Although overall crime levels in the US are lower than in the 1990s, violent crime has risen dramatically in recent years. In the US, there has been a huge increase in firearm homicides, growing by nearly 35% percent from 2019 to 2020 and by 8.3% from 2020 to 2021 – reaching the highest rate for homicide since 1993. Tackling violent crime is a high priority, but the police and other agencies also have to work on combating non-violent crimes to enforce the law, maintain order and minimize the risk of escalation to violent crime.
One of the challenges faced by police departments is the changing nature of crime. For example, drug trafficking has mainly moved online, meaning that longstanding policing methodologies for tackling drug crime have become largely obsolete. Having officers targeting streets and drug houses is no longer an effective use of police time.
Other challenges include budget constraints and staff shortages, with the number of vacancies rising across the US, partly due to an aging workforce and partly due to other factors. These include a general lack of applicants, which can be partially attributed to changing attitudes toward law enforcement in recent years.
Police departments and other agencies have to employ a range of strategies to tackle crime in the most efficient way possible while working within the constraints of the staffing and other resources available.
Situational crime prevention
Situational crime prevention is important for addressing various types of street crime, from minor offenses to armed robbery. The emphasis is on making it harder for crimes to be committed and reducing the rewards which can be gained from the crime. An example of situational crime prevention is target hardening. This entails removing opportunities, or putting obstacles in place to prevent crimes from being committed. Examples of target hardening include applying anti-climb paint, installing CCTV, and contracting security personnel to patrol premises.
Further measures which can be taken include designing out opportunities for crime. For example, installing park benches with a central armrest so that homeless people do not use them for sleeping on, or fitting spikes to walls so that it is impossible to enter premises by scaling the wall.
Public bathrooms should be designed to provide the required facilities without excess space which could be used for drug-taking or sleeping in.
Situational crime prevention is a relatively low-cost and simple way to reduce crime in a geographic area. However, it has its shortcomings. Situational crime prevention can end up simply displacing crime, so that the crime level in the target area fall, but crime increases in a neighboring area. Another form of displacement is temporal displacement, whereby crime prevention reduces or eliminates crimes being perpetrated in particular hours, but criminals shift to carrying out illegal activities at different times. Displacement can also be tactical, so crimes are committed in a differently or functional – where criminals switch to committing another kind of crime.
Another criticism of situational crime prevention is that it does not address the root causes of crime. It also focuses primarily on street crime and does not lend itself to tackling other forms.
Proactive policing aims to prevent crime rather than reacting to it after it has happened and been reported. The focus is on anticipating crime and taking disruptive action to prevent it from taking place. In many places, a relatively small network of people is driving most of the violence in an area. Focusing resources on these networks is essential to make a significant impact on levels of crime. A proactive policing strategy requires a commitment to intelligence-led policing for maximum effectiveness. Intelligence-led policing uses crime data to identify trends in criminal activity. This facilitates a more efficient use of human resources, as staff are deployed to specific geographic areas with a greater likelihood of crimes.
Proactive policing can include tactics such as:
- Stop and search
- Increased police patrols in specific areas. Where they are appropriate, foot patrols can be particularly effective, as officers have an opportunity to engage with the community when they are out of their vehicles.
- Encouraging residents to protect their property with suitable security measures, such as locks, guards, and security cameras.
Reducing low-level crime and disorder can contribute to reducing more serious crime.
2. Social and community crime prevention
A range of approaches to crime reduction falls under the umbrella of social and community crime prevention. This approach to crime reduction is based on the principle that the underlying causes of crime need to be addressed to achieve a fall in the levels of crime being committed. Root causes usually include poverty, unemployment, poor-quality housing, homelessness, medical issues, and addiction.
Focused deterrence takes a community approach to reduce crime. It draws on the assistance of community residents, service providers and law enforcement officers to develop a partnership for tackling chronic crime. Often known as Community Violence Intervention (CVI), this approach targets high-risk individuals, sending the message that the police and community are working to stop the violence, that support is available, and that sanctions will be used where necessary. Getting the right balance of support and sanctions is vital for the success of focused deterrence.
As part of the support offered, CVI programs connect individuals at risk of committing or being victims of gun crime (and sometimes both), with community members who have experienced this for themselves.
Following through on commitments is an important part of these interventions. If support has been offered, it needs to be provided promptly. Failing to deliver support as promised reduces the likelihood of effecting change and damages trust in the overall intervention program.
Similarly, where sanctions have been specified, these need to be implemented so that people recognize that sanctions are not an empty threat. This can act as a deterrent to other criminals, and impede criminals from continuing to commit offenses.
Example of CVI program:
Hospital-based violence intervention program
Community members and experts connect with victims of gun violence in emergency rooms and trauma centers to engage immediately and seek to prevent retaliation crimes.
Law enforcement agencies need to recognize the issues contributing to crime levels and develop tactics to address the issues. Tackling the problems which drive crime is the key principle in Problem-Oriented Policing or POP. Under the POP approach, police officers work closely with other agencies and partners in the community to diagnose and solve these problems, using interventions laid out in an agreed response plan. Data gathering and analysis form an important part of the POP program, with an emphasis on collecting data from a range of sources, including data provided by the community and police data.
Officers can gather community data when they are out in the field by asking residents whether they are aware of any crime and disorder problems in their area. They can also provide phone lines that residents can use to leave tips anonymously if they are uncomfortable reporting issues in person. Community leaders and business owners may get involved in meetings to discuss crime problems and suggestions for addressing the underlying causes rather than just tackling the symptoms.
One of the advantages of POP is that when it is implemented well, it builds or strengthens relations between law enforcement and the community. There needs to be a genuine partnership between the police and the stakeholders in the community to achieve this benefit.
POP employs the SARA model, which stands for Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment.
Identifying recurring problems, the consequences for the community and police, and prioritizing the issues to address.
Understanding the conditions and events which lead up to or accompany the problem, gathering further data about the problem and why it is occurring.
Developing ideas for new interventions, learning from best practice in other communities, and preparing a detailed response plan.
Evaluating the implementation of the response plan, whether it was effective, and whether new strategies need to be adopted to build on the original plan.
POP requires a high level of commitment in terms of time, training, and other resources, and even though it was originally developed in the 1970s, it is not in widespread use. However, where it is implemented, studies have found it to be very effective, with reductions in crime levels of up to 33%.
Policing methodologies used to support:
Evidence-based Policing (EBP) is the practice of using the best available evidence to inform policing policies and decisions. This makes use of research methods to gain a better understanding of an issue, for example
- Examining the nature and causes of a problem
- Assessing the impact of a policing intervention by evaluating the possible consequences of making a change to policing practice
Smart Policing is a data-driven law enforcement strategy that leverages data analysis and evidence-based tactics to deliver more effective and efficient policing. Sophisticated applications can be used to generate predictions for narrow time windows when crimes are likely to be perpetrated within exact geographic locations. This can be used to identify when gang crime, gun crime, property offenses, and traffic accidents are likely to occur.
The advantages of social and community crime prevention include having a significant positive impact on communities as crime levels are lowered. Individuals can be deterred from criminal activity and given the support they need to steer away from a life of crime and move into meaningful employment. This has the added social benefit of potentially turning them into contributing taxpayers.
The main disadvantage of social and community crime reduction is the commitment required, in terms of time, resources, and managerial support. This approach to policing also requires the support of the local community for input and data gathering.
3. Environmental Crime Prevention
Environmental crime prevention is based on the premise that physical signs of crime or disorder can encourage criminal activity since they indicate low levels of law enforcement in the area.
It is important to avoid letting areas become neglected, as this can encourage criminal activity. Ensuring that buildings are maintained, with broken windows repaired promptly, graffiti quickly painted over, and abandoned vehicles removed all help to reduce crime levels in an area.
Zero Tolerance Policing
Zero Tolerance Policing, or ZTP, is a strategy for reducing both minor offences and serious crime through aggressive law enforcement, taking action against even minor disorder incidents and incivilities. It was used in some major cities, including the New York Police Department, in the 1990s, when crime levels fell dramatically. Although it was initially hailed as a success, studies conducted since then have not found conclusive evidence that the drop in crime can be attributed to the ZTP policy. It is possible that other factors contributed to or caused the reduced levels of crime, including population changes, increased rates of imprisonment, and other changes to policing. A study by Braga et al. (2019) concluded that ZTP is not an effective strategy for crime reduction in isolation but can help to reduce crime when used in conjunction with other strategies.
Similarly, anti-social behavior orders are used in some places to tackle low-level but often recurrent criminal activity. Offenders can be given a custodial sentence for relatively minor misdemeanors.
Environmental crime reduction is relatively low-cost. However, strategies such as ZTP can be disproportionately harsh for the level of misdemeanor.
Developing your knowledge of crime reduction strategies
The bachelor’s degree police officer program from Wilfrid Laurier University is a program developed in partnership with law enforcement from across Canada to further the education of police officers, preparing them for leadership roles in policing and related sectors. Applicants are expected to have a minimum of one year’s professional experience. The course delivery format is 100% online, giving students the flexibility to study from anywhere and at a pace to suit them. The degree can be completed within three to four years.
Course components include:
- Models of policing
- Leadership and career development in law enforcement
- Ethics, corruption, and police accountability
- Indigenous communities and policing
Completing a bachelor’s degree in policing will prepare you for progression in your policing career or a move into other roles such as a mediator, immigration officer, or probation officer.