate in which law enforcement operates is required. Still another crucial ingredient is research and science.2 Indeed, “getting it right” requires that research and science have seats at the law enforcement decision-making table. Decades of research provide invaluable information for devising successful strategies to prevent crime and disorder and to advance citizen confidence and trust in the police. The following nine points are a short list of best practices on crime control and prevention for law enforcement executives based on what is known from research.3

1. Effective crime prevention is best achieved with proactivity. In recent decades, law enforcement agencies have begun the process of shifting from reactive, enforcement-oriented strategies to proactive, prevention-oriented approaches. That shift needs to accelerate. Proactivity involves anticipating crime and disorder before it happens, using tools such as crime analysis and mapping, community assessments, and other sources of information to create interventions in-tended to deter and prevent crime. Such well-tested innovations include directed patrol at crime hot spots, problem-solving with third parties, intelligence-led policing, and focused deterrence strategies. Proactivity also involves building community relationships that improve police service delivery and citizen willingness to cooperate. These types of activity usually take place during non-committed time when officers are not responding to calls for service. What officers do during that time is inextricably linked to the frequency and amount of time spent on calls for service.

2. We cannot arrest our way out of crime. Proactivity reduces arrests by
preventing crime in the first place—if a crime is prevented, then there is no perpetrator to arrest. While arrests are a necessity, particularly for serious crimes, arrests themselves have little impact on crime. This conclusion might seem illogical, but it is the threat of apprehension, not apprehension itself, that deters. In other words, proactivity deters criminal activity by increasing the perceived threat of apprehension. A large body of research shows that clearance rates in the United States have remained remarkably stable for the last three decades (with some exceptions such as homicide clearance rates, which are decreasing) and are unrelated to crime rates.4 Thus, centering decision-making, training, acquisition of technologies, crime analysis, and the like on the goal of increasing arrests will not lead to the crime control effects hoped for by law enforcement agencies. Also, research shows that aggressive arrest strategies for minor offenses are not associated with crime prevention gains and can increase the risk of alienating citizens and creating racial and ethnic disparities in enforcement rates.

3. Focus on places, not just people. Research has consistently shown that crime is concentrated in specific places.5 These are locations where people’s routine activities (i.e., work, recreation, and daily lives) and the social and physical characteristics of the environment (e.g., poor lighting at bus stops, out-of-sight alleys, and abandoned homes) converge to create attractive criminal opportunities for would-be offenders.6 Proactively targeting criminal opportunities at high-crime locations has well-documented salutary impacts on crime by deterring of-fenders and better protecting potential victims. Despite these proven impacts, police still primarily focus their time and effort on specific persons and the reactive investigation of individual crime events. Place-based approaches can be implemented in patrol through hot spots patrols and other prevention efforts, such as crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), situational crime prevention, use of third-party assistance, and other problem-solving strategies directed at specific places. Agencies should also consider opening investigative “cases on places” to develop and track interventions at problem places.7

4. Favor tailored, problem-oriented interventions and deployments over generic, nontargeted approaches. In addition to proactive, place-based strategies, law enforcement’s effectiveness is also enhanced by the use of tailored problem-solving tactics that address underlying features of the social and physical environment that contribute to crime.8 These approaches encompass a broad range of strategies focused on problem places, people, and conditions. These strategies are most effective when police devote sufficient resources to careful problem analysis and response implementation: i.e., problem-solving is targeted toward hot spots or repeat offenders, situational crime prevention and CPTED is used to block opportunities contributing to the problem, and law enforcement collaborates with other criminal justice agencies or community members to develop and carry out responses that emphasize prevention as well as enforcement.

5. Of offender-based tactics, targeted offender approaches are the most effective. Targeted enforcement on the most serious offenders using focused deterrence in high-crime places is the most promising of the offender-focused policing tactics.Offender-focused approaches also are most effective when they are multifaceted and based on sound risk assessment and intelligence. Examples include the “pulling levers strategy” that concentrates multi-agency enforcement and prevention efforts on groups at a high risk for violence. It is important, however, that offender-focused approaches be balanced with place-based, proactive, and tailored prevention strategies to sustain long-term gains in crime prevention.

The culture, policies, practices, and traditions of an organization determine how a particular technology is used—thus shaping the outcomes achieved with that technology

6. Community support is essential. Community members’ participation and input play three important roles in the implementation of strategies that are effective in preventing crime. First, community members are an important source of knowledge, intelligence, and ideas for creating tailored crime prevention approaches that can be sustained over time. Second, when agencies are about to implement enforcement-oriented approaches, transparency and communication with recipient neighborhoods can increase support and reduce complaints.10 Finally, community members’ consistent and reliable feedback can help law enforcement understand the impact of police activities on confidence and trust, particularly in communities where the police operate heavily. Law enforcement needs to more accurately and consistently measure community reaction to various police activities.11 While agencies have highly integrated records management systems for recording crime events, they do not often make systematic efforts to determine community members’ knowledge of and response to police activities; however, this knowledge is a crucial ingredient to creating a more lawful and fair approach to policing.

7. Strategize to optimize the adoption and use of technology. Law enforcement executives are bombarded with claims about new technologies, all of which promise to make law enforcement more efficient and effective. Research on police technologies, however, reaches two important conclusions about technology use and management. The first is that law enforcement often shapes the use of the technology, not the other way around.12 The culture, policies, practices, and traditions of an organization determine how a particular technology is used—thus shaping the outcomes achieved with that technology. For example, if an agency focuses on reactive, individual-focused, nontargeted approaches to policing, crime analysis or a new records management system will be used to advance those purposes and will be less likely to improve the agency’s performance in reducing crime. Similarly, if an agency already has poor relationships with its community, introducing social media into the mix is unlikely to fix that problem. Second, adopted technologies might not achieve the results expected or can lead to greater inefficiencies or backfire effects. Anticipating these effects when considering technology adoption requires agencies to be knowledgeable on outcomes research about the effects of technology and to carefully consider the ways in which new and existing technologies can be deployed and used at all levels of the organization to meet goals for improving efficiency, effectiveness, and agency management.

8. A well-functioning crime analysis unit is a necessary ingredient for implementing evidence-based approaches for crime control. Crime analysts are central to incorporating many of these research findings into practice. They support proactive strategies by analyzing past events and opportunity structures to understand the when, why, who, and where of crime events. Because crime analysts often specialize in geographic information systems, they can better pinpoint specific places that need both short and long-term attention from patrol and investigations. Their expertise with data systems allows them to understand long-term trends, identify stable hot spots and serious offenders, and link them for the purpose of creating tailored, problem-solving, or focused deterrence strategies. Crime analysts are also vital to carrying out evaluations of how community members feel about the effectiveness and fairness of law enforcement.

9. Match training, supervision, rewards, agency infrastructure, and leadership to achieving strategic goals. If law enforcement agencies want their officers to better align their practices with what is known from decades of field research in policing, such knowledge must be institutionalized into organizational structures and systems.13 For example, academy, in-service, and professional training need to provide law enforcement officers with the theories of evidence-based approaches to policing and the empirical justification and the tools needed to achieve these adjustments. Supervision, performance metrics, rewards, and promotions have to be re-aligned with activities that reflect evidence-based strategies for preventing crime and improving trust. Achieving many of these activities also requires strengthening and expanding research and planning units, crime analysis divisions, and partnerships with outside researchers and third parties. Leadership systems and managerial activities, including CompStat, also need to be flexible and dynamic in order to respond to new knowledge and information and to changing political, social, and environmental contexts. Ad hoc programs, temporary programs, or the acquisition of new technologies are not enough to sustain and institutionalize approaches that can yield important crime control effects and improved relationships with communities.♦


1Cynthia Lum and Daniel S. Nagin, “Reinventing American Policing,” Crime and Justice 46, no. 1 (2017): 339–393.

2Cynthia Lum and Christopher S. Koper, Evidence-Based Policing: Translating Research into Practice (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017).

3There are a number of studies that have sifted through and collated policing research about crime prevention and control, including: Lawrence W. Sherman and John E. Eck “Policing for Crime Prevention” in Evidence-Based
Crime Prevention
eds. Lawrence W. Sherman et al. (London, UK: Routledge, 2002), 295–329; National Research Council, Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence, eds. Wesley Skogan and Kathleen Frydl (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004); David Weisburd and John E. Eck, “What Can Police Do to Reduce Crime, Disorder, and Fear?” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 593 (May 2004): 42–65; Cynthia Lum, Christopher S. Koper, and Cody W. Telep, “The Evidence-Based Policing Matrix,” Journal of Experimental Criminology 7, no. 1 (2011): 3–26; Lum and Nagin, “Reinventing American Policing”; Lum and Koper, Evidence-Based Policing.

4Daniel Nagin, “General Deterrence: A Review of the Empirical Evidence” in Deterrence and Incapacitation: Estimating the Effects of Criminal Sanctions on Crime Rates, eds. Alfred Blumstein, Jacqueline Cohen, and Daniel S. Nagin (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1978), 95–139; Daniel Nagin, “Criminal Deterrence Research at the Outset of the Twenty-First Century,” Crime and Justice 23 (1998): 1–42; Daniel Nagin, “Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century, ” Crime and Justice 42, no. 1 (2013): 199–263; Lum and Nagin, “Reinventing American Policing.”

5See Lawrence W. Sherman, Patrick R. Gartin, and Michael E. Buerger, “Hot Spots of Predatory Crime: Routine Activities and the Criminology of Place,” Criminology 27, no. 1 (1989): 27–56; David Weisburd, Elizabeth Groff, and Sue-Ming Yang, The Criminology of Place (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012).

6See Sherman, Gartin, and Buerger, “Hot Spots of Predatory Crime”; Patricia Brantingham and Paul J. Brantingham, “Environment, Routine and Situation: Toward a Pattern Theory of Crime,” Advances in Criminological Theory 5 (1993): 259–294.

7Lum and Koper, “The Case of Place Strategy: Changing the Unit of Investigations,” chap. 12 in Evidence-Based Policing, 201–227; Christopher S. Koper, Jeffery Egge, and Cynthia Lum, “Institutionalizing Place-Based Approaches: Opening ‘Cases’ on Gun Crime Hot Spots,” Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice 9, no.3 (2015): 242–254.

8See David Weisburd et al., “Is Problem-Oriented Policing Effective in Reducing Crime and Disorder?” Criminology & Public Policy 9, no. 1 (2010): 139–172.

9See Anthony Braga and David Weisburd, The Effects of ‘Pulling Levers’ Focused Deterrence Strategies on Crime, Campbell Systematic Reviews 6 (Jerusalem, Israel: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012); Anthony Braga, David M. Hureau, and Andrew V. Papachristos, “Deterring Gang-Involved Gun Violence: Measuring the Impact of Boston’s Operational Ceasefire on Street Gang Behavior,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 30, no. 1 (2014): 113–139.

10Lawrence Sherman, James W. Shaw, and Dennis P. Rogan, “The Kansas City Gun Experiment,Research in Brief, National Institute of Justice, January 1995.

11Lum and Nagin, Evidence-Based Policing.

12Peter Manning, The Technology of Policing: Crime Mapping, Information Technology, and the Rationality of Crime Control (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2008); Christopher S. Koper, Cynthia Lum, and James J. Willis, “Optimizing the Use of Technology in Policing: Results and Implications from a Multi-Site Study of the Social, Organizational, and Behavioral Aspects of Implementing Police Technologies,” Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice 8, no. 2 (2014): 212–221; Wanda J. Orlikowski and Debra C. Gash, “Technological Frames: Making Sense of Information Technology in Organizations,” ACM Transactions on Information Systems (TOIS) 12, no. 2 (1994): 174–207.

13For an extensive discussion of institutionalizing research into practice, including examples, see Lum and Koper, Evidence-Based Policing.

Please cite as

Cynthia Lum, Christopher S. Koper, and Daniel S. Nagin, “9 Ideas from Research on Improving Police Efforts to Control Crime,” The Police Chief (July 2017): 22–26.