Why most violent crime reductions plans don’t work and criteria for ones that do

Over the past thirty years many large municipalities and counties in the United States have experimented with violent crime reduction plans. These approaches have included, but are not limited to gun buyback programs, Weed and Seed, High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, pulling levers, and numerous others. Some of them have been very well thought out, while others such as an emphasis on Stop and Frisk, have violated the constitutional rights of the citizens in the jurisdictions in which they were enacted.

Very few of these plans however, have led to their intended results.

A number of explanations can be advanced to explain why these violent crime reduction plans did not achieve their desired goals. Some of the reasons are more helpful than others.

To begin with, we might be quick to blame the lack of positive results on the poor training of law enforcement officers. This may explain some of the reasons why there were some initial missteps, but on the whole we can probably discount this idea.

In complimentary fashion, sometimes observers argue that there are not enough appropriate criminal justice practitioners (specifically law enforcement, prosecutors, probation officers, etc.) to properly do the job. Usually, however, it’s not because we don’t have sufficiently capable people to do the job properly. Resources can almost always be shifted around. It may be challenging but not impossible.

Sometimes violent crime reduction plans are criticized because they fail to consider the input from the communities that are most effected. In this day and age, few big city police departments or large county police departments make this kind of mistake. By the same token it must also be realized that the public sometimes has both unrealistic expectations of their law enforcement officers, and the strategies that they sometimes propose may be unconstitutional.

Another explanation is that the plans were not based on criminological theory, or on peer-reviewed criminal justice research, and were simply what some might call a preoccupation with a flavor of the day approach. In these cases, the mayor or county executive go to a conference, or somebody or some organization catches the ear of the city or county leadership, they hear about a violent crime reduction program that sounded promising (usually based on anecdotal evidence) in another jurisdiction that seems to be working, are appropriately persuaded (or smitten), and then suggest to the chief of police or head of public safety that it will work.

The two most important reasons, however, why violent crime reduction programs fail is because of the continuously changing leadership of the police department or the mayor, and the inflexibility of the plan. This is certainly the case with the city of Baltimore, where I work. Over the past two decades the city has had countless crime prevention plans, and approximately ten new commissioners of police. Shortly after the new well-meaning and intentioned police commissioner takes the job, they are suspended, resign or fired, and thus the plans that they were trying to implement are not given enough time to work before they are abandoned and something new is tried. This leads to decrease in morale among the rank and file and they approach each new crime fighting plan as one that will be soon abandoned. Thus for any new violent crime fighting approach that is going to be implemented, they need to sustain themselves past changing administrations.

In the case of inflexibility, police officers and commissioners must be given room to innovate in small doses. Crimes rates go up and down. Criminals come and go. They get arrested, go to jail or prison and some of them are released back into the community. Some of them become gainfully employed, while others get back in the game. Thus law enforcement needs to be flexible in order to adapt to changing circumstances. Thus stating that a crime reduction plan must work immediately or by one, two or three years’ time is unrealistic. We must give violent crime reduction plans time, we must continuously and systematically monitor their progress (preferably by outside experts), and quickly make appropriate adjustments when they do not appear to achieve their goals.

photo credit: Office of Public Affairs
title: VR12 Oakland – 48