The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 7, 2015

Rethinking America’s “wash, rinse, repeat” approach to policing

July 7, 2015

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. As an overly literal child, I was always troubled by the instructions that appear on the back of a shampoo bottle, which suggest an endless cycle.

Unfortunately, too many American policing agencies seem trapped in a similar cycle. Officers repeatedly engage in reactionary tactics: stop, frisk, repeat; respond, report, repeat; arrest, book, repeat. Even “hot spots” policing, deployed in the spirit of preventing crime, employs these same reactionary tactics rather than focusing on the underlying reasons why hot spots exist.

Inertia may be to blame for the persistence of this style of policing: this is how we’ve done it for decades, and innovation can be hard, time consuming, and expensive.

However, as recent winners of the prestigious Stockholm Prize in Criminology have demonstrated, the harder way is often the better one.  

The work of Ronald V. Clarke and Patricia Mayhew shows the critical importance of the physical environment, management practices, and other situational contexts in preventing crime.This is a key departure from decades of crime prevention efforts focused solely on the individual and his or her choices and actions.

Clarke developed the situational crime prevention (SCP) framework, which is based in micro-economic theory: likely offenders weigh the costs and benefits of committing a crime before doing so. Changing the cost/benefit ratio by increasing the effort of committing a crime and the risks of apprehension while reducing the rewards can make criminal opportunities undesirable.

To date, more than 200 studies have documented the remarkable reductions in crime associated with a SCP approach. The array of crimes that respond to SCP is broad and varied: acquaintance rape, auto theft in commuter parking facilities, rhino poaching, convenience store robbery, cyberbullying, and violence around nightclubs.

But unlike the traditional wash, rinse, repeat style of reactionary policing, SCP isn’t easy. Its success depends on many factors unique to the specific crime one is trying to prevent, and the proper approach for a given crime problem at a given time will not necessarily work elsewhere.

Done well, however, this type of crime prevention can also minimize or eliminate “crime displacement”—the movement of crime to other places, times, or types of crime. It can even result in a diffusion of benefits, reducing crime beyond what was directly targeted by prevention measures.  

As Clarke described in his Stockholm Prize acceptance speech, the greater focus on crime and the contexts that facilitate it has tremendous implications for crime policy. He emphasized the importance of focusing on the “many and varied ways in which society inadvertently creates opportunities for crime.” 

As the United States grapples with the challenges of policing high crime marginalized communities, we could do well to adopt a SCP approach. Indeed, while many experts have lamented the fact that community policing has been a failed enterprise, the effectiveness of problem-oriented policing, a close cousin of SCP, has earned it enduring support.

How would a shift to this type of proactive crime prevention transform police practice? Instead of targeting people who reside in high-crime areas and therefore are perceived (assumed?) to be would-be offenders, police could work in partnership with community members to identify what feeds the crimes that are most problematic to them. Burglaries, street robberies, auto theft, drug trafficking—all of these and other common crimes have been found to respond to the situational approach.

The beauty of SCP is that it demands a thorough diagnosis, which by definition requires outreach to residents, businesses, and other third parties to better understand—and disrupt— the factors that create easy opportunities for crime. The end result would be not just less crime, but stronger partnerships and greater co-ownership of public safety. These partnerships could continue to tackle future problems as they emerge, while reducing the “us” versus “them” narrative that is all too common between police and communities.

American policing demands strategies that break the futile repetitive and reactive cycle of traditional methods. Today’s business-as-usual approaches far too often create tensions with community members rather than harnessing their crucial resources and insights that, along with the partnership of agencies and businesses, can lead to solutions and make communities better places in which to live.

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