Can it cut crime?
By John DiIulio Jr.
Some criminologists argue that Americans are more likely to be assaulted, raped, robbed, burglarized, and murdered today than they were in the 1960s. Other criminologists argue that, except for residents of the nation’s most economically depressed inner-city neighborhoods, rates of criminal victimization have fallen steadily over the last several decades. Likewise, some analysts contend that the chance that a criminal will go to prison has decreased, while others insist it has increased.
The general public, however, has little interest in these academic debates. Whatever the latest criminological wisdom, most Americans remain convinced crime is on the rise, the streets of the nation’s cities are unsafe, and the justice system is failing to prevent and punish crime in a way that protects the public and its purse. The title of the August 23, 1993, cover story of Time captured the public’s fear: “America the Violent:
Crime is Spreading and Patience is Running Out.” And the title of the August 2, 1993, cover story of U.S. News & World Report captured the public’s hope: “Super Cops.” While many Americans have lost faith in the ability of prisons to rehabilitate criminals, they have not yet lost faith in the capacity of police to combat crime.
But what, if anything, can cops do to cut crime? What evidence is there to suggest changes in how police departments are led, organized, staffed, and operated can result in greater public safety, or at least less public fear of crime?
The consensus is that community-based policing (CBP) is the best organizational strategy for enhancing protection and decreasing fear of crime. But most leading analysts of CBP acknowledge at least three problems:
- The evidence CBP reduces crime is anecdotal. Over a decade’s worth of research has yet to demonstrate that, other things being equal, CBP reduces crime.
- Various forms of CBP have been tried in numerous cities, big and small, all around the country. But no big-city police department has yet succeeded in fully implementing CBP.
- CBP requires that more officers interact more closely and personally with more citizens. In many big-city police departments, however, the number of officers actually on the streets at any given time has remained only a tiny fraction of the total force.
Wisconsin has been the site of some of the most interesting experiments with CBP. The police department in Madison, Wisconsin, is widely viewed as a model of CBP in action. Over the last few years, efforts have been made to bring CBP to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Milwaukee and other big-city jurisdictions wishing to continue experimenting with CBP, future efforts should:
- Begin with an operational definition of CBP in terms of personnel performance measures used to evaluate street-level police officers.
- Be undertaken only with a commitment to expand the number of officers on patrol in high-crime neighborhoods and in the areas adjacent to these places.
This report has three sections. The first section is a critical summary of what is known about CBP and other police-based strategies for combating crime. The second section offers an overview of two distinct policing traditions in Wisconsin. The third section offers an operational definition of CBP in relation to police performance measures and provides baseline data on crime rates and police manpower in Milwaukee.
This report was prepared in conjunction with Princeton University’s Center of Domestic and Comparative Policy Studies. In the course of preparing this report, I enlisted the advice and assistance of Professor Mark H. Moore, Mr. Francis Hartmann, Dr. Mark Alan Hughes, and Dr. Marlon Boarnet. Also, I conducted a survey on community policing, to which some two dozen police chiefs and administrators all across Wisconsin responded; selected responses are quoted anonymously in section II. I am grateful for their help and consideration. The views expressed in this report are mine alone and should not be attributed to any of the persons or institutions consulted or cited by me in this report.