Aggressive policing tactics could actually make crime worse, study suggests

Proactive policing strategies are believed to discourage more serious criminal activity, but new research suggests that the opposite may be true.

The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, found evidence that cutting back on proactive policing was linked to a reduction in crime in New York City.

“My interest in the topic follows from a broad curiosity about how laws are established, enforced, and contested. My earlier research focused on the causes and consequences of some of the most heinous forms of political repression, including massacres and torture,” study author Christopher M. Sullivan of Louisiana State University explained.

“More recently, I’ve turned my attention to how order emerges in the aftermath of conflict. As I began to think about why people obey the law, turning to study policing in New York seemed like a logical, if somewhat tangential, next step.”

Proactive policing strategies include increased patrolling of communities and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations. Proponents believe that the tactics deter more serious crimes by signalling that the area is being monitored by law enforcement.

The study examined New York Police Department crime data from 2013-2016. The researchers found that public complaints of major crimes, including murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and grand theft auto, declined by 3-6 percent during a 7-week halt on proactive policing.

The 7-week halt occurred in late 2014 and early 2015, when NYPD held a work “slowdown” in response to anti-police brutality protests following the death of Eric Garner.

“I would like the average person reading about this study to think about the results the next time they hear someone suggest that more aggressive proactive policing can serve to reduce crime in their neighborhood,” Sullivan told PsyPost.

“Our findings show that removing proactive policing reduced major crime complaints, which suggests at a minimum that these policing tactics were not effectively deterring major crime. They may actually make crime worse.”

The study raises doubts about the effectiveness of proactive policing, but it is not the final word in the matter.

“While NYPD tactics of proactive policing have been adopted widely by police departments across the globe, it will be important to study these relationships in other cities,” Sullivan explained.

“The study also does not identify what precisely caused the decline in crime. While we are able to rule out explanations based on under reporting, the study does not provide evidence establishing what specific mechanisms link proactive policing and crime. This is a subject of our current work.”

The study, “Evidence that curtailing proactive policing can reduce major crime“, was co-authored by Zachary P. O’Keeffe.