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In What Ways Do the Police Fall Short as Crime Fighters?

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The police have always been touted as our first line of defense with regard to crime prevention and crime suppression.  For decades policing has employed a standard set of strategies utilized to reduce crime and disorder within their jurisdictions. However, extant research of these traditional strategies, which police agencies stubbornly cling to, has shown that their effectiveness in reducing crime, disorder or fear has been less than desirable.

Increasing the size of police agencies has long been at the top of the list for both politicians and police administrators.  The general belief that more police officers equates to less crime, disorder and fear has been shown through research to be ambiguous at best.  While research has shown (Sherman and Eck, 2002) that the absence of police will increase crime, no conclusive evidence has been found to confirm that increasing police staffing will subsequently cause a reduction in crime, disorder and fear.  Skogan and Frydl (2004) suggest that although more recent studies (Marvell and Moody, 1996; Levitt, 1997) have shown that marginal increases in police are related to decreases in crime rates, much more study is needed to determine how redeployment strategies come into play when additional officers are added and whether or not that has an influence on the reduction in crime rates.  The fact remains that no matter how large a police force is, crime, disorder and fear cannot be reduced if officers are simply a reactionary force that merely responds after criminal activity has occurred and does nothing proactively to attempt prevention of crime.  In today’s environment, where police are under much greater media scrutiny, reactive policing has become the safe-haven where officers hide in order to escape unwarranted attacks of their character and ethics.  Ultimately, who suffers?  In this scenario the community suffers through an increase in criminal activity, a reduction in their quality of life and the realization that the recruitment of qualified police officer candidates has been greatly diminished, as they seek careers involving less unwarranted scrutiny.

Another area in which policing has fallen short of meeting the mark is with the strategy of conducting random patrol across all parts of the community.  According to Skogan and Frydl (2004), random patrol across all police jurisdictions has been one of the areas most enduring in the standard practices of police and one that police administrators have been most stubborn in considering for adjustment.  Landmark studies in this particular area have again produced ambiguous results, with one determining that random preventive patrol can have an impact on crime and the other concluding that random patrol had no significant influence on crime prevention or reduction.  Frankly, random patrol involves being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  Random, high visibility patrol does however, tend to shore up citizen confidence and reduce the fear of crime within the community by assuring the community that the police are present. Random patrol is another strategy that warrants more research in order to make a better determination of its effectiveness.

Police administrators, officers and politicians alike are proud to report quick and efficient response times when they address citizens about crime.  Administrators also like to use delays in response time to argue for the hiring of more officers. During budget formulation, legislators are always concerned if the response times of the police are creeping higher each fiscal year, wanting to be able to make a connection to a perception of safety based on a police department’s ability to be on-scene quickly.  Research has shown that rapid response to calls for service does not reduce crime, or for that matter, even enhance an officer’s chance at making an on-scene arrest.  Studies have shown that most crimes, upwards of 75% of them, are discovered well after the offender(s) have left the scene.  Additionally, citizen delay in notifying the police, many times up to five minutes or longer, adds to the probability that the offender will not be apprehended.

With apprehension in mind, the next areas where the police fall short is in the area of generally applied follow-up investigations and generally applied enforcement and arrests.  Many agencies have no systematic follow-up process in place to revisit misdemeanor offenses that have not been closed or an offender identified upon initial investigation.  Felony cases are usually given much more attention by investigators, and due to their serious nature should be, but neglecting the follow-up of unresolved misdemeanor cases shows a lack of agency focus and is ignoring criminal activity and quality of life issues in the most basic way.

Numerous studies have shown that addressing issues through problem oriented and evidenced based policing is much more effective than generally applied enforcement. Focusing enforcement efforts and coordinating efficient follow-through can reduce crime, build confidence and legitimacy in the police and demonstrate a motive-based trust that is rooted in a social alignment between the police and the community. You have a much better opportunity of hitting a target with a rock than with a handful of sand. Focused field interrogations and have been proven to be more effective than “scattergun policing.”

The fact remains that although much research in the area of policing is needed, the focused approach to this point seems to be the most promising in assisting the police in reducing crime disorder and fear within the community.

 

References

Levitt, Steven D. 1997. Using election cycles in police hiring to estimate the effect of police on crime . American Economic Review 87 (3): 270-290.

Marvell, T.B., and Moody, C. (1996). Specification problems, police levels, and crime rates . Criminology 34 (4): 609-646.

Sherman, Lawrence W., and John E. Eck. (2002). Policing for prevention. In Evidence based crime prevention, edited by Lawrence W. Sherman, David Farrington, and Brandon Welsh. New York: Routledge.

Skogen, W.G., and Frydl, K. (2004) Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

 

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