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Prevention: Police Role

Environmental Criminology, Community Crime Prevention, Conclusion, Bibliography

Picture crime prevention as a leisurely river that flows toward the sea, fed by a network of streams, creeks, and other tributaries, some of which flow into the river alone, and others which first join with one another before reaching the river. In this analogy, we can think of the sea as the universe of formal and informal mechanisms used by society to deal with crime. Many rivers flow into this sea, including those that represent actions taken before, while, and after crime occurs. The crime prevention river contains all the mechanisms used by society to prevent crime before it occurs. The streams, creeks, and tributaries flowing into this river represent the many "streams of thought" about how to prevent crime, who should do it, and when it should be done. Crime prevention is not a single set of uniform tools; it represents a complex amalgam of ideas emerging from various academic disciplines like psychology, sociology, geography, and criminology. Current knowledge about effective crime prevention strategies comes from evaluation research and anecdotes about successful and unsuccessful programs and strategies used in the past. Some of these strategies have very little to do with the police, while others involve the police in important ways. Crime prevention efforts involving the police represent just one stream among many types of crime prevention efforts. This entry contains a brief overview of the methods used by the police to prevent crime, and how those methods have evolved in recent years.

Crime prevention has been one of the primary mandates of police organizations since the establishment of the first "modern" style police agency, the London Metropolitan Police, in 1829. Throughout much of the twentieth century, U.S. police agencies relied on three core operational strategies for preventing and controlling crime: random preventive patrol, rapid response to calls-for-service from citizens, and retrospective investigation of criminal offenses. Evaluation research in the 1970s cast doubt on the effectiveness of these strategies for preventing crime. The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment, for instance, found that changing the level of patrol coverage had no effect on crime, citizen fear of crime, and several other outcome variables (Kelling et al.). Other evaluation research showed that rapid response to calls for service from citizens does not increase the likelihood of preventing a crime or apprehending an offender (Van Kirk; Spelman and Brown). Evaluations of the criminal investigation process demonstrated that the success of a criminal investigation depends in large part on the willingness of witnesses to provide information to police (Greenwood and Petersilia). Finally, evidence from dozens of studies suggests that increasing the number of officers does not improve the ability of the police to reduce crime (Eck and Maguire). Research evidence on the ineffectiveness of traditional police strategies to reduce, control, or prevent crime led noted policing scholar David Bayley to declare boldly that:

The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society's best defense against crime and continually argue that if they are given more resources, especially personnel, they will be able to protect communities against crime. This is a myth. (p. 3)

Faced with alarming evidence on the ineffectiveness of their core strategies, police agencies have been experimenting with new methods and strategies for preventing crime. Furthermore, policing as an institution has adopted a much more open perspective toward evaluation research as a strategy for testing innovative strategies. This openness and curiosity on the part of police executives has led to a culture of experimentation among police practitioners and a profusion of studies by scholars on what works in policing. Two influential articles by noted policing scholars helped to fuel the fire of innovation.

In 1979, University of Wisconsin law professor Herman Goldstein published an article in the journal Crime and Delinquency (1979) entitled "Improving Policing: A Problem-Oriented Approach." In this article, Goldstein sketched the foundation for a new theory of police effectiveness. He argued that police agencies are so preoccupied with internal matters such as efficiency, equipment, technology, and operating routines, that they tend to lose sight of their purpose. Goldstein recommended that police agencies should stop treating "incidents" as their primary unit of work. Since incidents are often symptoms of one or more underlying problems, Goldstein argued, police should attempt to identify and solve problems rather than simply responding to incidents.

In 1982, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling published their famous article, "Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety," in Atlantic Monthly. Wilson and Kelling claimed that the police had become so narrowly focused on serious crime that they tended to view other important community problems, such as disorder, as outside the scope of their responsibilities. Wilson and Kelling used broken windows as a metaphor for neighborhood disorder, arguing that unchecked disorder is an open invitation to further disorder and more serious crime. The implications for police strategy were clear: agencies need to reorient police resources toward maintaining order and preventing crime. Police officers around the world can now be heard talking about fixing "broken windows."

Both articles emerged at an important juncture in police history. Several contemporary evaluations of team policing and community relations units had been fairly pessimistic about the ability of the police to forge and sustain improved relationships with the community (Sherman et al., 1973). A spate of other evaluation research challenged the efficacy of traditional police practices such as random preventive patrol, criminal investigation, and rapid response to calls-for-service from the public (Bayley). These two articles served an important role, emerging at a time when scholars and practitioners were struggling to redefine the proper role of police in a democratic society. While there were clear differences between the two reform strategies, both made some similar prescriptions: first, police need to expand their mandate beyond crime to include disorder and other persistent community problems; second, in responding to these problems, police need to be proactive rather than simply reactive. Crime prevention played a significant role in each reform strategy. Together, these strategies combined with other forces (such as organizational change reforms in the public and private sectors) to accelerate the birth of the community policing movement.

Throughout the 1980s, these ideas were tested in several cities, including Baltimore County, Maryland, Madison, Wisconsin, and Newport News, Virginia. By the late 1980s, police agencies were beginning to take crime prevention seriously, experimenting with a number of crime prevention strategies as part of a broader effort to implement community-oriented and problem-oriented policing. By the early 1990s, community policing was quickly becoming a household term, playing a major role in President Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and the 1994 Crime Act. Crime prevention is only one component of community policing. Other overlapping elements include community partnerships, problem-solving, and a variety of organizational changes designed to make police agencies more flexible and responsive. Nonetheless, crime prevention is a core element of community policing, and the degree to which police agencies now take crime prevention seriously is due in large part to the success of the community policing movement. Under community policing, preventing crime means working together with communities, learning about their problems, and designing unique solutions to these problems. Thousands of police agencies throughout the United States now claim to have adopted a proactive or preventive approach to crime (Maguire et al.). Researchers are still examining the validity of these claims.

Not all crime prevention activities involve the police, and of those that do, some did not emerge from the community policing movement. Next we explore two other streams of crime prevention thought: environmental criminology and community crime prevention. Both evolved independently of the police, but over time began to involve the police to some extent. Both also now occupy a role in the larger community policing movement.



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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law