Weaning America Off Violent Crime Stats


It's been 175 years since London's Sir Robert Peel codified the foundational precepts of law enforcement, including this one: “The absence of crime is the best proof of a police department's efficiency.” And that proof is usually provided by comparative statistics: this year's stickups, break-ins and butchery vs. last year's.

The media, police commanders, politicians and the public have hewn closely to that number-crunching convention since Peel's time in order to measure the ebb and flow of lawlessness. It was revalidated by the Compstat revolution led by the NYPD's Jack Maple in the 1990s, and it continues today. As evidence, consider the current stats-driven news coverage of the reputed summer “crime wave.”

Jerry Ratcliffe, a criminologist who directs the Center for Security and Crime Science at Temple University in Philadelphia, has emerged as an articulate voice among a growing number of experts who advocate a smarter, more nuanced means of gauging a community's safety and well-being. Ratcliffe, a former London police officer, was the author of a much-discussed paper on the subject published recently by the Police Foundation's journal, Ideas in American Policing.

In that paper, Ratcliffe wrote:

“Many of modern policing's accountability mechanisms and performance criteria remain rooted in a narrow mandate of combating violence and property crime. Police chiefs across the country are discovering, however, that a focus on crime and disorder is too limiting for policing in the 21st century.”

The Crime Report asked Ratcliffe to elaborate on his concept of harm-focused, intelligence-led, problem-oriented and evidence-based policing—four strategies he groups under the acronym HIPE. In a conversation with David J. Krajicek, a TCR contributing editor, Ratcliffe discussed why homicide rates can be a misleading metric for assessing the level of crime in a community, why cops need to rethink the traditional “reactive” approach to law enforcement, and how harm-focused policing can reduce community distrust. (Some of the exchanges have been condensed.)

The Crime Report: Do we focus too narrowly on violent crime statistics as a gauge of a city's safety or well-being?

Jerry Ratcliffe: Violent crime is obviously important for many urban communities in the U.S., but it's not the only thing. The media and some politicians have a tendency to focus on it a little too much. The impact of other types of crime might be even more pernicious and extensive. Burglaries, vehicle thefts, simple assaults and other aspects of disorder can be hugely detrimental to the quality of life of a great many people—many more than are affected by violent crime.

TCR: Explain how a focus on a prevalent crime like larceny can be more instructive than, say, homicide.

Ratcliffe: Homicide is one of the most difficult crimes to prevent and predict. It's very low in frequency and often is spontaneous, which makes it very difficult for police departments to prevent proactively. Secondly, a lot of homicides are between people who know each other, and they often take place indoors, outside the view of patrolling police. Yet we focus on homicides, which tends to deflect attention from a crime like larceny—which is both hugely harmful to communities and harmful to a vastly larger number of people on an ongoing basis.

Harm-focused policing suggests there is a more realistic way to address these crimes that have broader impact in a community, and as a way to hold police departments and cities accountable for their policing policies.

TCR: Right now, amid upticks in murder and other violent crimes in some cities, police bosses are under extreme public and media pressure to stop this supposed crime wave. Are Americans too naïve about crime to see beyond the murder headlines?

Ratcliffe: One thing we can say about crime is that, irrespective of whether people know anything or not, they certainly have an opinion. Homicide is an easy statistic to compare from one place to another. It's just not very helpful. It doesn't tell you anything about whether the police department is managed well or is effective at crime control. It's a statistic that's too vulnerable to the whims of too many external variables that are outside the control of the police department.

If we are as a society are naïvely focused on homicide, then it's beholden on everybody involved to do a better job of educating the community—and one might include the media and politicians in that—about the need to extend the range of vision and actually see what forms of disorder are most truly harmful to communities.

As for the supposed recent upticks in violence, it's too early to say whether this is just a summer season phenomenon, when violence generally increases, or a broader change in crime trends.

TCR: I'd like to hear your definitions of some of the police strategies that have been the subject of your research. What is intelligence-led policing?

Ratcliffe: This combines crime analysis with criminal intelligence. Crime analysis will tell you what's going on, but criminal intelligence will tell you why. Police commanders need both pieces of that puzzle. The idea is to provide decision-makers with the most complete picture of the criminal environment possible so that good strategic crime-prevention decisions can be made. There is a particular focus on repeat offenders, including organized crime groups and violent street gangs; on helping repeat victims, and on identifying and scrutinizing crime hot spots.

TCR: And what is problem-orienting policing?

Ratcliffe: This is a way of getting beyond the repeated reactive responses to crime problems, and instead look for more strategic approaches that address the underlying cause of why police are repeatedly called to a particular location. It's an attempt to dig deeper into the often-unseen forces that create some of the crime patterns that show up in statistics, especially around hot spots or repeat victims.

TCR: Evidence-based policing?

Ratcliffe: The idea is to use or generate robust, reliable evidence to allow police commanders and the community to make good decisions about best practices and about what works and what doesn't. It's partly about using available evidence for crime tactics that have already been thoroughly evaluated. But I like to think that it's also about designing ways to test emerging strategies and to find ways to look at new approaches to criminality. So use evidence if it exists, but generate evidence to move forward if it doesn't.

TCR: And harm-focused policing?

Ratcliffe: Harm-focused policing aims to inform policing priorities by weighing the harms of criminality together with data from beyond crime and disorder, in order to focus police resources in the furtherance of both crime and harm reduction.

TCR: You say the future of policing lies in a combination of these four, and you combine them under the acronym HIPE. Explain.

Ratcliffe: I think all these tactics are complementary. HIPE really articulates the four mechanisms by which police organizations, their partners in the community, and the broader security apparatus can work together to reduce crime.

And in the background of all of these, there's still a notion of the importance of police legitimacy and policing by consent…Some people describe this as community policing, but I avoid that term. The idea is to get beyond a focus on a particular type of crime in favor of looking at the overall picture of harm in a community…I think harm-focused, intelligence-led, problem-oriented and evidence-based policing is a way to merge the existing framework that has been developing to some degree independently. It brings them together into a single strategy for police departments and cities to work together to generate long-term crime reduction.

TCR: A holistic approach, in other words?

Ratcliffe: Yes. It contrasts with the traditional approach. If a police department sees an emerging crime problem, what does it do? It forms a special squad. If we have a theft problem, we form a theft squad. If we have a burglary problem, we form a burglary detail. But what if there is a drug problem and a vehicle-theft problem that goes along with the burglary problem? Details that are tasked with targeting a particular crime have a tendency to exclude other issues that are also harmful to that community. A more holistic view of the interconnected problems that plague some communities every single day seems necessary for police commanders.

TCR: You have also explored what you call “harmful places,” where violence may occur alongside “a plethora of detrimental behaviors that damage community life.” Explain.

Ratcliffe: Harmful places can include a whole range of activities detrimental to a community's life, safety and security. That includes violent crime, of course. But there are myriad other ways that communities can be harmed: The noxious problems of disorder or drug markets or speeding cars, endangering pedestrians, or extortion of local corner stores that drives prices up or drives businesses away…

TCR: The so-called quality-of-life issues?

Ratcliffe: Right. Everything from potholes that damage cars to exposed wires on streetlights to derelict properties. To some degree, these are the Broken Windows-type indicators of social disorder…I think citizens see all of these things as generating a general picture of harm that is detrimental to their quality of life. Merge them with economic stress, health care issues, public health concerns, traffic safety—all of these things can create a sort of general sense of harm. It can be incredibly useful for police to see their place in all of this.

TCR: You point out a paradox that has been getting a lot of attention over the past year, since Ferguson. Poor minority neighborhoods at once feel ignored by and set upon by police. Explain that dynamic.

Ratcliffe: I'm not entirely sure I buy that. The narrative of some groups across the U.S. is that they want less engagement by the police. But I see the reverse when I go to community meetings. The community actually wants the police to be more proactive in helping them address some of the issues they're struggling with. The challenge is for police to be as targeted as possible (in addressing a particular problem) and to do so within the framework of the Constitution. That's a constant paradox and to some degree a source of stress: How much involvement can the community tolerate, how much support will they give this proactive policing, and what is the impact for the issue of police legitimacy? These are questions the country is dealing with now.

TCR: You studied experimental increased foot patrols in Philadelphia and found that while they deterred violent crime, they increased conflicts with citizens due to increased stop-and-frisks?

Ratcliffe: True. Police were able to reduce violent crime by 23 percent compared with a control area. It seems likely a portion of that decline was caused by an increase (of more than 60 percent) in pedestrian stops by young, energetic officers…Anecdotal evidence and what we observed suggested that neighborhood residents were actually very happy with the foot patrols and concerned when they heard they were being stopped. It may be that over the months that the officers were in that same area, they got to know who the bad people in the neighborhood were, so their pedestrian stops were very much targeted. That may be a way police departments can maintain a level of crime control in a manner that is not necessarily detrimental to police legitimacy. But it's an ongoing challenge as to how much intervention a community is prepared to tolerate. It's a difficult question.

TCR: You say that the police and residents often view a neighborhood quite differently.

Ratcliffe: Police are answerable to statistics, so they focus heavily on violent crime. Yet sporadic violent crime is most noticeable to the families or the people directly involved. Even in big cities, it's relatively rare. I do work in Central America, where the homicide rates are an order of magnitude larger than what we have. Violent crime has been reducing in cities like Philadelphia for years. So while it's still obviously a huge concern, it's a relatively sporadic event that doesn't affect everybody. Residents are likely to be much more engaged with general disorder, with minor assaults, with vehicle crime and burglary crime and drug markets. And while obviously of less magnitude since we're not talking about someone's life, those crime problems are witnessed by many, many more people.

TCR: Are law enforcement best-practices becoming universal? Or are there techniques used abroad today that we ought to adopt, and vice-versa?

Ratcliffe: There are some techniques that appear to be relatively universal—for example, hot spot policing. But I think in many cases police practices are tied to other components of government and security, such as prosecution or diversion services. As such they are highly localized and require tailoring to local conditions. But that doesn't mean there is nothing to learn from what other people are doing; rather, we should examine the contexts under which they succeed as a way to understand how we can transport ideas around the globe.

TCR: Robert Peel famously suggested that police promotions ought to be based upon crime statistics. You write that a “harm-focused ethos would better merge community aspirations with the criteria by which police commanders are noticed and rewarded.” What do you mean?

Ratcliffe: In many places, the criteria for which policing success is established is very narrow, and often comprises only violent crime. The community often wishes police would help them deal with a much wider range of problems. However, in these times of fiscal constraint and data-driven accountability, risk-averse leaders will not expend effort on problems that are not directly tied to the manner in which their success is assessed.

David J. Krajicek is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. Follow him on Twitter @djkrajicek. He welcomes your comments.

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