Trending Topics

When strategies cause unintended harm

The decisions we make in law enforcement should be based on the best available evidence


NYPD Commissioner William Bratton greets police officers as they arrive for a news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, about a new tool that maps a week’s worth of crime throughout the five boroughs.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

By Ivonne Roman

Policing is a fast-paced environment as departments are consistently responding to community demands for service and chiefs are consistently responding to crime trends. As strategies are implemented though, too often impacts are assessed based on weekly or monthly comparisons for crime, yet little thought is given to possible blow-back effects, or to the unintended outcomes of strategies – the type of effects that damage relationships with those we serve.

Although a strategy may appear to work at first glance, we must ask ourselves, “Does the strategy cause unintended harm?” and “How can we best measure those harms?”

Misapplication can be malpractice

In February 2015, I was at a police executive meeting where former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was speaking to a room full of law enforcement officers and college students at Rutgers–Newark. Bratton was the featured speaker for the Police Institute’s Distinguished Lecture Series. During his address, he detailed how he used disorder policing strategies, better known as the broken windows theory, to reduce crime in New York City and Los Angeles. He also warned against the theory’s misapplication, a topic rarely discussed in policing circles.

Bratton went to further explain that the theory could have negative side effects when dosages or duration were not used as prescribed. He equated its misapplication to medical malpractice saying, “After I left New York, the police continued giving chemotherapy when the patient had improved, and the cancer was gone,” referring to the over-policing of New York City neighborhoods when crime had plummeted.

The architect of broken windows, George Kelling, also warned about the theory’s implementation without careful analysis of required dosage or thought to possible side effects, saying, “When I would see some chief in some city say, ‘Tomorrow, I am going to implement a broken windows program,” my response was always, ‘Oh shit.’” [1]

In 2015, Kelling wrote, “A lot of sins have been committed in the name of broken windows…[it] was never intended to be a high-arrest program…Arrest of an offender is supposed to be a last resort – not the first.” Furthermore, Kelling’s criticism of the broken windows theory is based, in part, to “police themselves [who] have not always applied a broken-windows approach in a manner in which it is most effective as a crime prevention and control technique, while compatible with and responsive to community goals and desires.” [2]

When research does not support claims

Issues with implementation, evaluation and potential harm existed with the use of juvenile curfew laws. Similar to broken windows, curfew laws were also a response to rising crime, fueled by the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

Princeton Professor John DiIulio’s “Super-Predator,” theory warned that unless decisive action was taken, the next 10 years may “unleash an army of young male predatory street criminals who will make even the leaders of the Bloods and Crips…look tame by comparison.” [3]

In response, the Clinton administration provided the nation’s mayors with a framework for passing juvenile curfew laws. The result of the “super-predator” hysteria was a draconian shift in juvenile laws – light on rehabilitation and heavy on punishment – encouraging prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults and enforcing municipalities to enact curfew laws to control the Nation’s “out-of-control” youth.

As it turned out, the super-predator prediction was wrong – terribly wrong. The theory was based on the use of short-term crime data that projected into the future, painting an apocalyptic crisis that never materialized. Since then, juvenile justice advocates and community groups have reversed some of the 1990s “tough-on-juveniles” policies; however, juvenile curfew laws remain ubiquitous and entrenched.

An extensive body of research literature deems juvenile curfew laws ineffective and possibly harmful. The Campbell Collaboration conducted a review of Juvenile Curfew Effects on Criminal Behavior and Victimizationsin March 2016. They found that curfew laws’ “average effect on juvenile crime during curfew hours was slightly positive – that is a slight increase in crime – and close to zero for crime during all hours. Similarly, juvenile victimization also appeared unaffected by the imposition of a curfew ordinance.” [4] Yet, mayors and police officials across America have made public announcements of juvenile curfew enforcement, a summer tradition, claiming it will result in “juvenile crime reduction and prevention of juvenile victimization.” The research just does not support these claims.

Dr. Renee Mitchell, former police sergeant and co-founder of the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing (ASEBP), cites the seminal work of Jane McCord, Cures That Harm: Unanticipated Outcomes of Crime Prevention Programs, as ASEBP’s chief motivation in advocating for evidence-based poling. The study evaluates criminal justice interventions that “backfire” (i.e., they are actually harmful to the people involved). One such example is the popular DARE program that remained a popular staple of police departments even after research deemed the program ineffective.

Police and policymakers owe it to their communities and police officers to create policies that protect communities from crime, while also ensuring that no harm is caused in the process. This can only be achieved through rigorous evaluation of police practices to identify what works, what doesn’t, and why.

Doctors take a Hippocratic Oath to “cause no harm” in the name of medicine. In the same vein, police must vow that police practices will not place communities in more precarious situations than if no police action had been taken at all.

Evidence-based practices are invaluable

In recognition of how invaluable evidence-based practices are, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) partnered with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to establish the Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science (LEADS) initiative. The program’s goal is to “Build the capacity for law enforcement to access and integrate existing research in their agencies, and empower law enforcement to answer their own high-priority research questions, where practicable…to ensure that law enforcement actions and decisions are informed by the best available evidence.” [5]

Surprisingly, or maybe not, evidence-based policing has been met with some resistance in corners of the policing community. Police chiefs, with decades of experience under their belt, may view “outside” academics with skepticism. This is not without cause. Some academics have been dismissive of the tacit knowledge that police experience brings.

The National Police Foundation (NPF) has been at the forefront of police research, actually conducting the randomized control study, the Newark Foot Patrol Experiment, which inspired Kelling and Wilson’s broken windows theory. Recognizing the need for research to reach police practitioners, NPF strategically partnered with the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing, to translate research into one to two-page briefs for police use. As police-researcher relationships continue to evolve, genuine collaboration between police and academic researchers has flourished, giving law enforcement greater control of the research agenda, ensuring that research meets the priorities of the police agency and has practical applications in the field.

Your doctor makes life-altering decisions that directly impact your health and well-being. You should demand that those decisions be based on thoroughly researched evidence. In turn, police officers make daily decisions that directly impact people in the communities they serve, which leads me to ask, “Shouldn’t those decisions be based on the best available evidence also? And isn’t the current crisis in policing specifically about those unintended harms?”

NEXT: 5 examples of how evidence-based policing enhances law enforcement







About the author

Ivonne Roman is a National Police Foundation executive fellow and a former police chief in the Newark (NJ) Police Department. She is also a TED Talk fellow and is currently a police relationship manager at the Center for Policing Equity. Ms. Roman is pursuing a PhD in public policy at Rutgers-Camden.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and may not represent the official position of the National Police Foundation.

Established in 1970, the National Policing Institute, formerly the National Police Foundation, is an independent, non-partisan, and non-profit research organization, sometimes referred to as a think-tank, focused on pursuing excellence in policing through science and innovation. Our research and applied use of research guide us as we engage directly with policing organizations and communities to provide technical assistance, training, and research and development services to enhance safety, trust, and legitimacy. To view our work, visit us at