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Prevention: Police Role


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.

Environmental criminology

Ecology is a branch of the biological sciences that studies the relationships between organisms and their environment. Robert Park was the first scholar to apply an ecological perspective to social science, studying the growth of cities in the United States (Bohm). The human, or social ecological, model was later applied to criminology by Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, who described it as the "social disorganization" perspective. Shaw and McKay (1931) hypothesized that delinquency was not merely a product of inner personal conflicts, but of environmental factors particular to certain identifiable neighborhoods. They concluded that delinquency was the result of a "detachment from conventional groups" caused by social disorganization in certain areas of a city. Sampson and Groves (1989) retested this theory and found five indicators of social disorganization: (1) lower economic status of residents; (2) diverse ethnic backgrounds of residents; (3) frequent residential turnover; (4) high level of dysfunction in families; and (5) urbanization (Bohm, pp. 7275). Shaw and McKay's work provided the theoretical roots of environmental criminology, which is based on the important role of the "place" or the environment in shaping crime.

In 1961, Jane Jacobs examined the relationship between physical environment and crime in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her thesis was that less anonymity and isolation would lead to a reduction in crime in urban residential areas. C. Ray Jeffrey's influential book, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (1971), argued that modifying specific features of neighborhood design will reduce crime. In 1972, Oscar Newman argued that communities need to establish "Defensible Space," the title of his book. According to Newman, defensible space "is a model for residential environments which inhibits crime by creating the physical expression of a social fabric that defends itself" (p. 3). Both Jeffrey and Newman suggested that modifying the architecture of urban neighborhoods would reduce crime. Given a more adequate environmental design, residents will change their behavior and defend their territory against criminals (Murray). By the mid-1970s, major demonstration projects were established to test these hypotheses. The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration funded a multi-million-dollar project to extend the concept of defensible space to other environments, such as a residential area, a transportation system, a commercial strip, and a school (Murray). In addition to their implications for architecture, engineering, and urban planning, both Defensible Space and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design have also become well-known concepts in policing.

In 1979, Cohen and Felson proposed the "routine activities" theory of crime. They argued that crime results when three elements converge in space and time: (1) a motivated offender; (2) a suitable target; and (3) the absence of a capable guardian (Felson, 1998, p. 53). According to routine activities theory, crime is most likely to occur when these three conditions occur simultaneously in some time and place. For example, if the owners of a new car (a suitable target) leave their keys in the ignition while they run into the store (absence of a capable guardian) in a high-crime neighborhood (pool of motivated offenders), then the probability that the car will be stolen is increased. Routine activities theory has direct implications for crime prevention. To prevent crime, we must alter at least one of its "ingredients": the offender, the target, or the degree of protection or guardianship. The most effective crime prevention strategies will focus on all three of these elements.

In 1981, Paul and Patricia Brantingham combined the ideas of social ecology, social disorganization theory, crime prevention through environmental design, defensible space, and routine activities theory into a single theoretical framework with their book Environmental Criminology. According to the Brantinghams, a criminal event is the convergence in time and space of a law, an offender, and a target. Unlike most criminologists who focus on the "root causes" of crime, environmental criminologists are concerned with the criminal event itself. Environmental criminology has highlighted the significant role of the "place" in generating criminal events (Brantingham and Brantingham, p. 18).

While crime prevention strategies are implicit in the theory of environmental criminology, they are the explicit focus of situational crime prevention. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ronald Clarke developed the situational crime prevention strategy. Rather than basing crime prevention strategies on traditional "root cause" theories, Clarke's crime prevention strategies represent an applied form of environmental criminology, focusing on practical strategies to reduce the likelihood of a criminal event. Situational crime prevention attempts to reduce the opportunity for specific crimes by permanently manipulating the immediate environment to increase the risk of crime while reducing its perceived rewards.

Situational crime prevention strategies abound. Airports installed metal detectors to prevent hijacking. Libraries and stores made it more difficult to steal books and other items by installing electronic access control inserts. Caller ID programs reduced the number of obscene phone calls by taking away the caller's anonymity (Clarke, p. 22). Observe that these practical strategies do not attempt to change the behavior of offenders; they focus solely on preventing the criminal event. Unlike many other crime prevention strategies, the police are not responsible for administering situational crime prevention. It is done by merchants, governments, architects, and others with a vested interest in reducing crime. Yet, as more police departments adopt problem-oriented policing strategies, they rely on situational crime prevention techniques to analyze and respond to various types of offenses. Environmental criminology and situational crime prevention emerged independently of the police, but both now have an important influence on the practice of policing.

Community crime prevention

Community crime prevention is based upon the premise that private citizens can play a major role in preventing crime in their neighborhoods. Community crime prevention programs focus on "increasing the participation of individual citizens, small groups, and voluntary community organizations in activities designed to reduce crime and to improve the quality of neighborhood life" (Rosenbaum, p. 324).

According to Rosenbaum, community crime prevention has consistently evolved since the 1960s, when most formal crime programs constituted little more than a "public relations tactic" by police to improve their image. In the mid-1970s, police departments began to instruct community members about individual and collective crime prevention techniques. However, police limited the scope of responsibilities they granted to citizens by only allowing them to act as "eyes and ears" for the police. Toward the end of the 1970s, two federal crime prevention initiatives allocated money to community programs rather than to police: the 1977 Community Anti-Crime Program and the 1980 Urban Crime Prevention Program. During the 1980s, many scholars put more faith in community efforts to prevent crime than in law enforcement. According to Rosen-baum, "we have learned since, however, that community groups are quite limited in preventing urban crime without the support of law enforcement, adequate funding, and considerable technical assistance" (p. 325).

Three programs (known as the "Big Three") have played a major role in citizen crime prevention in the United States: crime prevention security surveys, Operation Identification, and Neighborhood Watch. Security surveys have long been utilized as a tool for identifying targets that are vulnerable to crime, whether a poorly lit walkway or an unlocked window. Rosenbaum describes a security survey as "a detailed on-site inspection of the dwelling unit and the surrounding area by a crime prevention expert to identify deficiencies or security risks; to define the protection needs; and, to make recommendations to minimize criminal opportunity" (p. 341). Not surprisingly, local police are often the crime prevention experts called upon to conduct these surveys.

Operation Identification, first initiated in California in 1963, involves engraving and/or marking personal property with a unique code identifiable to the owner. Marking personal property is intended to deter potential burglars by reducing the value of the merchandise (marked property is worth less than unmarked property). An owner will also be able to recognize the marked property, which in turn can sometimes be used to link the burglar to the crime scene and increase the risk of apprehension (Rosenbaum). In 1994, Whitaker found that 25 percent of all U.S. households participated in Operation Identification (Whitaker).

Neighborhood watch programs are intended to reduce the opportunities to commit crime by increasing the guardianship exercised by local residents. Neighborhood watch meetings encourage residents to work together in making neighborhoods safer, watching each others' property, and creating a stronger sense of community. Garafolo and McLeod surveyed 550 Neighborhood Watch programs and found that most included property marking (81 percent), home security surveys (68 percent), meetings to plan and exchange neighborhood information (61 percent), and neighborhood newsletters (54 percent). In addition, more than one-third involved efforts to improve the physical environment (Garafolo and McLeod). Thus, Neighborhood Watch is sometimes a forum for combining separate crime prevention strategies.

Once again, community crime prevention has its own history that is at least partially independent of the police. Yet, as Rosenbaum reports, the community is only one element of the crime prevention equation. Working alone and without funding, citizens are likely to accomplish little. Working together with local police agencies, they have the capacity to prevent crime. That is one of the fundamental elements of community policing. Under a community policing philosophy, police agencies are expected to forge new relationships with the community, consulting, and mobilizing them to take partial responsibility for preventing crime in their own neighborhoods.


Modern police organizations were established to prevent and respond to crime. For several decades, evaluation research has cast doubt upon traditional strategies of policing. Police organizations around the world are now experimenting with new methods for controlling and preventing crime. Several crime prevention strategies have also emerged independently of the police. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, police organizations turned to community policing as a method for reducing and preventing crime while improving relationships with their communities. During this period, several streams of crime prevention thought began to converge: environmental criminology, situational crime prevention, community crime prevention, and problem-oriented policing. As the community policing movement continues to spread, these perspectives have had more and more influence on police policy. While crime prevention has emerged from many sources, the police continue to play an important role in its implementation.

Edward R. Maguire

Kimberly Hassell

See also Ecology of Crime; Police: Community Policing; Police: Criminal Investigations; Police: Handling of Juveniles; Police: Police Officer Behavior; Police: Policing Complainantless Crime; Police: Private Police and Industrial Security; Urban Police.


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