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Police target violence by using data rather than instinct

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2012 - When St. Louis Police Chief Daniel Isom announced his recent anti-crime initiative, it marked a more intense effort to use evidence-based research to try to reduce gun violence and make the streets safer.

Conventional wisdom and conjecture used to play a big part in how police responded to crime, but those approaches increasingly are being overtaken by an evidence-based policing movement. It is one of the most significant developments in crime control in two decades, according to the journal Justice Research and Policy, which devoted its entire current issue to the topic.

Isom's plan for targeting violence in several neighborhoods for 30 days is called Homicide Deterrence Intervention. It’s a variation of a nine-month program already in place. What’s different about the latest initiative is that it will undergo a more intense evaluation to determine whether it works and for how long.

Damping down hot spots

The conventional term for such programs is hot spot policing. In the case of the 30-day strategy, increased patrol strength is targeted in neighborhoods throughout the city during evening and night periods when crime is highest.

“Research on hot spot policing has consistently returned favorable evidence,” says Richard Rosenfeld, a professor in criminology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “Where hot spot policing has occurred, by and large, crime reduction has resulted.”

The research behind the strategy will focus on two broad issues. The easy part will be to find how much crime drops during the 30 days of an increased police presence. The second, more problematic challenge, Rosenfeld says, is learning how to use science to tweak the program so that it will have the most impact possible in the targeted areas.

Safety in the city

The number of murders and gun-related assaults in St. Louis hasn’t changed much in recent years, but it takes only one incident of shocking violence to trigger elevated public concerns about safety in the city. One such incident was the recent murder of 23-year-old Megan Boken in a relatively safe corner of the Central West End. That incident was one of many reasons for this three-part series, which examines larger public safety issues beyond the shock of a single murder.

The first story focuses on the main sources of guns in Missouri and the state's gun control laws. The second part focuses on the effectiveness of police responses to crime, ranging from the once-popular Weed and Seed program to evidence-based anti-crime remedies now used by many police departments. The final story looks at an example of a community organization’s effort to show ordinary people how they can help ease conflicts, prevent violence, and promote safety in the city.

Rosenfeld says the second challenge means being able to know “how often the police have to return to those areas to sustain the perception (in the minds of criminals) that police could be there at any time. The department is not yet in a position to answer those questions, but I think it will be. It’s moving in the right direction by pursuing a hot spot strategy and systematically evaluating it.”

The 30-day strategy grew out of street crimes like last month’s attack in the Central West End in which 23-year-old Megan Boken was slain after she reportedly struggled with a suspect demanding her cell phone.

The value of a hot spot police strategy was reinforced by the Board of Estimate and Apportionment’s decision last week to give the Police Department another $250,000 for the anti-crime program. One E&A member, comptroller Darlene Green, had urged the board to go a step further by urging Saint Louis University to enter into an agreement for the Police Department to boost its presence around the campus. She argued before the E&A meeting that an increased police presence around the urban campus could be “the only thing that stands between one who would commit a crime and the victim.”

The department already has an agreement under which it gets a fee from the city Housing Authority for boosting police patrol activity around public housing sites. Green argues that a similar arrangement with SLU would be win-win in that it could discourage crime around the campus and help the city cover part of its law enforcement budget. Although E&A didn’t take up Green’s proposal, she said SLU President Lawrence Biondi was reviewing the idea. She added that the city should consider reaching out to other universities with branch campuses downtown.

One undisputed point by Green is that keeping the hot spot patrol system going won’t be cheap. Police officials say they haven’t decided yet how they intend to use the extra money, but they also noted that if the entire $250,000 were targeted for overtime in hot spot sites, the money would be used up in less than a month.

Rosenfeld explains that a hot spot strategy is different from a police crackdown in response to knowledge of drug dealing, for example, on a particular street corner. In that case, he says, “police swoop down, make arrests, then leave.”

A hot spot approach involves elevated patrol activity for a longer period and might involve police officers getting out of their cars, talking to people on the street, and “engaging in problem solving activity,” such as securing a vacant or unsafe building that might be used by derelicts or criminals, Rosenfeld says.

One unanswered question is whether the strategy’s potential for long-term success might be compromised by budget constraints. The department acknowledges it lacks the money to reassign unusually large numbers of officers to targeted neighborhoods for long periods.

“That’s the $64 million question,” Rosenfeld says. “How long does it last?”

One thing the evidence-based approach appears to be doing is screening out popular anti-crime approaches found to be ineffective.

Looking for Evidence

At the entrance to the old Cook Elementary School on the north side hangs a familiar green and white logo for a program that used to be regarded as a silver bullet for attacking crime. Called Weed and Seed, the program promised to turn each targeted neighborhood into a “safe place for families and children to learn and grow.”

In the old days, such a noble mission might have been enough to keep anti-crime money flowing from Washington. In the current period of dwindling federal spending, however, Washington, like some police departments, is relying more on scientific research to determine which programs are worth funding.

Although Weed and Seed was one of the nation’s oldest anti-crime programs, and although it has enjoyed some success in St. Louis, evidence-based research may be part of the reason the federal government is scrapping the program. Local proponents stress that Weed and Seed deserves credit for reducing crime in Fox Park, Fountain Park-Lewis Place, and Benton Park West neighborhoods, but they say it never was intended to address crime citywide.

What proponents don’t say, however, is that Weed and Seed’s success has been uneven, according to the federal government’s crimesolutions website. It shows that of 223 anti-crime programs that have been subjected to scientific evaluations, 66 were found to be effective, 132 were regarded as promising, and the remaining 25 had little impact.

Weed and Seed was among the 25 that either didn’t have a major impact on crime or “did not achieve their intended outcomes when implemented with fidelity.” Similar poor results were found in evaluations of the original and equally popular school-based anti-drug initiative called Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE. A refined DARE program did show good results.

The journal Justice Research and Policy says both the government and taxpayers are embracing the evidence-based movement because it helps them determine if the millions of dollars spent on anti-crime programs are producing tangible results.

It adds that the evidence-based movement has limitations. “Effective interventions have not been identified for every crime problem confronting our communities,” the journal says.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.