Police Reform: Crime Prevention Without the Police

Police Reform Month continues through December and into January of 2015! Happy New Year, citizens!

Readers may be shocked, as I am, at the extraordinary entitlement of the New York Police Department. The NYPD union claimed that protestors of police violence and the comments of New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, were responsible for the deaths of two NYPD officers. At the funerals for these officers, in a public spectacle not performed for any other type of public employee, hundreds of NYPD officers turned their backs when de Blasio went to speak. New York’s police have sent the signal that even the mildest criticism will not be permitted; they are beyond accountability to their employers (the public).

Well, good news – they can find employment elsewhere! As we have previously discussed, the police, as they stand now, are neither just nor effective. Some readers have been under the impression that this means that police officers are not good at their jobs. And plenty of police officers aren’t, as we see every week with a new victim of police violence. However, what we are actually saying is that the job of policing does not meet its goal of preventing crime. The tasks that police perform – patrolling, responding to calls for service, and criminal investigation – do not have a significant effect on the crime rate. For reasons that are still unknown, crime has fallen across North America regardless of the actions of particular police departments.

Social scientists are only now beginning to understand how we can actually prevent crime. The International Center for the Prevention of Crime collects the best practices for interventions that prevent crime from happening in the first place. Several factors make people more likely to be a criminal offender, or a victim of crime, or make a location more likely to be a source of crime. Preventing crime involves identifying people and places that are at-risk and solving the problems that lead to crime. While police departments often have crime prevention offices, they are often poorly funded and staffed. The tools of the police are the powers of search and arrest, and police departments usually revert to these tools, even after thorough reforms. The crime prevention methods discussed below do not require the skills the police are trained in.

Violence Prevention

Persons who are at-risk for committing violence are born into difficult circumstances: poverty, poor housing, and with uncaring or even abusive parents. We now know that the chronic stress of poverty is corrosive to the development of the human brain. Stress hormones reduce the development of the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that inhibits our impulses. Identifying the most at-risk children and families and providing parental counseling and educational enrichment is an effective way of preventing crime in the long term. Chicago’s Child-Parent Center Program is one of the oldest such programs. Children followed through the program are 32 percent less likely to be arrested by the age of twenty.

That’s the long term, but what about crime happening right now? There are also non-coercive programs for that. Previously, we discussed the Cure Violence program and its pilot projects all over the world. Its founder, the epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, found that violence has a pattern similar to the spread of disease. In fact, the best predictor of violence is exposure to violence. Thus, Slutkin reasoned, we can apply the epidemiological solution to violence. Cure Violence programs do this by finding community volunteers with credibility in violence-ridden areas. These ‘violence interrupters’ use their reputation to find persons who have been exposed to violence and use persuasion to change their behaviors. The program also provides counseling and educational opportunities. Everywhere the program is fully implemented, it finds significant success.

While Cure Violence is a non-profit, some cities have taken the initiative to implement similar programs. Richmond is a city in California adjacent to Oakland, and shares its reputation for violence. It has recently acquired fame for its highly regarded police chief, Chris Magnus, and his participation in protests against police violence. But the city also instituted an Office of Neighborhood Safety, headed by DeVone Boggan, in 2007. The office identifies the fifty most likely violent offenders and helps them to develop a plan for their life. Participants can receive up $1000 every month as long as they renounce violence. The office monitors them to make sure they keep their promise.

The murder rate in Richmond, California, has collapsed, from 47 killings out of 100,000 people in 2007 to 15 per 100,000 in 2013. However, we don’t want to fall victim to a post hoc fallacy. The NYPD pats itself on the back and claims that “broken windows” reduced crime in New York City, despite the same fall in crime across the country. Similarly, Richmond’s fall in murder rates are only a little better than the nation-wide fall in murder rates. Also, police chief Chris Magnus implemented his community policing reforms in Richmond around the same time, which may have had an effect.

Nonetheless, these public health methods are notable for getting results without violence, or the threat of violence. The volunteers do not carry weapons of any kind, and only have their personal credibility to protect them. No one dies on their patrols, despite being present in situations of armed violence.

Community Mobilization

Neighborhood watches are now a common element of local crime control. They are also not very effective. Most watches have failed to adopt the essential elements of the original project, Seattle’s 1968 Community Crime Prevention Program. Whereas many neighborhood watches are nothing but lackluster patrols, the Seattle program mobilized neighborhoods to identify vulnerabilities to crime and address them, including installing new locks and how to address strangers. While it sounds pretty simple today, the program saw burglaries drop by half in the targeted areas.

The neighborhood watches organized by the Citizens’ Local Alliance for a Safer Philadelphia (CLASP) were even more dedicated. Besides mutual assistance in installing new locks, timer lights, homemade alarms, marking personal property, and connecting neighbors, CLASP watches heavily patrolled their blocks with horns and flashlights. Like medieval townspeople, neighbors were expected to respond to the “hue and cry” of the patrols to drive criminals away. CLASP watches reduced crime by an average of 75 percent in organized blocks.

The police assist communities in establishing neighborhood watches as a part of “community policing”, the official national policy for policing. In community policing, specific officers are assigned to neighborhoods as a foot patrol, so that residents have regular interactions with the police. In some programs, such as the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, neighborhoods even have ‘beat assemblies’. The police and the community are supposed to work together to identify problems and develop solutions. The reality is usually that citizens complain and the assigned officer commands. Although community policing has worked to reduce crime in some locations, on average it has no effect, although citizens often feel safer and are more satisfied with their police department. Both neighborhood watches and community policing associations have a tendency to be captured by the police department, the citizens becoming passive, and any effectiveness of the program reduced.

Crime Prevention through Environmental Design

We can also reduce crime by altering the environment to eliminate opportunities for crime. The basic principles of this method include, first, controlling access to a location. This means delineating the area, and who belongs in the area, by building paths, fences, and gates to guide users of the area.

Second, planners design the area for “natural surveillance”. People should have a reason to be in an area so that there are a lot of eyes on each other. This involves creating dense, mixed neighborhoods of residences and small businesses. Small businesses attract large numbers of people that deter crime in the residential neighborhood because of the increased chance of getting caught.

Third, the design should encourage identity and a sense of possession for its residents or users that encourage them to question the presence of strangers. This means creating clear markers between public and private areas and uses.

J.D. Trout gives an account of one experiment:

In Brooklyn, two adjacent high-rise buildings prompted classic research on crime-resistant architecture. These two buildings had the same clientele but different architectures. One (Brownsville) dissuaded crime and reduced situations for committing crime…. The other (Van Dyke) did not: ‘Van Dyke Homes was found to have 66 percent more total crime incidents, with over two and one-half times as many robberies (264 percent), and 60 percent felonies, misdemeanors, and offenses than Brownsville.’ (loc. 360)

Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (also called “situational crime prevention”) has some effect, but the field is only just ripening. Further research will yield new methods.

Clearly, there are a number of crime prevention strategies, including those for immediate crimes, that do not require the police powers of warrantless arrest and search and the use of force. However, we can’t know whether these methods would work without the police at all. As always, progress towards a free society is through institutional and organizational experimentation.


Institute for the Prevention of Crime, Making Cities Safer: Action Briefs for Municipal Stakeholders, Ottawa, March 2009

Irvin Waller, Less Law, More Order

J.D. Trout, The Empathy Gap

Diane Zahm, Using Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design in Problem-Solving

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