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Police Study Shows That Reform and Effectiveness Are Not Mutually Exclusive

by Benjamin Tschirhart

Following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, a new social movement has emerged and is growing in popularity. The burgeoning movement is calling for police reform along with the reduction of police budgets and tighter reigns on police training and tactics. Their demand (shocking many conservative thinkers) is to “Defund the Police!”

An opposing viewpoint insists that whatever the measures required for the reform of police culture, a reduction of police power and funding must necessarily lead to a decline in their institutional effectiveness. This, they insist, will lead in turn to predictable (and terrible) social outcomes: more crime and the destabilization of society. In the U.S. there exists a “law–and-order” tradition which places a premium on authority and values conformity to social norms and rules. Under this predominantly conservative paradigm, failure to comply with the exercise of official authority is interpreted as “defiance.” The authoritarian institutional culture which pervades much of law enforcement is preoccupied with control and punishment; perceived defiance is often answered with immediate and overwhelming force.

It is against this social backdrop that the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University published a study in the Fall 2022 edition of Translational Criminology, exploring potential ways to effect reform while still preserving the effectiveness of police. A group of researchers from several law enforcement and criminology institutions – including the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., and the National Policing Institute – conducted a three-city randomized trial to examine the effects of “hot-spot policing” combined with the use of “Procedural Justice” during interactions with the public. They sought to answer the following questions: Is it possible for police to improve their transparency, accountability, and rapport with the community they serve without sacrificing their effectiveness? Does effective law enforcement fundamentally preclude positive social interactions?

Previous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of hot-spot policing; this particular trial was not intended to address that question again. Standard hot-spot policing emphasizes regular, visible police presence in high-crime areas. Although the effectiveness of hot-spot policing for reducing crime is not in dispute, it has also been shown to create hostility in communities that perceive themselves as receiving undue or excessive attention from law enforcement. As the researchers put it, “While there is evidence that proactive policing can effectively reduce crime in hot spots, there are concerns that intensive crime-fighting strategies could have negative effects on police trust.”

In this study, both sample groups used hot-spot policing; the difference between them was the emphasis on “Procedural Justice,” defined by the research team as a focus on “fair treatment in interactions with the public (giving voice, showing neutrality, treating people with dignity and respect, and demonstrating trustworthy motives).”

The trial was conducted with groups of 8 or 12 patrol officers from the cities of Tucson, Cambridge, and Houston. The officers of each city were divided into two groups. The researchers chose 40 “high crime residential street segments” and assigned 20 of these hot spots to each group of officers. One group was instructed to reduce crime in these areas using standard hot-spot policing tactics. The other group was given 40 hours of Procedural Justice training and instructed to incorporate these methods into their efforts within their assigned hot spots.

While the Procedural Justice instructions did not have specific requirements, they emphasized the importance of incorporating the concept into every interaction that took place within the assigned hot spots. The study was conducted over a nine-month period and revealed “significantly” different behaviors from the police teams in the Procedural Justice groups. They “were significantly more likely to give citizens a voice, demonstrate neutrality, and treat people with dignity and respect. They were also significantly less likely to be disrespectful.”

These changes yielded an improvement in community-police rapport and interactions. Residents of the Procedural Justice areas were less likely to complain about police harassment or excessive force. Meanwhile, the Procedural Justice hot spots saw a roughly 14% reduction of crime incidents, despite the fact that the police in these areas made 60% fewer arrests than the officers in the standard hot spot areas. 

For decades, many tens of millions of dollars have been siphoned out of socially beneficial causes and programs and lavished on police departments for military equipment and dubious “training,” which teach a violent and aggressive philosophy of policing – the so-called warrior mentality. For many years now, programs with names like “Warrior Training” and “Killology” have been standard for law enforcement agencies across the country. Yet, never have these confrontational and contemptuous approaches yielded such reduction in crime rates while also slowing the staggering rates of incarceration, which have shamefully characterized the U.S. for many years.

Unfortunately, most law enforcement agencies “do not regularly survey the public” and lack a feedback mechanism to make them responsive to the people they are meant to protect and serve. But the news is not all bad. This study demonstrates, in the words of the researchers, that “police fairness and effectiveness are not competing goals.” 

Sources: National Policing Institute - Incorporating Procedural Justice into Hot Spots Policing: Lessons from a Multicity Randomized Trial, thecrimereport.org - Study Finds Hot-Spot Policing More Effective When Officers Show Respect

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