Does 'Hot Spot Policing' Work?

Apr 20, 2017

The Bloomington Police Department often directs additional patrols to certain neighborhoods on the city's west side.
Credit GLT News

At a public forum last December sponsored by Black Lives Matter, several residents of the Bloomington's west side complained that their neighborhood is under a police microscope, with officers making unfair stops and arrests.

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner says  he sends additional patrols to areas of the city that have a higher rate of incidents. 

The practice is a  common one known as "hot spot policing."  It is used by departments across America in cities both large and small to address high crime areas. But does hot spot policing work?

It can if it is enforced properly and if local police have the support of the community for these additional patrols. That's according to Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization based in Washington, D.C.

"There is a lot of evidence that shows when police focus on those very small places that generate disproportionate numbers of crimes, that they can make a difference. I am talking about this block versus that block," Bueermann said on GLT's Sound Ideas.

"As a policing strategy, hot spot policing is one of the best strategies the police can use to try to reduce crime."

But there are drawbacks. Bueermann said these efforts can backfire and add to anger and mistrust if the police haven't first secured the community's support and cooperation.

"We are strong advocates in this idea of the co-production of public safety,  of the community and police working together  and agreeing on strategies," Bueermann said.

"It means that you have open dialog and discussion and interaction with the community and with community leaders to talk about  on the nature of crime and what we know works and how we can implement this in a way that is perceived appropriately  ... It is not done unilaterally."

Jim Bueermann is a former police chief from California who heads the non-partisan Police Foundation, an advocate of "hot spot policing."
Credit Police Foundation

Studies have been mixed on the effectiveness of hot spot policing, but Bueermann said cities where the practice has been less successful might not have trained their officers properly.

"You don't over-police the area. You don't saturate a hot spot with cops 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is over-policing," Bueermann said.

"If you over-saturate an area, you hit a point of diminishing returns and you can create other problems."

One problem that might result is officer boredom, which could lead officers to crack down on citizens for even minor offenses, Bueermann said.

"Police ... have a bias for action," he said.

"They are expected by their bosses to work .  If they spend way too much time (in a neighborhood), they might start doing things like towing cars and writing tickets and arresting people for really minor things because they have to produce proof they are working and not just sitting around drinking coffee," Bueermann added.

At the Black Lives Matter meeting last year, some citizens complained that they were stopped and sometimes searched without cause.

"You have to engage community leaders in the co-production  of the decision that this is the model we are going to use,"Bueermann noted.

"You have to say here is how were are going to be transparent, and here are our results, so everything is  above board (and people know) what we are doing and why we are doing it. When you do that, people are much more inclined (to support the police) because they want you to stop the violence," he added.

"You also have to have clear discussions with officers in what you are trying to achieve. You have to give officers training in hot spot policing ... This is not simply a numbers issue to see how many people we can arrest or tickets we can write."

Hot spot policing addresses the symptoms of crime, but doesn't address root causes, such as lack of economic opportunity or substance abuse, Bueermann said.

"A balanced and comprehensive crime control model has three components, like the three legs of a tripod: prevention, intervention and suppression. If you're missing any one of those three pieces, your crime control strategy will not be effective."

Bueermann said communities need to address social issues such as drug abuse, delinquency, school drop out rates and teen pregnancy, which can lead to criminal behavior.  Support has to be given to families on better parenting strategies, and to schools and peer groups, he said.  

"If people think police alone are going to solve the problem of crime and disorder, they are sadly mistaken."

There are other practices police sometimes use in high crime areas, Bueermann said.  One is called "broken windows policing" in which police crack down on crimes like vandalism or graffiti as a way of improving a community. Another is "zero tolerance" policing, in which officers enforce even minor violations of law. Bueermann says neither of those practices has proven particularly effective in reducing violent crime rates.