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Back to Archives | Back to April 2013 Contents 

Evidence-Based Policing in Smaller Agencies: Challenges, Prospects, and Opportunities

By Cynthia Lum, Director and Associate Professor, Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia; and Christopher S. Koper, Associate Professor, Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.

he push for more evidence-based approaches to policing has led to a rethinking by law enforcement leaders about how to incorporate research and analysis into their tactics and strategies.1 Decades of successful research-practitioner partnerships have generated a relatively large body of research knowledge on interventions that can control crime; improve police legitimacy; and foster healthier, safer, and more satisfied workforces. However, the road of evidence-based policing has also been rocky. While some have embraced research as beneficial, others (including some researchers) have questioned the value of research and its applicability to the everyday needs of law enforcement. How research is interpreted, translated, and converted into everyday practices has become an important challenge and priority for evidence-based policing.2

The question of the applicability and translation of research in policing is especially relevant for small, rural, and suburban agencies. Why? Because the evaluation research on police crime control interventions (the focus of this discussion) has overwhelmingly taken place in large police agencies (usually with more than 300 sworn officers) responsible for urban and metro-suburban places.3 But the majority of law enforcement agencies in the United States are not these types of jurisdictions. They are small, rural, and mixed rural-suburban communities with low population densities and low rates of crime. Further, their crime problems tend to be different from those of larger jurisdictions. Indeed, in a recent survey by IACP, smaller agency representatives indicated that the biggest issues they face are property crime, drug crime, and public perception and legitimacy concerns.4 Can the evidence-based approach for policing apply to them, given their specific needs and social, demographic, and economic characteristics?

Anecdotally (which, of course, is not very scientific), we know the answer is “yes.” We have seen and heard numerous examples of the use of research, evaluation, and analysis in these agencies. Further, chiefs of these agencies are also motivated by economic realities that have sharply emphasized their need to effectively and efficiently use resources. And, although these locations may have low crime rates, the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report Criminal Victimization, 2011 shows that crime has been rising in suburban areas and possibly in rural areas as well.5 Executive officers of these agencies, just like their larger counterparts, want to do what they can to improve quality of life and safety in their jurisdictions.

This question of applicability of research in small-town, rural, or suburban jurisdictions signals two questions: How much research has been done in these places, and can lessons from research elsewhere be meaningfully applied? Practitioners may reason that research in big city, high-crime locations cannot address the issues of rural and suburban areas. Scholars have also pointed to differences in rural, suburban, and urban jurisdictions and the police within them, such as the ratio of sworn officers to civilian employees (much higher in rural places), the types and frequencies of crimes (for example, crimes in rural and suburban locations are not as violent, more hidden from view, and less frequent), and the relationships between communities and the police.6 Some also stress the need to generate more research for rural policing purposes.7 Given these concerns, can existing research apply?

To answer this question, it is useful to examine the research itself and where it has been conducted. For this purpose, the Evidence-Based Policing Matrix, (hereinafter Matrix) an online tool that captures all high-quality police evaluation studies related to crime control, is particularly useful.8 Currently the Matrix holds 117 studies; of these, 63 (54 percent) document interventions that reduced crime, 32 (27 percent) discuss interventions that had no effect on crime, 18 (15 percent) document interventions that had mixed results, and 4 illustrate interventions that caused harm (increased crime). The Matrix does not include research on other aspects of policing, such as police legitimacy or police organizations, although we hope others will take our lead and develop such tools for other areas as well.

The purpose of the Matrix is to carefully review, organize, categorize, and label good-quality research findings in a visual way to easily draw generalizations or principles about effective crime control measures used by the police. The purpose of doing so is to help agencies use the totality of research to develop strategies and tactics as well as assess existing ones against this body of knowledge. From the research currently in the Matrix, three principles of effective policing have emerged.

The first principle: 78 percent of the interventions studied that showed positive results (crime reductions) are tactics that were proactive or highly proactive in nature, rather than reactive. This meant these interventions relied on some form of crime or problem analysis to target patrol or investigative resources on the locations, situations, or persons most likely to cause crime. While this may seem obvious, the mainstays of U.S. policing and much of officers’ time in patrol and investigations are spent on reactive strategies such as rapid response to 9-1-1 calls, random preventative patrol not directed at hot spots, or case-by-case investigations on individuals.

The second principle: 65 percent of successful interventions studied were those that could be characterized as tailored and focused, rather than general in nature. In other words, interventions that focus on underlying problems or opportunity mechanisms and structures for crime fare better than blanket and general approaches. For example, a hot spot strategy that addresses drug and disorder problems at a location using nuisance abatement other tailored approaches based on problem analysis (for example, see the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s drug market initiative program)9 seemed more effective than general preventative patrol activities or blanket strategies of investigate-and-arrest. Again, while problem-solving and tailored approaches seem logical and are not foreign to policing, they are also not institutionalized in U.S. policing. Problem-solving projects are often ad hoc, temporary, and the focus of specialized units or teams, rather than part of the everyday work of patrol officers or detectives.

The third principle: 67 percent of successful interventions in the Matrix focused their attention on concentrations of crime at small and specific places (like a street block, a section of a park, a particular store, or an alleyway), as opposed to individual offenders. For example, this might include a sergeant in a patrol unit directing officers not to randomly patrol their assigned beats, but instead, proactively use uncommitted time in between calls to patrol very specific problem locations (e.g., a strip mall, a parking lot behind buildings, or a bar at certain times at night) and to tackle specific issues at that location.10 This approach might also include detectives investigating and building cases on problem places, not just people.11 Again, while a seemingly “commonsense” suggestion, we now know that much of police work is not focused on places, but on individuals.

In totality, the research shows that police agencies that reconfigure daily patrol operations, specialized units, crime analysis, and investigations towards a stronger emphasis on regular and daily activities that are proactive, place-based and tailored or focused are more likely to prevent, reduce, and control crime. Given that the mainstays of American policing tend to be individual and case-based, reactive, and general in nature, being more evidence-based therefore requires fundamental shifts in the standard operating procedures of how police patrol, investigate, and interact with their communities. This includes adjusting and basing performance measures on what officers do in their uncommitted time, having regular and institutionalized systems of problem-solving and place-based investigations, and incorporating more crime analysis into the development of strategies and tactics, so that more tailored approaches might be developed.

Although these generalizations arise from research in large agencies, they have powerful application to small-town, rural, and suburban police jurisdictions. Small agencies likely have very specific problems that involve well known places or situations within a community. Frequent issues often raised by small agencies to our Center include retail theft in identified shopping areas or strip malls, localized juvenile disturbances and disorder in certain areas of town after school, domestic disturbances and assaults at one particular household or apartment complex, or public intoxication, drunk driving, and public urination and disorderly behavior around a bar, intersection or park. As with urban crime problems, proactive, place-based, and focused/tailored strategies can—and have been—effective in alleviating these concerns.

Consider the example of retail theft mentioned earlier. Retail theft plagues many small and suburban jurisdictions, often occurring inside of shops or malls away from the view of street patrol. In some cases, the criminal element is organized, albeit crudely, in that perpetrators might be working together, vehicles may be involved to facilitate escape, and thieves might attack multiple cities and towns nearby. Retail theft is not only common to many suburbs and small towns; it is also a crime problem that is resistant to traditional policing approaches. How might these generalizations from the research apply?

A police chief might use a place-based approach such as hot spots policing to address part of this problem. Hot spots policing simply means getting officers to locations in which the risk of crime is greatest. Specific places within a mall or surrounding parking area may be especially vulnerable as entry or exit points for thieves, and perpetrators may attack certain stores and not others. But hot spots policing does not implicate any specific type of intervention beyond increased visibility at a place. What supervisors decide to do once at a hot spot can be tailored to the specific needs and nature of the jurisdiction and the problem. For retail theft, an important supplement to hot spotting might be for officers to get out of their cars and go into “hot” stores, which will increase their visibility, which has been shown to deter potential offenders. Short 10- to 15-minute stops at periodic, unpredictable intervals may also help officers optimize their deterrence capability and time spent across multiple problem locations (a strategy often referred to as the “Koper curve” principle).12 Crime analysis and the application of problem-oriented policing could also be used to develop other tailored and focused strategies. These might include the use of vehicle checkpoints, repeat offender analysis, license plate readers, or other situational crime prevention measures.13

Thus, evidence-based policing does not require the strict application of interventions described in specific studies in the Matrix. Rather, it requires developing tactics, strategies, and an organizational mind-set which reflects principles of effective policing gleaned from rigorous research. The goal of agencies—large and small—seeking to be more evidence-based is to achieve a better balance between traditional measures that must be done (reactive response to 9-1-1 calls, investigating individual crimes) and proactive, place-based, tailored approaches to both patrol and investigations.

However, these general principles of effective policing that arise from research are not always enough to convince commanders and chiefs from smaller and rural agencies of the benefits and applicability of research and analysis. While they might accept the rationality of crime prevention principles deemed effective, they may also feel like outliers in this conversation. “Big city” resources that they may associate with evidence-based approaches may seem far away from them, including having skilled crime analysts, up-to-date technologies, and training and technical assistance on how to adjust interventions to fit their needs. And, ultimately, research has to also speak to them to be convincing and meaningful.

It is difficult to find meaningful examples of research in smaller jurisdictions when only 10 of the 117 studies in the Matrix have been conducted in agencies with a sworn officer force of about 300 or less. And 9 of these 10 might not be best described as “small-towns,” just small police forces of population-dense places that are inside larger metropolitan areas. Only one study in the Matrix by Laycock explicitly evaluates an intervention in a rural area of the United Kingdom, where she found door-to-door visits after burglaries could be effective. 14 Other studies in the Matrix do examine larger jurisdictions such as entire states and provinces or multiple places, which may include low-population density or rural areas and towns.15 However, these studies do not often parse out the effects of interventions on people or places in various parts of these jurisdictions. Given this lack of research in these places, it is certainly understandable why some sheriffs and chiefs might be cautious about the promise of research to their priorities and needs. While this certainly does not justify ignoring principles from good policing research, the current situation of the supply of research also does not help to sell the values and benefits of research.

What can researchers and law enforcement agencies do together to better include small, rural, and suburban jurisdictions and their agencies into the conversation of research and its applicability to policing? It is here that the research community and their practitioner partners can turn a challenge into an opportunity. The first and most important step forward is for small agencies and researchers to be open to each other in terms of generating more high-quality research at these places. Evaluating existing interventions and their impact using at least a matched comparison design is a good start. Agencies could also carry out and evaluate a case of place (see note 11) or problem oriented policing project,16 or analyze situational or environmental crime prevention measures (for example, installing more lighting or CCTV, improving visibility of parks and alleyways). The Matrix also shows areas of research that are needed by all types of jurisdictions, which could be an opportunity for small agencies to carve out a specialization in providing for the supply of research into the evidence base of policing. For example, we need more understanding of interventions focused on co- or group offending, which could be developed and tested for effectiveness in small-town, rural, and suburban places.

Agencies should take advantage of federal support for such research-practitioner activities, including the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Smart Policing projects or Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grants. As has been shown in the Smart Policing Initiative in Evans County, Georgia, researchers and practitioners can successfully partner to implement and test evidence-based approaches in rural areas just as they can in urban places.17 Even if grants cannot be obtained, sometimes motivations by both officers and researchers can spur relatively inexpensive research forward when police and municipal leaders prioritize and encourage these activities in positive ways.18

Researchers must also figure out how to design and implement high-quality research studies in places where crime rates are lower and where crime problems may be different. Take for example, the Fairfax County, Virginia, Police Department, a strong research partner to the CEBCP. Some areas of Fairfax County are highly urbanized, while other parts of the county could be described as suburban or even rural. We have conducted two hot spots experiments in Fairfax, which have provided important lessons about hot spotting in suburban places. Crime is highly concentrated in this jurisdiction, more so than in some urban areas that have been studied (roughly 2 percent of the street segments in Fairfax County produce almost half of all crime). Yet, the number of crimes is not particularly high at many of these locations, and officers trying to cover multiple spots have to drive longer distances and cover more ground while also attending to other functions. Boredom may set in when covering some of these locations especially if they are smaller and less active. These are just a few challenges that we faced with testing hot spots in Fairfax County suburbs. Documenting and studying these challenges can help build better knowledge about research evaluation and use in these places.

Even if more research is generated and better methods are developed, another challenge to evidence-based policing in small agencies (or any size agency for that matter) is their receptivity to research and analysis. Police departments are likely most receptive when they can perceive tangible and direct benefits from research. But this perception is not static and determined; it is influenced by the nature of the organization, which may or may not have characteristics conducive to the acceptance, use, and adoption of research. What types of structural, cultural, organizational, and individual-officer changes are needed to facilitate research use? Are smaller agencies at an advantage or disadvantage regarding the capability for these things? What types of training, knowledge, and skill sets do these agencies need to be more receptive to research, and do smaller agencies have access to these resources in the same way as their larger counterparts? What kinds of levers might help to facilitate the translation of research into practice in these types of places? And how can we get researchers to become more interested in studying interventions in these places?

Many of these questions remain unanswered. Some preliminary analysis by Cody Telep using the Lum-Telep receptivity survey of the Matrix Demonstration Project indicates that some smaller agencies might be more receptive to research than larger ones.19 If this finding holds as we implement the survey in more agencies, this could suggest that there are substantial opportunities to develop, test, and implement evidence-based approaches in smaller agencies.. Smaller agencies may also have organizational characteristics that work to their advantage in adopting evidence-based policing. For example, smaller agencies and their chief executives may have less bureaucracy to face and possibly more control over the day-to-day operations of their entire command, which may make implementing evaluation research or using the outputs of analysis easier. Their smaller work environments and less complex structures may be conducive to better communication between officers, line supervisors, and command staff, which might increase discussion and dynamic learning across personnel (another aspect of evidence-based policing). Smaller agencies may also be able to implement innovative strategies more quickly and possibly with less resistance than in larger agencies. Further, implementation of new innovations and interventions can be examined carefully, building knowledge about both study design and implementation.

These suggestions are only a start to strengthening both the evidence that may be applicable to small, rural, and suburban agencies and the increased inclusion of research and analysis in the decision-making process of law enforcement in various jurisdictions. But just as researchers should not shun involvement with such jurisdictions or believe that generalizations from the overall body of research can be applied across the board, so too must small law enforcement agencies be open to incorporating generalizations from existing knowledge as well as partnering with researchers to generate more information. Such partnerships and open-mindedness are major catalysts in building evidence-based policing in suburban and rural places.  ♦

The authors would like to thank Breanne Cave, Cody Telep, and Julie Grieco from the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy (CEBCP) for their research assistance for this article. For more information about the CEBCP and Criminology at George Mason University, see


1For definitions and descriptions of evidence-based policing, see: Cynthia Lum, “Translating Police Research into Practice,” Ideas in American Policing 9 (August 2009), (accessed February 5, 2013); Cynthia Lum et al., “Receptivity to Research in Policing,” Justice Research and Policy 14, no.1 (2012): 61–95, (accessed February 5, 2013); Cynthia Lum and Christopher S. Koper, “Evidence-based Policing,” in Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, eds. David Weisburd and Gerben Bruinsma, (New York: Springer-Verlag, forthcoming); and Lawrence W. Sherman, “Evidence-based Policing,” Ideas in American Policing (July 1998), (accessed February 5, 2013).
2Cynthia Lum et al., “Receptivity to Research in Policing.”
3For a study comparing characteristics of agencies who have conducted crime control intervention research to the general population of law enforcement agencies in the United States, see Breanne Cave et al., “Rigorous Evaluation Research among U.S. Police Departments: Special Cases or a Representative Sample?” (Fairfax, Va.: George Mason University Police Research Group, 2013).
4“Smaller Agency Policy Agenda,” (survey, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Smaller Agency Program, March 12, 2012).
5Jennifer Truman and Michael Planty, Criminal Victimization, 2011 (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, 2012), (accessed February 6, 2013).
6See Maureen Cain, “On the Beat: Interactions and Relations in Rural and Urban Police Forces,” in ed. Stanley Cohen, Images of Deviance (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1971): 62-98; Joseph F. Donnermeyer et al., “Policing Rural Canada and the United States,” in Rob Mawby and Richard Yarwood eds. Rural Policing and Policing the Rural: A Constable Countryside? (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011):23-32; and Brian K. Payne et al., “Policing in Small Town America: Dogs, Drunks, Disorder, and Dysfunction,” Journal of Criminal Justice 33, no. 1 (2005): 31–41.
7See Nicholas R. Fyfe, “The Police, Space and Society: The Geography of Policing,” Progress in Human Geography 15, no. 3 (1991): 249–267; Richard Yarwood and Rob Mawby, “W(h)ither Rural Policing? An Afterword,” in ed. Rob Mawby and Richard Yarwood, Rural Policing and Policing the Rural: A Constable Countryside?, 217; and Ralph A. Weisheit et al., Crime and Policing in Rural and Small-Town America 3rd ed. (Longrove, Ill.: Waveland Press, 2006).
8“Evidence-Based Policing Matrix,” Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, (accessed February 6, 2013).
9See Michigan State's Drug Market Initiative Website (, especially their "Resources" tab) for more information about drug market initiatives.
10Uncommitted time is the time in between calls for service, which can be anywhere from between 40 and 80 percent of an officer’s shift. See Christine N. Famega, “Variation in Officer Downtime: A Review of the Research,” Police: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management 28, no. 3 (2005): 388–414; and Christine N. Famega et al., “Managing Police Patrol Time: The Role of Supervisor Directives,” Justice Quarterly 22, no. 4 (December 2005): 540–559. Changing deployment behavior of officers and investigators during that time to approaches that reflect effective policing is intricately related to the volume of calls for service; the efficacy of investigations; and, ultimately, the reduction of victimization and increase of agency legitimacy.
11In the Matrix Demonstration Projects, the Matrix Demonstration Project team has developed “Case of Places” to help agencies develop investigative units around places, in the same way and intensity in which they investigate people. See “Case of Places” at the Matrix Demonstration Portal (under Tools at (accessed February 11, 2013).
12Christopher Koper, “Just Enough Police Presence: Reducing Crime and Disorderly Behavior by Optimizing Patrol Time in Crime Hotspots,” Justice Quarterly 12, no. 4 (1995): 649–672.
13This example was inspired by conversations with efforts by the Leesburg, Virginia, Police Department, who are developing evidence-based approaches to combat retail theft.
14Gloria Laycock, “Operation Identification, or the Power of Publicity?” Security Journal 2, no. 2 (1991): 67–72.
15See, for larger jurisdictions for example, Curtis Florence et al., “Effectiveness of Anonymised Information Sharing and Use in Health Service, Police, and Local Government Partnership for Preventing Violence-related Injury: Experimental Study and Time Series Analysis,” British Medical Journal (in press); Aili Malm and George E. Tita, “A Spatial Analysis of Green Teams: A Tactical Response to Marijuana Production in British Columbia,” Policy Sciences 39, no. 4 (December 2006): 361–377. See, for multiple places for example, Edmund F. McGarrell et al., “Project Safe Neighborhoods and Violent Crime Trends in U.S. Cities: Assessing Violent Crime Impact,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 26 , no. 2 (June 2010): 165–190.
16See numerous examples of problem oriented policing projects at the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, (accessed February 6, 2013).
17See “Evans County, Georgia,” Smart Policing Initiative, (accessed February 6, 2013).
18For guidance on inexpensive evaluations, see Michael G. Maxfield, Guide to Frugal Evaluation for Criminal Justice (Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice, 2001), (accessed February 6, 2013). See also Rigorous Program Evaluations on a Budget: How Low-Cost Randomized Controlled Trials Are Possible in Many Areas of Social Policy (Washington, D.C.: Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, 2012), (accessed February 6, 2013). An example of an inexpensive randomized controlled experiment conducted by Sergeant Renee Mitchell of the Sacramento, California, Police Department, can be found here: (accessed February 11, 2013).
19See Matrix Demonstration Research Project, “Receptivity to Research” (survey, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.) and “Receptivity to Research in Policing,” Justice Research and Policy 14, no. 1 (2012): 61–95, (accessed February 6, 2013).

Please cite as:

Cynthia Lum and Christopher S. Koper, "Evidence-Based Policing in Smaller Agencies: Challenges, Prospects, and Opportunities," The Police Chief 80 (Aprl 2013): 42–47.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 4, April 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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