Cutting Crime Through Police-Citizen Cooperation

A major public policy surprise of the mid-1990s has been the significant decrease in crime in many major U.S. cities. Homicide rates in New York City, for instance, have fallen to a thirty-year low.

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By Edmund McGarrell

There were fewer than 800 homicides in New York in 1997—compared to 2,262 in 1992. Los Angeles, Boston, New Orleans, Chicago, and Dallas have enjoyed similar declines. Although the trends have not reached all cities (exceptions include Denver, Detroit, Louisville, Nashville, and Indianapolis), the declines have been large enough to produce a national decrease.

Analysts have offered many different explanations for the decrease, including the decline in crack cocaine wars, demographic shifts decreasing the number of males in crime-prone age categories, an improved economy, and increased levels of incarceration. Although they disagree about which factors are producing the decline—the real cause is probably a combination of factors—many if not most observers believe that the nationwide trend toward community policing has been a key ingredient.

Community policing means different things to different people, however, even among police themselves. Also, its operational manifestations differ from city to city and even between neighborhoods within a city.

Nonetheless, a close look at a community policing effort in a U.S. city reveals several distinct elements of this approach. It appears to be a humane and economical way of fighting crime. This effort and successful ones in other communities tell us what American law enforcement will look like in the future if we build on these contemporary success stories. 

Project ROAR

Spokane, Washington, is a city of approximately 185,000 residents in a county of just under 400,000 population, in eastern Washington twenty miles from the Idaho border. It is the center of economic, cultural, and health resources for a very large rural area in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and northwest Montana.

The early 1990s brought population and economic growth, but also increases in violent crime, drug trafficking, and gang activity. Much of this illegal conduct occurred in the West First Street neighborhood, an older area 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 one-quarter that of the city as a whole; half its residents are below the poverty level. At the center of the neighborhood is a fifty-unit public housing facility known as the Parsons. The neighborhood is traversed by a raised railroad line and numerous alleys and alcoves that have provided sites for much illegal activity. Commercial establishments included adult pornography arcades, taverns, and social service programs catering to runaway youth and drug users.

For many years the neighborhood was a “copping zone,” a place to seek drugs and prostitution. In 1994, this approximately four-by-five block neighborhood accounted for 13 percent of the city’s drug arrests and 8 percent of its robberies while comprising much less than 1 percent of its population.

From late afternoon through the early morning hours a steady stream of cars and trucks constantly drove through the neighborhood. A driver 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 to procure the product. The streets were dominated by lookouts, sellers, and buyers in these illicit markets.

Residents of the public housing facility described themselves as prisoners within their apartments. Although happy with the facilities, they were afraid to leave them. More than 80 percent reported feeling unsafe in the neighborhood at night. The number for the rest of the city was 24 percent. One resident noted that she did not need cable TV because she could spend her evenings looking out her window and observe more illegal activity than she would ever see on TV.

In the winter of 1994, public housing residents, the Spokane police, the housing authority, local business owners, and a local church decided that conditions had become intolerable. They initiated a collaborative effort to reclaim the neighborhood—Project ROAR, for “Reclaiming Our Area Residences.”

The police dedicated a neighborhood resource officer (NRO) who was relieved from responding to calls for service outside the neighborhood and directed to work with local residents and business owners to reduce crime and disorder and improve the quality of life. The housing authority contributed office space in the Parsons Building for a project coordinator to organize a resident association.

Business owners participated in regular problem-solving meetings convened by the neighborhood resource officer and provided resources for various crime prevention measures and neighborhood improvements. The public-housing residents formed a tenant association, participated in problem-solving meetings, and provided social activities. The goal was to bring residents out of their apartments, restore a sense of ownership over the neighborhood, and build a community.

Realizing that the traditional reactive police response to crime incidents had not reduced crime in the neighborhood, the NRO worked with other police in a variety of proactive strategies. Officers worked on foot and bicycle patrol to increase the visible police presence. Drug and gang units performed undercover work and periodic sweeps, and drug arrests tripled during the first two years. The police also sent warning letters to individuals observed driving through the neighborhood and conversing with suspected drug dealers and prostitutes, warning that the neighborhood was dangerous. The true intent, of course, was to notify potential vice customers that the police were aware of them.

Police worked with businesses to implement environmental changes. They established no-parking and no-stopping areas to thwart the drive-throughs, and installed fences with gates on alley entrances. The fences allowed delivery vehicles to serve stores, bars, and restaurants during the day but closed the alleys during the night, eliminating a popular site for illegal business. Residents painted the areas under viaducts—a favorite location for drug deals and prostitution—and installed brighter lighting there and on the streets and in parking lots. They also placed surveillance cameras on several street corners.

The police opened a mini-station in the Parsons Building, providing an office for the NRO and drop-in location for other police officers. The mini-station, staffed by neighborhood volunteers, became a center for crime prevention, neighborhood improvement, and social activities. Two community corrections officers moved in, facilitating supervision of neighborhood clients.

The residents performed a number of activities to address safety concerns and increase social cohesion. They formed watch committees and developed crime report forms so that they could report on illegal activities. They established a buddy system to look out for one another. They worked with the NRO to organize neighborhood marches and social activities including block parties, bingo nights, potluck dinners, and movie and music nights. Before Project ROAR, such social events were nonexistent; the average since has been above nine per month.

The various efforts elicited quite dramatic effects. Fear of crime in the neighborhood has dropped significantly. After one year, approximately 40 percent of the residents reported observable declines in drug-related crime and street prostitution. By the end of the second year, more than 70 percent reported such declines. While robberies and burglaries increased in a comparison neighborhood and held steady citywide, in the project area they declined 40 percent in the first two years. When the project began, 14 percent of the residents said that they were satisfied living in the neighborhood; by the end, more than 60 percent did and 90 percent were at least “somewhat satisfied.” Residents’ favorable opinions of the police rose from 55 to 89 percent.

Comprehensive Effort

Project ROAR involved three elements: proactive law enforcement, crime prevention, and community building. The glue binding these elements was the police-community partnership.

Proactive enforcement. Community policing is not a retreat from law enforcment; it is simply a move from purely reactive policing to a proactive approach using problem solving principles. It addresses crime through ongoing analysis, response, assessment, and action. West First Avenue, for instance, was an obvious “hot spot” of crime in Spokane, and the community worked to make the area uncongenial for buyers and sellers of drugs and prostitution.

In New York City, under former commissioner William Bratton, the police implemented a crime analysis program known as COMPSTAT (computerized analysis of crime statistics). Using computers to identify geographic crime patterns, command staff pinpoint criminal hot spots and craft strategies for addressing them. Police departments in Indianapolis, New Orleans, and other cities are implementing similar programs.

In these and other such programs, police no longer wait until an offense has occurred but actively study crime patterns, craft responses, and evaluate their interventions.

Prevention. Most such programs target specific types of crime and change the environment to make them more difficult, riskier, and less rewarding. These efforts have cut crimes as varied as car theft, burglary, and obscene phone calls. The security cameras, fencing of alleys, and similar measures in Spokane reflect these “target-hardening” approaches.

An important element is to intervene quickly after an offense. Indianapolis, for example, has implemented a major experiment involving the use of restorative justice conferences for juvenile offenders. The program diverts youth offenders aged ten through fourteen from the juvenile court into restorative justice conferences. A youth faces the victim(s) of the offense, and both offender and victim are accompanied by family and friends. A trained facilitator, typically a police officer, leads a discussion of the harm that was done and the steps needed to restore justice.

The conference ends with an apology and restitution to the victim, community service, or other mutually agreeable actions. The conferences confront youths with the harm they have done and hold them accountable in a supportive setting, and also meet the victims’ psychological and material needs. Local schools have begun to use similar conferences to address disciplinary problems.

Building community. Early in this century, University of Chicago criminologists noticed that certain neighborhoods continually produced the most crime and social problems, even though the ethnic groups comprising them changed, whereas other neighborhoods remained relatively crime-free for decades. They theorized that high-crime areas were produced by social disorganization that shattered informal social controls, and thus that building communities was the surest way to cut crime. A 1997 study supports this thesis, indicating that neighborhood social cohesion is the strongest predictor of violent crime levels, even after controlling for poverty, residential instability, individual characteristics, and the like.

Community policing efforts such as Project Roar build on these insights. Resident associations, social activities, and the like all aim at rebuilding the community.

Police-community partnership.
Community policing is a partnership between the police and the citizenry. Open dialogue reduces friction and distrust, telling the police what the residents want and giving citizens the rationale behind police activities. Recently in Indianapolis, for example, citizens meeting with police officials called for increased enforcement in several neighborhoods plagued by violence and drug dealing. The police conducted a ninety-day directed patrol project after meeting with neighborhood residents and explaining their proposal. They enlisted widespread support, and although the project generated more than 8,500 traffic and pedestrian stops and 1,600 traffic citations, residents registered no complaints either formally or through the media.

Lingering Questions

The results from Spokane and many other communities show that neighborhoods can successfully use proactive law enforcement, prevention, and community building, based on a solid police-citizen partnership, to reduce crime. Future efforts, however, will confront certain organizational and conceptual issues that have yet to be resolved. These will shape the future of crime prevention.

Administrators, for example, will have to revise police organizations to implement these practices effectively. The modern police department—with its centralized, military structure—was designed to minimize corruption and efficiently respond to calls for service. Its structure and systems were not designed for innovation, creativity, and external relations, and in fact are somewhat antagonistic toward them. Officers trained, evaluated, and rewarded for reacting to crime understandably wonder whether community policing is real law enforcement.

Police departments must change that culture. They will have to give officers time to attend community meetings, keep them on assignments long enough to establish neighborhood ties, and reward them for solving neighborhood problems not “verified” by arrests or tickets.

Another question is whether this approach can work everywhere. Poorer neighborhoods with severe crime problems can be very difficult to organize. Recent evidence, including the Spokane project, suggests that police and citizens can establish successful partnerships in such neighborhoods, but we still have much to learn about how best to build and sustain these relationships and handle conflicts among competing factions.

Finally, we must learn more about the relationship between formal and informal control. Some political theorists—such as Simon Schambra—note that centralized governmental authority breaks down the informal socializing institutions of family and neighborhood. The Spokane project, however, and a 1997 study I participated in, suggest that formal social control may be a prerequisite for the informal kind: in high-disorder neighborhoods a sense of responsiveness from governmental institutions (local government and the police) decreased citizens’ fear of crime. In low-disorder neighborhoods, it had no such effect; informal controls did the job. Ascertaining which neighborhoods need formal social controls will be a major element of crime control in the future.

Community policing experiments show that neighborhoods can successfully reduce crime by involving both residents and police in creating community and social order. That, of course, is a common-sense notion, and in the coming years many more communities should adopt this highly effective, humane, and economical way to cut crime.

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