March 25, 2002
by Edmund McGarrell
One of the major "surprises" in the public policy arena during the mid-1990s has been the significant decrease in crime in many major U.S. cities. New York City’s homicide levels have fallen to a 30-year low. Indeed, there were fewer than 800 homicides in New York in 1997 compared to 2,262 in 1992. Similarly, Los Angeles, Boston, New Orleans, Chicago, and Dallas have witnessed declines. Although the trends have not reached all cities (e.g., Denver, Detroit, Nashville, and Indianapolis), the declines are large enough to produce a national decrease.(Indianapolis Star, 12/30/97)
Many different explanations have been offered for the decrease. These include the decline in crack cocaine-related drug wars, demographic shifts resulting in fewer males in the crime-prone age categories, an improved economy, and increased levels of incarceration. Although there is disagreement among analysts over which of these factors are producing the decline, and likely it is a combination of factors, many if not most observers believe the shift to community policing is a key ingredient.
One of the difficulties in assessing the role of community policing, however, is that it is a term that means different things to different people, even among police themselves. Further, the operational manifestation of community policing differs from city to city and even from neighborhood to neighborhood within the same city.
By examining one community policing effort in a small U.S. city, we can see several distinct elements of a meaningful community policing effort. We can then relate these to successful efforts in other communities and, in doing so, draw a picture of what the future of American law enforcement might look like if we are to learn from these contemporary success stories.
Spokane, Washington is a city of approximately 185,000 residents in a county of just under 400,000 population. Situated in eastern Washington, it is only 20 miles from the Idaho border. The city serves as the major urban center for economic, cultural, and health resources for a very large rural area of eastern Washington, northern Idaho and northwest Montana. Since hosting the World’s Fair in the early 1970s, Spokane has successfully revitalized a downtown area that is vibrant and esthetically pleasing with parks and trails traversing a greenway along the Spokane River.
Although the early 1990s saw population and economic growth, there was also an increase in violent crime, illegal drug trafficking and gang activity. Much of this illegal activity occurred in what is known as the West First Street neighborhood. This is an older neighborhood on the edge of the downtown district. It is a mixed use neighborhood zoned for commercial buildings, light industry, warehousing and apartment buildings. It is also a poor neighborhood with a median income approximately a quarter of that for the city as a whole and half the residents falling below the poverty level. At the center of the neighborhood is a 50-unit public housing facility known as the Parsons. Across the street from the Parsons are two low rent residential hotels suffering from years of neglect. The neighborhood is traversed by a raised railroad line and numerous alleys and alcoves that had long been sites of illegal activity. Local commercial establishments included adult pornography arcades, bars, and social services programs catering to runaway youth and drug users.
For many years the neighborhood could be described as a "copping zone" (Skogan, 1990), the place to go for drug and prostitution activity. As of 1994, this approximate four X five block neighborhood accounted for thirteen percent of the city’s drug arrests and eight percent of its robberies even though it comprised well under one percent of the city’s population. The numbers, however, only told part of the story. Observation from the late afternoon through the late night revealed a steady stream of cars and trucks driving in a rectangular pattern whereby they would place an order for drugs or sex to a street-side vendor, proceed to another block for payment, and move to the next stop for procurement of the product. The streets were dominated by lookouts, sellers, and buyers in these illicit markets. A stop outside one of the apartments with a police officer in his police car revealed buyers double-parking, shouting orders to sellers in upstairs apartments, keys dropping from the upstairs apartments to allow entrance, and the return of the buyers to their vehicles, having successfully completed the transaction. Later that evening a girl of 13 or 14 years of age, talking to the police officer, was signaled away by an older male, who, it turns out, was the girl’s pimp.
Residents of the public housing facility described themselves as prisoners within their apartments. Although happy with their apartments and with their building, they were afraid to leave the building. Over 80 percent of the residents described themselves as feeling unsafe in the neighborhood at night. This compared to 24 percent of Spokane residents in other parts of the city. One resident noted she did not need cable TV because she could spend her evenings looking out over the streets and observe more illegal activity than she would ever see on TV. When the housing authority contracted with a crime prevention specialist from Los Angeles to make recommendations about improving the safety of the residents, one of his suggestions was to provide bullet-proof glass for the resident’s apartments, so dangerous did he judge the environment surrounding the building.
It was at this point that the public housing residents, the Spokane police, the housing authority, local business owners, and a local church decided that conditions had become intolerable and that a collaborative effort needed to be put in place to reclaim this neighborhood. Beginning in the winter of 1994, Project ROAR, standing for "reclaiming our area residences," was implemented.
The police acted by dedicating an officer to this West First neighborhood. The officer, referred to as a neighborhood resource officer (NRO), was relieved from responding to calls for service outside the neighborhood and was given the mandate to work with local residents and business owners to reduce crime and disorder and improve the quality of life in the neighborhood. The housing authority contributed by providing office space within the Parsons Building for a project coordinator. They then worked with a local university to find a graduate student to serve as the coordinator and work to organize a resident association. Business owners contributed by participating in regular problem solving meetings, convened by the neighborhood resource officer, and by providing resources for various crime prevention measures and neighborhood improvement steps. The residents formed a tenant association, participated in the problem solving meetings, and took a number of steps to provide social activities for the tenants. The hope was to bring residents out of the isolation of their apartments, to regain a sense of ownership over the neighborhood, and, in effect, to build community.
Over the next several years numerous steps were taken as a result of Project ROAR to crack down on crime, prevent crime, improve the physical make-up of the neighborhood, and increase social cohesion. Realizing that traditional reactive police response to crime incidents had not reduced crime in the neighborhood, the NRO worked with other police units to engage in a variety of proactive strategies. Patrol officers worked on foot and bicycle patrol to increase police presence in the neighborhood. The drug and gang units engaged in undercover work and periodic sweeps. Drug arrests tripled in this area during the first two years of the project. Spokane police also sent warning letters to individuals driving through the neighborhood and stopping and conversing with suspected drug dealers and prostitutes. The letters warned the car owners that this was a dangerous neighborhood where much drug, prostitution, and gang activity occurs and that the police were concerned about their safety. Of course, the true intent of the letter was to inform these potential customers that the police were aware of these activities.
The police worked with business owners on a number of crime prevention steps through environmental changes. No parking and no stopping areas were established to thwart the drive-through illicit dealing patterns. Fences with gates were installed on alley entrances. This allowed for delivery vehicles to serve stores, bars, and restaurants during the day but to close them off during the night and thereby eliminate a convenient area for hiding from the police and conducting illegal business. Areas under viaducts, a favorite location for drug and prostitution dealings, were painted and lighting was improved. Lighting was also improved on the streets and in parking lots. Surveillance cameras were installed on a number of street corners.
A major accomplishment was the opening of a police mini-station within the Parsons Building itself. This mini-station provided an office for the NRO as well as a drop-in location for other police officers. The mini-station is staffed by neighborhood volunteers and has become the focal point for crime prevention, neighborhood improvement, and social activities. Soon after opening, two community corrections officers opened offices in the mini-station thereby facilitating improved supervision of their clients in the neighborhood.
The residents themselves engaged in a number of activities to address safety concerns and to increase social cohesion. Initially, the focus was on safety. Block watch committees were formed and crime reporting forms developed so that residents could report on the illegal activities they were observing from their apartments. The residents, many of whom were elderly and/or suffering from health problems, also established a buddy system to look out for one another. Working with the NRO, residents organized marches throughout their neighborhood. Numerous social activities were undertaken ranging from block parties to bingo nights, potluck dinners, and movie and music nights. Whereas prior to Project ROAR such social events were unheard of, since the inception of the project over 9 events per month have occurred.
The effects of the various efforts have been quite dramatic. Fear of crime in the neighborhood among the Parsons’ residents dropped significantly both during the day and at night. A year into the program approximately 40 percent of the residents reported declines in drug-related crime and street-level prostitution. Toward the end of the second year over 70 percent reported such declines. During a time that robberies and burglaries increased in a comparison neighborhood and held steady city-wide, they declined in the project area 40 percent from the first year of the project to the second. These changes in safety translated into much more satisfaction with the neighborhood. Indeed, whereas 14 percent of the residents said they were satisfied living in the neighborhood at the outset of the project, over 60 percent did by the end of the project. The figure increases to 90 percent if those stating "somewhat satisfied" are included. Residents’ opinion of the police also significantly increased from 55 to 89 percent reporting favorable impressions of the police.
Walking through the neighborhood today also reveals changes. Buildings have been painted. The owner of the appropriately named "dead end tavern" sold the establishment to his daughter who completely renovated it into a sports bar. An art museum was opened in a previously abandoned building and a bus station was converted into a farmers market. This was particularly appreciated by Parsons residents who previously had difficulty traveling to a grocery store for fresh produce. Indeed, the neighborhood has changed to such an extent that there is discussion of opening a children’s museum in one of the buildings in the neighborhood, a concept unimaginable four years ago.
The Project ROAR strategy consisted of three elements: proactive law enforcement; prevention; and community building. These elements comprise what some analysts refer to as "comprehensive" community anti-crime efforts (Popkin et al., 1995; Hammett, 1994). The glue bringing the three elements together was the attempt to create a police-community partnership to support the efforts.
One of the misnomers of the community policing movement is that this new style of policing signals a retreat from enforcing the law. That is, crime control becomes secondary to what many police officers refer to as the "soft and fuzzy" stuff of community meetings, drug resistance education programs, midnight basketball and the like. Yet, often when the police begin a dialogue with neighborhood residents what they hear is that residents want more police and more enforcement.
The difference in the approach taken in Spokane and many other cities is that police have moved from a purely reactive style of policing to a proactive approach based on principles of problem solving (Goldstein, 1990). Much like total quality management principles in the private sector (Deming, 1986), the problem solving model seeks to address crime through the ongoing processes of: analysis, response, assessment, and action. In Spokane, the West First Avenue, given its historic overrepresentation in the city’s crime rate and its highly visible disorder, was an obvious "hot spot" of crime within the city. Analysis revealed that crime in this neighborhood was centered around the nighttime drug and prostitution activity that flourished on these streets. The response then targeted these activities through a number of steps designed to make both buyers and sellers uncomfortable to conduct business as usual.
In larger cities, or for other types of crime problems, the patterns may not be as visible. In response, under former commissioner William Bratton, New York City Police implemented a crime analysis program known as COMPSTAT (computerized analysis of crime statistics). Using modern technology’s ability to portray geographic crime patterns in a timely fashion, command staff preside over weekly crime analysis meetings that pinpoint recurring hot spots of crime in the city. Having identified these locations, and the nature of the criminal activity, police managers then craft strategies for addressing these crime problems. Over time the meetings also serve the managerial function of holding police managers accountable for their ability to reduce crime. COMPSTAT is given credit for being the analytic tool behind New York City’s significant reductions in crime during the mid-1990s. Given this success, police departments in Indianapolis, New Orleans and other cities have implemented similar programs.
Boston has taken a similar approach in dealing with its youth homicide rate. Officials from local, state, and federal law enforcement and related agencies formed a problem-solving group that studied homicide patterns and then crafted a multi-agency response to address the youth violence problem. The strategy, based on deterrence principles, communicates the message to chronic offenders that violence will not be accepted. When a violent incident occurs, the multi-agency team responds by applying a variety of sanctions to individuals involved in violent networks. The results have been impressive with a two-third reduction in youth homicide since the inception of the program (Kennedy, 1996).
The point is that while there may be variation in the nature of the proactive response, depending on the community and the nature of the crime problem, police are no longer willing to wait until an offense has occurred but rather are studying crime, crafting responses, and evaluating the effects of strategic interventions.
Spokane police, working with local residents and business owners, also took a number of steps to change the physical environment of the neighborhood and thereby make the area less comfortable and conducive to criminal activity. Security cameras, fencing of alleys, no parking/no stopping signs, improved lighting and the like were all attempts to build on what criminologists refer to as crime prevention through environmental design. Professor Ron Clarke (1995) and his colleagues have documented numerous examples of very focused interventions that target specific types of crime and seek to change the environment in a way that makes crime more difficult, more risky, and less rewarding. These situational crime prevention efforts have demonstrated success in reducing crimes as varied as motor vehicle theft, burglary, and obscene phone calls.
In addition to the deterrence strategy discussed above, Boston police have worked with neighborhood groups, faith-based communities, and the private sector to prevent crime through a wide variety of activities. Much of the effort has been to create legitimate opportunities for youths to move away from violent subcultures and into the world of work through neighborhood economic development (DiIulio, 1997). Whereas economic development provides opportunities, there was also attention to developing both skills and cultural norms through literacy training, mentoring, drug treatment, and strengthening families.
In Indianapolis, a major new experiment has been implemented by the police, prosecutor, juvenile court, and mayor’s office in the use of restorative justice conferences as an early intervention with juveniles referred to the juvenile court. Based on programs developed in Australia and New Zealand, youths ages 10-14 are diverted from juvenile court and to a restorative justice conference. In the conference, the youth comes face-to-face with the victim of the offense. Both offending youth and victim are accompanied by family and friends. The group is led by a trained facilitator, typically a police officer, in a discussion of the harm produced by the offense and the steps needed to restore a sense of justice. The conference ends with an agreement that may include an apology, restitution to the victim, community service, or other steps agreed to by the participants. In contrast to the experience in a crowded urban juvenile court, the conference provides an opportunity to confront the youth with the harm they have created and to hold the youth accountable, but to do so in a supportive setting. In addition, the conference also offers an opportunity to meet the psychological and material needs of victims of crime. The concept has proved so popular that local schools have begun to rely on conferences as a tool for addressing disciplinary problems and as an alternative to arrest and referral to court.
Whether hanging a surveillance camera or providing for a structured meeting of youth offender and victim, the common thread is the desire to intervene in ways that make crime less attractive either through increasing difficulty or risk or changing the aspirations of offenders.
The roots of the field of criminology were established in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago during the first forty years of the twentieth century. The Chicago criminologists studied patterns of crime in the city’s neighborhoods over several generations. One of their most important findings was that despite the succession of various ethnic groups, certain neighborhoods continually produced the most crime and related social problems, whereas other neighborhoods were relatively crime free over decades. Two of the most important researchers, Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay (1942), theorized that the high crime neighborhoods were the products of social disorganization that led to a breakdown in informal social controls. The answer to the crime problem, consequently, was through increased organization, that is, the building of community. A new study, also conducted in Chicago ironically, lends support to the Shaw and McKay thesis. Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls (1997), found that the level of neighborhood social cohesion was the strongest predictor of levels of violent crime, even after controlling for other factors such as poverty, instability, and individual characteristics.
In many respects the Spokane project, and similar community policing efforts, build on these insights. The formation of a resident association, the participation in a variety of social activities, the common effort to address neighborhood problems, and the many steps taken to increase social interaction, were all aimed at rebuilding community in the West First Avenue neighborhood. The stated objective of public housing residents, business owners, and the police, was to create a sense of ownership and commitment to the neighborhood so that once the short-term police crackdowns on crime and disorder were completed, there was an infrastructure in place to prevent re-emergence of the cycle of crime, fear and deterioration that had previously characterized the neighborhood.
The cornerstone of the community policing movement is the notion of building partnerships between the police and the citizenry. These partnerships play a key role in the three elements of comprehensive community crime prevention described above.
In terms of proactive policing, the partnership is important in several respects. First, given the historic friction and distrust that exists in many urban centers between the police and segments of the community, an open dialogue between the police and neighborhood residents may clarify to the police what the residents want from the police and clarify to the residents the rationale for specific police interventions. An example of this recently emerged in Indianapolis. Police officials, through regular meetings with neighborhood residents and leaders, heard continual pleas for increased enforcement in several neighborhoods characterized by high levels of violence and street-level drug dealing. The police developed a plan to conduct a 90-day directed patrol project in two neighborhoods. They then met with neighborhood residents and explained the proposed project. Having enlisted neighborhood support the plan was implemented. Despite the fact that the project generated over 8,500 traffic and pedestrian stops, and 1,600 traffic citations, there were no complaints registered either formally or through the media.
An additional important benefit of the police-citizen partnership may be increased exchange of information about crime and related problems within a neighborhood. Residents often know who the key players in crime are within their neighborhood. Beyond this, residents often are more concerned about threatening conditions within the neighborhood than with specific crime types or incidents (Skogan and Hartnett, 1997). A police department focused exclusively on responding to incidents and closed to the voices of neighborhood residents cannot be expected to respond to these incidents.
The citizen partnership can also play a role in crime prevention. This can occur through the contribution of resources, for example in Spokane where business owners contributed surveillance equipment monitored by citizen volunteers. Spokane business owner’s willingness to work with the police on the fencing of alleys was considered a key step in disrupting illicit street business. In Indianapolis, neighborhood groups hoping for increased bike patrol have purchased bicycles for the police. Indianapolis citizens, as in other cities, have conducted marches on known crack houses thereby hindering illegal business.
Finally, it goes without saying that the citizens will play a crucial role in rebuilding the sense of community necessary for preventing the cycle of fear, crime, and disorder (see Wilson and Kelling, ; Skogan, 1990).
The lesson from Spokane and many other communities is that policing of the future should build on these elements of: proactive law enforcement; prevention; and community building, facilitated and sustained through a meaningful police-citizen partnership. Yet, to move in this direction a number of questions need to be addressed. Although by no means exhaustive, three of these issues are presented here
As many observers have noted (Kelling …), the modern police organization, with its centralized, military structure, was designed to weed out corruption and to efficiently respond to calls for service. It is not a structure, nor are the supporting organizational systems, designed for innovation, creativity, and the building of external relations. Culturally, officers who have been trained, evaluated, and rewarded for reacting to crime, understandably question whether this community policing "stuff" is real policing. They may not be given the time to attend a community meeting. Shift changes may preclude assignments in a particular neighborhood long enough to establish ties. Officers may not be rewarded for solving a neighborhood problem if it is not verified through an arrest or ticket. Clearly, if the type of policing observed in special initiatives like Project ROAR is to become the fundamental mode of business in the entire organization, then serious attention must be given to changing organizational structure (decentralization) and subsystems (e.g., supervision; performance evaluation; reward; training).
Early studies of efforts at building community partnerships suggested that they were most readily established in middle-class, low crime neighborhoods. Poorer neighborhoods with more severe crime problems often were the most difficult to organize (Skogan, 1990). More recent evidence, including the Spokane project, suggests that police-citizen partnerships can be established. Yet, there is still much to be learned about police-citizen interaction. What are the key variables for building these relationships? How can they be sustained? How will the police handle conflicts that emerge within a neighborhood among competing factions?
Donald Black’s ( ) theoretical statement about the behavior of law hypothesized that increases in formal social control would lead to a reduction in informal social control. Some political theorists have made a similar point, often claiming that the increasing pervasiveness of centralized governmental authority has led to a breakdown in the informal socializing institutions of family and neighborhood (Schambra, 1997).
The Spokane study, in contrast, suggests that at least in a high crime neighborhood, increased formal control may be a necessary condition for the rebuilding of informal social bonds and controls. That is, when residents describe themselves as prisoners of their apartments, afraid to venture outside, it is difficult to posit levels of social cohesion that would allow for social control and the regulation of public space.
This possibility receives some support from a recent study that found that within high disorder neighborhoods, a sense of responsiveness from governmental institutions (local government, the police) was related to lower level of fear of crime. In low disorder neighborhoods, responsiveness from governmental institutions was not related to fear though social ties, integration, and informal social control were (McGarrell, Giacomazzi, and Thurman, 1997). Thus, the interplay between formal and informal social control may be contingent on context.
If we are to learn from the experiences of various cities in addressing crime, and improve our response to crime in the future, these and related questions must be attended to.
Edmund F. McGarrell was a senior adjunct fellow with Hudson Institute’s Crime Control Policy Center until 2004.
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