An Evidence-Based Policing Strategy Shows Promise

A new review demonstrates crime reduction and money savings.

Posted Jul 22, 2020

ChiccoDodiFC/Adobe Stock
Source: ChiccoDodiFC/Adobe Stock

As many people in the U.S. feel outraged about the killings of Black Americans by local police, protesters across the country are calling for reforms of our law enforcement systems. Proposals for change run the gamut. One of the more popular plans calls for shifting public funding away from police departments to social services that support people who experience mental health problems, addiction or homelessness – individuals who typically interact with police officers. Protesters are also calling for more stringent policies and training on officers’ use of force.

There is another evidence-based police reform that first became popular in the early 1980s: problem-oriented policing. The concept, developed by a law professor from the University of Wisconsin, calls for police to proactively identify and analyze the underlying problems that lead to crime, and then engage with community organizations to address them. The strategy requires a paradigm shift by local law enforcement agencies and the reallocation of local resources to address identified problems. It requires police agencies to connect with community members, and then find ways to address their needs and concerns.

A new systematic review published in June by the Campbell Collaboration compiles the evidence from 34 studies published between 1989 and 2018 that look at the effectiveness of problem-oriented policing in reducing crime.

The reviewers found that problem-oriented policing reduced crime levels by 34 percent in communities that implemented it. The findings indicate that problem-oriented policing helps officers identify specific problems in their communities and develop specific responses; these strategies are more effective in reducing crime rates compared to the standard methods of policing, which tend to be more reactive.

In addition, the review shows that problem-oriented policing can prevent incidents where police officers are required to intervene.

The reviewers do note there is tremendous variability in the types of problems identified and intervention strategies used by local police departments. For example, in one community where forgeries were a major problem, police officers worked with local stores and banks to encourage ID checks of customers. They also launched a local ad campaign on the dangers of identity theft. In another community where local police received many calls about disorderly conduct in a local entertainment district, the police worked with other city departments to redesign the streetscape for better visibility and close certain roads at busy times. Additionally they partnered with local community organizations to target known gang offenders.

The review found that problem-oriented policing was not helpful in reducing citizens’ fear of crime, the ability of community members to agree to and enforce collective norms or improving the public’s view of the police. Successful implementation of problem-oriented policing  required officers who are willing to commit to problem-solving instead of focusing solely on more traditional police work.

The take-home message: There are many strategies to improve the performance of local police departments. One proven method is problem-oriented policing, which is demonstrated to help reduce crime and save money.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work.