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Experts: Place-based strategies are effective, central to police reform

Place-based policing is one of the most evidence-based and scientifically supported approaches police can take to prevent crime in their communities

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This article is reprinted with permission from the National Criminal Justice Association

By Cynthia Lum, Christopher Koper, David Weisburd, Robin Engel, John Eck, Anthony Braga, John MacDonald, Rod Brunson and Michael Smith

A recent Washington Post article asserts that place-based policing approaches led to Breonna Taylor’s death. This claim is unsubstantiated and wrong both legally and scientifically. And, it fuels policy that hurts communities of color where high-quality police services are most needed. Let there be no mistake; a botched no-knock warrant led to Breonna Taylor’s death, not place-based policing. Place-based approaches are grounded in research showing that crime is highly concentrated within communities. Half of reported crimes occur at about 5% of street blocks in a locality. Thus, most of any community is reasonably safe from serious crime.

Crime concentrates at these locations due to intersecting routines of potential victims and possible offenders. And if crime concentrates, it makes sense to focus on the specific areas where it does, rather than spread police across neighborhoods.

According to two National Academies of Sciences reviews conducted in 2004 and 2018 on a multitude of research studies, place-based policing is one of the most evidence-based and scientifically supported approaches police can take to prevent crime in their communities. But what police do at these locations matters greatly. Place-based approaches are complex and specific.

An over-emphasis on aggressive enforcement or simply “flooding” a place with cops aren’t smart hot spots approaches. Instead, place-based approaches require good analysis and a deep understanding of the factors contributing to persistent crime problems and their solutions. Once identified, regular police presence emphasizing problem-solving prevention work and community engagement works best at preventing crime at these locations. This includes focusing on the small number of people driving crime problems in these places.

Place-based policing doesn’t just involve law enforcement; it includes working with residents, businesses, and other agencies to make places safer. Feedback from communities most affected is also critical; indeed, hot spots are often identified based on citizen calls for service, reflecting areas of intense community concern.

The place network investigations (PNI) of Prof. Tamara Herold of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas align with these principles. The PNI strategy (previously called PIVOT) is specifically designed to improve community health and resiliency in historically disenfranchised and vulnerable neighborhoods.

In the absence of place-based strategies, there are few evidence-based alternatives. Police would have to fall back on general enforcement, chasing offenders and responding to calls, tactics that contribute little to safety and remove police further from the community. These tactics have led to the current police-community crisis, so we should not go back.

Place-focused approaches in policing bring communities a more thoughtful and high-quality approach to policing than traditional policing approaches, which are often unfocused across communities. The science supports police adopting place-based approaches. Ignoring the needs of these places would be irresponsible and contribute to higher victimization.

About the authors

The authors are criminologists and policing scholars from George Mason University (Lum, Koper, and Weisburd), the University of Cincinnati (Engel and Eck), the University of Pennsylvania (Braga and MacDonald), the University of Maryland (Brunson), and the University of Texas at San Antonio (Smith).

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