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Considering the Role of Police in Reducing Conservation Crime

March 13, 2015

Spokane Police Department Officer Ben Green

I recently read the 2014 Special Issue of Justice Quarterly which sought to bring together the latest research to explain New York’s crime drop over the last two decades or so. Nicely, the issue gave me an opportunity to consider what the field of criminology knows, or doesn’t know, about the impact of policing on crime.

The big takeaway is that while you certainly need police, more policing is often not the most important factor in reducing street crime. I find this is quite important for us environmentalists to consider, particularly as conservation NGOs are now exploring ways we might improve compliance with fisheries and wildlife management rules.

So what might we need to consider from mainstream law enforcement?

First, consider that among criminologists, there are a great number of factors that have been persuasively used to explain the crime drop in New York and the broader United States.  Here’s Baumer & Wolf (2014):

The list of possible explanations for the crime drop is long and impressive. Provocative arguments have been made for the primacy of the following: objective and perceptual economic shifts, changes in the quantity and quality of policing and punishment practices, public and personal security efforts, the stabilization of drug markets, increases in immigration, changes in abortion laws, regulations of and changes in lead gas exposure, increased video gaming, rising civility and self-control, transformations of family arrangements, reduced alcohol consumption, and increased use of psychiatric pharmaceutical therapies.

Second, consider that until recently, there wasn’t any strong evidence that putting more “boots on the ground” really mattered in reducing crime. Here’s Weisburd, Telep & Lawton (2014):

Marvell and Moody (1996) note that in 78 prior assessments of the link between numbers of police and crime drawn from 36 studies, just 14 found a significant beneficial impact of more police. However, they also detail the difficulties of disentangling the relationship between crime and number of officers because of specification problems. Their own analyses suggest a significant impact of police numbers on crime, particularly at the city level. Evans and Owens (2007, p. 183) point to methodological improvements of recent studies that examine the relationship between number of police and crime and find a beneficial effect, but conclude: “Even with these recent efforts, there is scant evidence that more police reduce crime.” Kleck and Barnes (in press) find little relationship between numbers of police and general deterrence or incapacitation, calling into question traditional arguments for why more police may lead to less crime. These findings reinforce the conclusions of the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Police Practices and Policies (2004, p. 225) that findings in this area “are ambiguous, and it is difficult to reach an overall conclusion” (see also Eck & Maguire, 2000)…

While the police have traditionally viewed themselves as efficient and effective crime fighters (e.g. see Kelling & Moore, 1988; Moore & Kelling, 1983), until the last few decades there was little research evidence that the police could do something about crime. Less than 20 years ago, for example, Bayley (1994, p. 3) began his book Police for the Future with a chapter on “The Myth of Police” and a powerful first sentence: “The police do not prevent crime” (see also Bayley, 1996). A similar argument was made by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990, p. 270), who noted that “no evidence exists that augmentation of police forces or equipment, differential patrol strategies, or differential intensities of surveillance have an effect on crime rates.” At least until the mid 1990s, there was a common assumption among criminologists that the police could not be effective crime fighters. [bold added

Third, the newer research showing that policing can in fact reduce crime is limited to certain types of policing, including problem-oriented policing and hot spots policing. Here again is Weisburd, Telep & Lawton (2014):

A series of reviews of police practices now show that there are a number of evidence-based practices in policing that lead to crime prevention benefits (e.g. NRC, 2004; Telep & Weisburd, 2012; Weisburd & Eck, 2004)…

Problem-oriented policing (POP) has been found across a diverse set of evaluations to be an effective way for the police to address crime and disorder. Weisburd and colleagues (2010) conducted a Campbell review on the effects of POP (i.e. studies that followed the scanning, analysis, response, assessment model) on crime and disorder, finding a modest but statistically  significant impact among 10 experimental and quasi-experimental studies. It should be noted though that some of the studies in this review that showed smaller effects (or backfire effects) experienced implementation issues that threatened treatment fidelity. The more successfully implemented studies tended to show stronger effects. Additionally, Weisburd, Telep, Hinkle, and Eck (2010) also collected less rigorous but more numerous pre/post studies without a comparison group. While the internal validity of these studies is weaker than those in the main analysis, these studies are notable in the remarkable consistency of positive findings. Weisburd et al. (2010, p. 164) conclude that “POP as an approach has significant promise to ameliorate crime and disorder problems broadly defined” (see also NRC, 2004 for similar conclusions)…

More generally, scholarly and systematic reviews are consistent in identifying crime prevention benefits for hot spots policing. The NRC (2004, p. 250) noted, for example, that “studies that focused police resources on crime hot spots provided the strongest collective evidence of police effectiveness that is now available.” Braga (2007, p. 18), in a Campbell systematic review of hot spots policing, concluded that “extant evaluation research seems to provide fairly robust evidence that hot spots policing is an effective crime prevention strategy” (see Braga, Papachristos, & Hureau, 2012, for similar findings in an updated Campbell review).

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