Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Did Crime Analysis Contribute To A Dropping Crime Rate?

James Q. Wilson had a great piece in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend looking at the possible reasons for the drop in crime here in the US. This drop occurred even with country's the poor economic conditions and has many experts trying to figure out why. There have been quite a number of articles from quite a number folks trying to explain this apparent contradiction.

The reason I thought Wilson's article was so good was that it attributed much of the success to more efficient policing practices, ones that have at their heart crime analysis. From the piece:

Policing has become more disciplined over the last two decades; these days, it tends to be driven by the desire to reduce crime, rather than simply to maximize arrests, and that shift has reduced crime rates. One of the most important innovations is what has been called hot-spot policing. The great majority of crimes tend to occur in the same places. Put active police resources in those areas instead of telling officers to drive around waiting for 911 calls, and you can bring down crime. The hot-spot idea helped to increase the effectiveness of the New York Police Department's Compstat program, which uses computerized maps to pinpoint where crime is taking place and enables police chiefs to hold precinct captains responsible for targeting those areas.

Researchers continue to test and refine hot-spot policing. After analyzing data from over 7,000 police arrivals at various locations in Minneapolis, the criminologists Lawrence Sherman and David Weisburd showed that for every minute an officer spent at a spot, the length of time without a crime there after the officer departed went up—until the officer had been gone for more than 15 minutes. After that, the crime rate went up. The police can make the best use of their time by staying at a hot spot for a while, moving on, and returning after 15 minutes.

Some cities now use a computer-based system for mapping traffic accidents and crime rates. They have noticed that the two measures tend to coincide: Where there are more accidents, there is more crime. In Shawnee, Kan., the police spent a lot more time in the 4% of the city where one-third of the crime occurred: Burglaries fell there by 60% (even though in the city as a whole they fell by only 8%), and traffic accidents went down by 17%.

The methods Wilson is championing are things such as hot spot policing, CompStat, DDACTS, problem oriented policing, intelligence led policing and the like. All of these make police more efficient at reducing crime.

Any of these approaches are better than the old reactive policing model of having a police officer drive round aimlessly until he gets dispatched to a call. Some of them, may be a better fit for your agency than others. For instance, if you work for a very small agency, one with less than 10 officers, a full blown NYPD style CompStat might be a bit of overkill. But hot spot policing and problem oriented policing would likely work for any agency. DDACTS is just a variation on hot spot policing by adding traffic accidents into the mix along with crime data.

Hot spot policing is also a very simple methodology. In the words of former NYPD head Bill Bratton, you basically "put cops on the dots". Where the dots are (crimes on a map) is where you want your cops to spend most of their time. Even a department with limited resources can accomplish this. While it might help to have computer software to do crime mapping, a department with limited resources could use old fashioned pin maps or maybe even Google Earth to map their crime locations and then put their officers where the dots are.

Is your agency using hot spot policing or other methodologies to focus their operations? If you aren't why not?

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