Micro-Policing Can Reduce Violence in Urban Hot Spots

Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow

According to the FBI, a gun murder occurs about once every hour of every day; 8775 times a year in the U.S. in 2010. However, while some neighborhoods certainly experience a disproportionate amount of street violence, the reality is that it’s only a handful of street corners in these neighborhoods that really account for the vast majority of gun murders and assaults in high-violence areas. Despite the countless dollars and man hours policy makers and law enforcement spend trying to keep violence rates down, violent neighborhoods persist in urban centers across the country. Perhaps it’s time to consider a shift in law enforcement tactics to target the true source of the violence problem in our city streets.

Sensationalized stories of gun violence in urban areas often echo a common characterization of gangbangers and drive-bys run amok in the streets of impoverished minority communities. But these streets aren’t the wild, urban jungle that the public believes them to be—at least, most of them aren’t. The real story is one of intense and highly concentrated violence in what researchers call “micro places” or “hot spots”. After examining violence trends over almost 30 years of gun violence in the Boston area, researchers found that 89 percent of Boston streets never saw an incident of gun violence. Even more telling, the majority of gun violence occurred in just 5 percent of Boston’s street segments and intersections, and those areas experienced multiple incidents of gun violence. In other words, even the “worst” neighborhoods are safer than aggregate statistics or media stories might suggest.

Violence is not just concentrated in geographic space, either. Even within particularly “hot” areas, violence is concentrated among people belonging to particular subsets of the neighborhood social network. In 2006, 1 percent of youths age 15-24 in the Boston area were responsible for half of all murders and 70 percent of shootings, and this tiny fraction of kids was usually involved in gang activity as well. Thus, these few individuals and a handful of street corners, as well as variations in violence rates amongst them, are most likely responsible for fluctuations in violence levels in our nation’s cities. Given the reality of concentrated violence among places and people, it seems odd that we hear so much talk of city-wide “crackdowns,” whole neighborhood watches, and large police patrolling patterns—all of which are decidedly macro approaches to targeting street violence.

Granted, city-wide strategies have seemingly proven successful in reducing crime in the past. Consider the approach taken in the greater Indianapolis metro area this past August. After a summer crime wave, Police Chief Michael Spears touted that “officers made 992 arrests, almost a third of which were felonies” as a result of a police sweep. To be sure, 300-odd felony arrests are probably a good thing, but it begs the questions of what the other 600 arrests were for, and whether the time and personnel involved in those 600 arrests were allocated towards areas and individuals most likely to engage in violence. Not all cities are sticking to the age-old plan of sweeps and mass arrests, though. In a recent strategic change, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy broke up a centralized “police strike unit” and dispersed members to police stations across the city in an effort to strengthen community policing. Instead of the heavy-handed “stop and frisk” and sweep tactics that Alderman Anthony Beale (9th ward) and Alderman Willie Cochran (20th) are calling for, new efforts are being made to target abandoned buildings and businesses that act as gang hangouts. This highly localized approach to policing, in conjunction with the use of gang audits to create a state-of-the-art computer system that provides officers with up-to-date gang intelligence, gets closer to addressing the heart of the street violence problem: the specific streets and the specific individuals that are responsible for the overwhelming majority of urban violence.

While neighborhood- or city-wide initiatives typically fail to be micro oriented, programs like Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) in Chicago and Ceasefire-Boston target specific hot spots and high-risk individuals, and the results don’t lie. PSN saw a 37% homicide rate decrease in project areas, and Ceasefire-Boston touts a 68% reduction in gun violence. In New Haven, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced the launch of Project Longevity, a program modeled after Boston-Ceasefire and similar projects instituted in Chicago and Cincinnati. Using the same auditing and “call-in” techniques that underpin the successful projects that have been implemented in other cities, Project Longevity has a simple, but very strong message: if anyone in your group shoots someone, your group will receive the full and undivided attention of local, state, and federal law enforcement.

These focused deterrence strategies are especially timely in light of the specter of a struggling economy and the shrinking police budgets resulting from slashed city budgets and dwindling federal grant programs. Police officials must now make doing more with less a key goal of any violence-reduction effort. Being aware of this, U.S. Attorney General Holder stressed the need for data driven, research informed approaches to combating violence, which would allow police to be “smart and tough on crime.” His sentiments were echoed by U.S. Senator Blumenthal (D-CT): “Smart policing builds stronger communities, saves lives and saves dollars.”

With rising murder rates in specific hotspot areas of U.S. cities like New York City, Richmond, Chicago, and Seattle, as well as tragic incidents like the recent shooting of a 16 month old in New Haven, the issue of urban violence remains as pressing as ever. Micro place initiatives like PSN and Ceasefire have proven effective in reducing violence in hot spots and, according to George Mason University professor David Weisburd, can even foster a “diffusion of benefits” in areas surrounding the targeted hot spots – that is, in addition to reducing violence where the program is targeted, focused deterrence programs can actually reduce crime around the target areas. With the prospect of being able to concentrate policing efforts in a small, efficacious area with the outcome of reduced violence in and around high-violence micro places, the choice seems clear. Micro-oriented policing may just be the best bang-bang for the buck.

Area of study 
Criminal Justice