Tackling Violent Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t?

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Each new regime change and every new shift in local crime rates leads to broad conclusions about past experiments as a fresh playbook is swapped in. Instead of the steadiness and empiricism required of serious crime-fighting, America spends most of its time alternating between a breathless search for silver bullets and a narrative of failure in which new strategies themselves are blamed for perpetuating urban bloodshed.

But there’s an antidote to that knee-jerk thinking.

Over the past year, a small group of criminologists has refined the way that policing strategies get evaluated, yielding a new perspective on the state of the art — and sometimes directly contradicting conventional wisdom.

“It turns out there are a lot of things that work,” says David Weisburd of George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, who served as lead editor of a new book, What Works in Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation.

The book, considered the most comprehensive examination yet of the strategies of the past 20 years or so, uses more rigorous methods of evaluating programs that Weisburd argues produces “a strong body of evidence that crime prevention can work—and that’s an important message.”

Experts in crime statistics habitually take the long view, and caution against overreacting to outliers. But this even-handed approach toward crime policy often gets discarded when spikes in urban gun violence force law enforcement officials and politicians to find quick fixes.

In Chicago, for instance, years of experimentation with aggressive seizures of illegal street guns and varieties of violence intervention under former police superintendent Garry McCarthy have been largely obscured by headlines about record-setting homicide totals and racial outrage over ugly police killings.

At the same time, the seemingly successful results of a crime-reduction policy can often be misleading. Critiques of the Los Angeles Police Department’s cleanup of MacArthur Park, for instance, have credited trimming shrubs and picking up trash with a drop in muggings and other crimes.

Two threads running through most of the findings in the volume edited by Weisburd on effective strategies are:

  • Pinpoint targeting of the most dangerous people and places;
  • Solving underlying social problems instead of just treating the symptoms of those problems with brute force.

These broad themes are at the heart of one of the most consistently effective approaches, called “focused deterrence,” in which cops and social services groups sit down with gang members to steer them away from lives of violence, rather than simply put them in handcuffs.

To reach those conclusions, Weisburd’s book and other major studies like it employ analytical tools called meta-analysis and systematic reviews — in essence, studies of studies that can compare results across thousands of individual evaluations to find statistically significant impacts on crime rates.

By taking the broad view, researchers can discover sometimes-hidden patterns that aren’t changed by one study or two. They are also insulated from the politically motivated interpretations that sometimes drive the conclusions taken from smaller, individual inquiries.

This impulse to generalize can lead to bad public policy decisions, says Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Take gun seizures. When they’re carried out as stop-and-frisk street sweeps, they can leave law-abiding citizens feeling as though the police are an occupying force. But that doesn’t change what the research shows about the approach when it’s done right.

“Focusing on gun offenders and their possession of guns is one of the most important things you can do for public safety in many communities,” says Webster. “We’ve largely forgotten that.”

Other prominent researchers have echoed Weisburd’s findings about crime prevention programs. Among the most notable big-picture analyses are papers by Rutgers’ Anthony Braga on policing, Harvard’s Thomas Abt on gun-violence prevention, and Anthony Petrosino of the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center on violence prevention.

The overall picture can still look messy, with many research gaps and unanswered questions remaining — gun control and mass shootings, for example, get no attention in Weisburd’s book or in the other major studies mentioned here because there have not yet been enough smaller studies to form the basis for a larger analysis.

Likewise, many specific programs and strategies — such as gunfire-detection systems like ShotSpotter — at this point have not yet been assessed by the big-picture research. Further complicating matters is that policing strategies rarely get used in isolation, so it can be difficult to determine conclusively which specific law enforcement actions are driving which changes in crime.

But when those factors can be untangled, the results can lead to surprising conclusions. For instance, one widely used strategy, community policing, gets poor marks for reducing crime, no matter how well it improves police-community relations.

By combing through the latest crop of research, The Trace has devised a “Report Card” on policing strategies aimed at reducing gun violence.

That very specific language — policing strategies to curb gun violence — is key to understanding this score sheet, as we have excluded programs and strategies focusing on other kinds of crime or carried out by players other than the police.

(One exception is the community-based violence intervention approach called Cure Violence, which we included because of how closely related it is to a similar crime reduction strategy.)

As the examples below show, some of the most well-known uses of certain programs can lead to ambiguous conclusions about whether a strategy works. But that is the point of the big-picture research: to go beyond single experiments to find the larger trends.

Here’s what the new mega-studies can teach policymakers, law enforcement leaders, and the journalists who cover urban crime.


Policing Directory - Ceasefire Model BGCEASEFIRE MODEL


The approach is formally known as focused deterrence, or “pulling levers policing” (for the tactic of pulling all the levers necessary to achieve the desired response). The strategy is most closely associated with the National Network for Safe Communities’  Operation Ceasefire programs.

It was used most famously in the strategy’s pilot program in the mid-1990s: the so-called Boston Miracle that reduced the city’s homicide total by half. Since then, similar efforts have begun in dozens of cities across the country, including current programs in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and many mid-sized cities.


Starting in 2003, homicides spiked in New Haven, Connecticut, bucking a national decrease in violent crime. By 2011, the city’s murder rate exceeded those in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and flirted with the record high numbers of homicides seen around the country in the early 1990s.

New Haven launched its version of Ceasefire, called Project Longevity, in 2012. After identifying the most violent gangs responsible for the city’s surge in shootings, police conducted a series of call-ins to issue warnings to gang members while offering help with housing, drug counseling, and job training. In the program’s first three years, the city saw monthly shootings drop on average nearly 73 percent — a result that a team of Yale University researchers determined could not be explained by factors other than the use of the program.


Numerous studies consistently rate the method as effective. One major paper, for instance, found “significant reductions in targeted crime problems, particularly gang homicide,” and it’s the highest-ranked program in Weisburd’s What Works.

The strategy’s chief architect, David Kennedy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, documented in his memoir the eventual failures of multiple Operation Ceasefire programs, including even the celebrated Boston initiative. But Kennedy and the researchers who champion focused deterrence blame its spotty record on police departments’ failure to sustain their efforts or to carry out the program’s elements faithfully. Behind the mixed anecdotes, studies show, is a solid record of success.

Illustration by The Trace

Illustration by The Trace



Advanced crime-mapping software identifies specific geographic areas with the highest risk of violence. These “hot spots” — sometimes as small as one block or even one building — are then targeted with intense patrols and other attention from police. What kind of attention is key. Rather than carry out broad, heavy-handed sweeps, the most effective hot-spots approach focuses exclusively on the places and people most likely to turn violent. It also uses a tactic called problem-oriented policing, which encourages officers to address underlying causes of crime — what sparked a particular turf battle between gangs, for instance — rather than remain largely reactive.


In Philadelphia in 2009, data analysis identified 22,000 street intersections as the most dangerous in the city. Police added new foot patrols to the top 1 percent of those locations citywide, where 120 pairs of officers per day walked beats, talked to residents, and stopped known troublemakers in cars and on sidewalks. A National Institute of Justice report on the experiment found a reduction of 23 percent in reports of violent crime in its first three months.


This strategy has repeatedly lowered crime rates in violent areas, according to several studies cited in Weisburd’s book, and even helped reduce crime in adjacent neighborhoods — disproving suspicions that such programs merely displace rather than prevent crime. Other studies found the program has a more modest impact, meaning that while this method can help prevent violence, it might not be as effective as other strategies.

Illustration by The Trace

Illustration by The Trace



This approach, which is actually a variety of programs that fall under the name of disorder policing, strives to prevent violence and other serious crime by first addressing minor signs of social and physical disorder. (In short: “fixing broken windows.”) Adopted in various forms by hundreds of cities by the late 1990s, the strategy quickly became infamous for its more strident iterations — such as “order maintenance” and “zero tolerance” policing, in which police blanket neighborhoods and arrest people for low-level offenses. When misused, these methods tend to antagonize the very neighborhoods they were meant to protect. In the program’s more subtle forms, police collaborate with community members and other agencies to address underlying social problems that cause crime.


The strategy gained national attention when it was used in New York City starting in the 1990s. Police targeted a wide range of disorderly and illegal behaviors: open-air drug markets, street-walkers, “squeegee men” who harassed drivers, panhandlers, public drinking, and turnstile jumpers in the subways, among others. These crackdowns proved popular with a public fed up with crime, and coincided with historic drops in the city’s violence rates. But they also caused rifts with the city’s black and Latino residents, who were disproportionately arrested by police.


A 2015 study by Braga and colleagues — which combined results from reports in multiple cities — gives broken-windows policing high marks for reducing crime. But the strategy’s success depends on its implementation. The paper concluded that the approach works when it’s used as a “community problem-solving” tool, but found that the sort of “aggressive order maintenance” efforts used in New York City have little impact on crime. (There’s no scientific consensus on which combination of strategies deserves credit for the city’s dramatic drop in crime rates since the 1980s.)

Illustration by The Trace

Illustration by The Trace



As part of a broader hot-spots policing program, police teams focus exclusively on getting guns off the streets of violent neighborhoods. Trained to identify people likely to be carrying illegal weapons, and armed with intelligence identifying known gun offenders, these guns squads frequently stop vehicles and pedestrians to search for weapons.


In Kansas City, Missouri, in the 1990s, police deployed the strategy in an impoverished neighborhood with a homicide rate 20 times the national average. Before beginning the gun patrols, police went door to door to spread word of the coming crackdown and to ask citizens to report people carrying illegal weapons. Gun squads then spent 200 nights working the streets. Gun seizures increased by 65 percent and gun crimes fell by 49 percent. Evidence showed that the program not only reduced homicides and drive-by shootings, but also that it did so without pushing gun violence into surrounding neighborhoods.


The largest study to date found this strategy repeatedly reduces gun-related crime. In six out of seven major studies in the U.S. and Colombia, which compared crime-reduction results in the targeted areas to neighborhoods that did not receive the same attention, gun crimes declined between 10 and 71 percent, with the American programs producing the biggest drops in violence.


Illustration by The Trace

Illustration by The Trace



The gist: treat gun violence as a contagious disease, and it can be blocked or cured with the help of street workers — usually former gang members — who intervene to prevent retaliatory violence. These interventions can include mediating disputes and offering social services to gang members and other likely shooters.

The key to this strategy, like many others found to be effective, is a tight focus. The work of Yale’s Andrew Papachristos, for example, shows that members of small groups in violent areas face the greatest risk of gunshot injuries, as violence can spread within these networks like an epidemic. “As an individual’s exposure to gunshot victims increases, so too do that individual’s odds of victimization,” he writes. Because of these concentrated patterns of gun violence, it’s possible to identify those most likely to be involved in shootings and intervene more effectively.

Founded in Chicago as CeaseFire in 1999— confusingly adopting the name of a similar approach, focused deterrence — the program now often goes by the name Cure Violence, and has since been implemented in more than two dozen other cities.


After Baltimore’s version of the strategy, Safe Streets, showed dramatic results in one violent neighborhood in 2007 — homicides stopped completely for the first 22 months of the program — it was rolled out in three other areas of the city. According to a study overseen by Johns Hopkins’ Webster, the results varied widely, from big drops in shootings in some neighborhoods to an increase in homicides in another.

Webster says that, on paper, Baltimore’s uneven results might suggest the entire approach is bunk. But a closer look revealed specific factors that determined the strategy’s success. For instance, crime was unchanged where street workers lacked the skills and drive to do the work effectively. But when properly motivated, trained, and supervised, the workers could succeed at preventing further violence. “It’s no magic potion,” Webster says. But, he adds, “investing in the right guys to do this kind of work with good supervision clearly will pay off.”


A review of the research last year found the program lowers some types of crime in some places, but not consistently enough to brand it an unqualified success.

When it does work, however, the results can be significant. One study, for example, analyzed 16 years of data that compared areas in Chicago that used the Cure Violence approach with those that didn’t. In four of seven Cure Violence sites, shootings declined between 16 to 34 percent because of the program, the researchers concluded.

In another survey, Massachusetts’ Safe and Successful Youth Initiative was credited by WestEd researchers with preventing nearly 1,000 violent crimes between 2011 and 2013, and with reducing by more than half the odds that program participants would end up in jail. The program’s tactics included protecting kids walking to school, alternatives to school suspensions, and, most critically, interrupting potential acts of violence by confronting would-be offenders with warnings and offers of social services.

Illustration by The Trace

Illustration by The Trace



Running parallel with the debate over how police should respond to street violence is a discussion over how they should respond to violence committed by their own ranks. The effort to mend relations between police and residents in America’s most violence-prone neighborhoods is the focus of two approaches called promoting legitimacy and procedural justice.

Though not aimed strictly at reducing gun violence, these programs foster healthy relationships between police and the communities they serve by retraining police to neutralize their own racial bias and de-escalate confrontations with citizens. As officers are transformed from “warriors” to “guardians”, in the lingo of theorists, these efforts ultimately look to reduce violent crime.


With a history of racial tensions between police and local Somali refugees, and a documented pattern of racially biased arrests, Minneapolis was a natural choice as one of six pilot sites of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust & Justice, a federally funded program begun in 2014 to cultivate trust between police and residents of minority neighborhoods.

The Minneapolis program trains the city’s 800 officers to recognize and avoid deeply ingrained racial attitudes. This training includes simulations in which officers’ reactions to black and white suspects, armed or unarmed, show how race changes their perception of a threat. Another priority: changing policies to reduce the chances of lethal conflicts between police and citizens that further enflame racial tensions.

Begun last year and still in progress, Minneapolis’s efforts have been frustrated, paradoxically enough, by racial tensions with local police. Widespread protests broke out in December after a young black man was shot and killed during a scuffle with two white officers. Meanwhile, gun violence in the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods is up sharply this year, accelerating a five-year increase in shootings.


Studies rate the approach “promising,” with strong evidence that it promotes better relationships between residents and police. But its impact on crime rates remains uncertain. A leading report surveying the latest research concluded that there is at least a “marginally significant” effect on crime, but there are too few studies to reach more definitive conclusions.


Illustration by The Trace

Illustration by The Trace



One of the most widely used policing strategies, funded by billions in federal grants since the 1990s, this approach is driven by two primary goals: to move police beyond a strictly reactive role, and to involve community residents in reducing crime. At its most basic, this approach deploys cops on foot patrols and has them run picnics and basketball tournaments to get to know local residents. In its more substantive forms, it emphasizes crime-prevention efforts, designed in collaboration with local businesses and neighborhood groups, rather than traditional command-and-control policing that generally relies on arrests.


Lee Brown stressed community-oriented policing when he was chief of police in Houston in the 1980s. With homicides in the nation’s fourth-largest city topping 700 in 1981, the year before he took over, Brown’s department instituted a host of community-outreach activities in violent neighborhoods, including meetings, parades, and youth recreation programs, many of which remain in place. Homicides in Houston did eventually ebb, reaching a low point in 2011, long after Brown had moved on to run the New York Police Department. But researchers were unable to find any clear evidence that the long-running effort caused drops in violence and other serious crime.


An analysis based on 65 before-and-after assessments of community-oriented policing programs turned up no evidence of a statistically significant reduction in crime, or even in citizens’ fear of crime.

Rutgers’ Braga says such findings don’t mean these programs are pointless. “Community policing should be the foundation of any general crime prevention approach,” he wrote last year. “Simply engaging the community doesn’t seem to translate directly into crime reduction gains.


Mark Obbie

However, community engagement can provide important inputs to help focus crime reduction strategies such as problem-oriented policing, hot spots policing, and focused deterrence approaches, which do seem to reduce crime.”

Mark Obbie is a former executive editor of American Lawyer. The Crime Report is pleased to publish this article in cooperation with The Trace, a nonprofit news site that focuses on covering gun issues. Readers’ comments are welcomed.



One thought on “Tackling Violent Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t?

  1. The only thing that works on a consistent basis is police on the streets,proven by the Philadelphia example. Single police walking the streets especially at twilight will foster communication & trust between residents & police. The cops will be informed of suspicious activity before a crime occurs & the citizens will not see the police as the gestapo as they do now.

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