Lessons from Psychology 101 seem to be rubbing off on college police departments, some of which have lately been adding a whole new dimension to the kinds of teaching and learning that go on at college campuses.

Head to your nearest local academy at start of term and officers will likely be highly visible, smiling and nodding to passersby at nearly every turn. Visit a few weeks later, and only telltale signs of their presence may remain.

Black and white cruisers on dividing strip medians may visually announce a police presence at or near busy corners and intersections. But try looking for the men and women in blue themselves, and they are often missing in action, nowhere to be seen. Not directing traffic. Not issuing tickets. Not chasing armed thugs down dark alleys. Where’d they all go?

The now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t approach to deterring crime represents a clever application of associative learning coupled with a systematic manipulation of what behavioral psychologists refer to as reinforcement schedules.

Behaviorists hold that actions of all sorts tend to be governed by reinforcement, which comes in two basic flavors – positive and negative. Positive, reward-driven reinforcement increases the frequency of a behavior, while punishment-driven reinforcement decreases the frequency of a behavior.

A police officer can be either positively or negatively reinforcing, depending upon one’s perspective. An average, law-abiding citizen sees a uniformed officer and is positively reinforced by feelings of safety and security. A potential pickpocket or purse-snatcher, on the other hand, is negatively reinforced by fear of arrest.

In a culture already highly attuned to symbols of law enforcement, it doesn’t take long for an active police presence to form an associative chain for folks falling into either category. This campus, this corner, these times of day – are either safe or dangerous, depending upon one’s behavioral intentions.

Officers seeking to deter crime over the long-haul have to be physically present with a high degree of frequency at first. That’s because a steady stream of reinforcement is precisely the kind of schedule required to most effectively establish a behavior.

Think of a dolphin being trained to jump through a hoop. In the learning stages, each effort in the right direction is immediately rewarded with fish snacks because a continual flow of reward is what encourages the dolphin to keep at the task.

Once the task has been learned, however, the careful trainer only rewards the hoop jump only occasionally – because a variable schedule of reward is what most effectively maintains behaviors that have already become routine.

On the college campus, while officers are continually present (fixed schedule of reward), each visit to the campus reinforces law-abiding behavior. But once a general, campus-wide regard for the law is established, the officers can – and should – disappear, at least for a time because they have reliably established the kind of behavior they want.

Of course, their presence has to be felt every now and then (variable schedule) in order to maintain the habit of lawful behavior. But even then, they don’t always need to be seen in the flesh. Though associative conditioning, the mere sight of their strategically parked cars provides enough reinforcement to get the job done.

Does such an approach to community policing really work?

Think of it from a criminal perspective. Will the nefarious deed – whatever it is – come off, or won’t it? With all those empty police cruisers around, it’s mighty hard to tell when, and where, they’ll be moved next. Not that a criminal master-mind couldn’t study the patterns if he really dedicated himself to the task. But that, at the very least, would require an awful lot of homework. And let’s face it, what kind of criminal goes to college for that?

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2014

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