Hot spot policing typically involves the assignment of additional police patrols and/or problem-solving activities to small areas with higher crime. Studies find that crime is geographically concentrated in most cities and offending rates in these select areas remain stable over time in the absence of intervention (Groff, Weisburd & Yang, 2010; Weisburd, Bushway, Lum & Yang, 2004). Other research has found that increased officer presence in hot spots reduces crime and calls for service (Braga, Papachristos, & Hureau, 2012) without any appreciable displacement to surrounding areas (Bowers, Johnson, Guerette, Summers, & Poynton, 2011). In Sacramento, California, for example, officers were assigned to randomly patrol high crime areas in 15 minute increments. These supplementary patrols were associated with a 25 percent reduction in Part I crimes and an eight percent reduction in calls for service over baseline data (Telep, Mitchell & Weisburd, 2012).
Major theoretical support for hot spot policing comes from several lines of work addressing greater opportunities for crime in certain physical locations (e.g., Brantingham & Brantingham 1993; Cohen & Felson, 1979; Clarke 1995). Factors that impact the geographic concentration of crime include an absence of capable guardians, greater availability of suitable targets, and the presence or importation of motivated offenders. Reductions in crime resulting from increased police presence in hot spots may result from potential offenders perceiving an increased risk of apprehension at these locations. Additionally, it appears that problem-oriented interventions (see Braga, Papachristos, & Hureau, 2012) in hot spots may have greater impact on the reduction of crime.
While existing experimental studies highlight the potential benefits of hot spot policing for crime prevention, important operational questions remain regarding the longer term sustainability and effectiveness of this practice. First, most law enforcement agencies have experienced significant staffing reductions over the past decade. Portland has seen a 10 percent reduction in sworn officers in the past ten years and non-sworn positions have declined by nearly 30 percent in just the past four years alone. Interventions that require doubling patrol levels in hot spots (e.g., Sherman & Weisburd, 1995) may not be feasible under these conditions. As such, further research is needed to identify the minimum patrol dosage necessary to achieve a deterrent effect. Koper (1995) found patrol durations of 15 minutes maximize crime reduction, but the influence of patrol frequency remains unclear.
Second, in order to be sustained over time hot spot patrols need to be fully integrated into an organization’s culture and operating procedures (Sherman et al., 2014). Sherman and Weisburd (1995) found significant resistance to directed patrols in one of the first studies on this practice. Likewise, most subsequent field experiments have experienced challenges in obtaining full cooperation with treatment and reporting protocols (see for example Sorg, Wood, Groff, & Ratcliffe, 2014). Some of the problems securing and maintaining compliance in these studies may have resulted from the ways that supplemental patrols were administered. Patrol assignments in Telep and colleagues’ (2012) study with the Sacramento Police Department for example, were generated centrally, distributed weekly to sergeants via printed reports, and then shared directly with patrol officers during “roll call.” Street officers were granted considerable discretion in how they carried out the work, including what they did in target locations, how often and when during the day they visited. An alternative strategy might entail automating directed patrols using the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems that already control patrol officers’ routine activities.
Finally, important questions remain about potential negative outcomes associated with traditional hot spot policing practices. Of particular concern is a harmful impact of hot spot patrols on police-community relations (Rosenbaum, 2006). If officers assigned to these patrols interact with citizens in ways that degrade trust and legitimacy, people may be less willing over time to cooperate with law enforcement in efforts to control crime and disorder (Tyler, 2003). While studies addressing this possible “backfire effect” have not received direct empirical support (Weisburd, Hinkle, Famega & Ready, 2011), the recent public outcry surrounding NYPD’s “stop & frisk” patrols illustrates the broader social consequences that may result from enforcement-focused policing strategies.
In summary, the available research finds that supplemental police patrols directed to narrowly defined crime hot spots result in small but statistically significant short-term reductions in crime and calls for service (Braga, Papachristos, & Hureau, 2012). At the same time, it is widely recognized that our current knowledge base regarding hot spot policing remains severely limited (Weisburd & Telep, 2014). We know relatively little about the impact of patrol dosages, the outcomes for different activities by officers at hot spot locations (e.g., traffic stops vs. problem-solving vs. community engagement), whether crime reductions are sustained over longer periods, or how community attitudes about law enforcement are impacted by these interventions.
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