A study published in Nature claims that the reduction of police “protection” results in lower crime, which counters the claim that proactive policing has a positive impact on reducing crime. According to the report, an opportunity presented itself to assess the claims that increased police presence results in lower crime. The report states, “our study analyses an aberration in NYPD strategy, in which police sharply limited foot patrols, criminal summonses and low-level arrests in a manner unrelated to the city’s underlying crime rate. In the midst of a political fight between Mayor de Blasio, anti-police brutality protesters and the city’s police unions, the NYPD held a work “slowdown” for approximately seven weeks in late 2014 and early 2015. ”
The claim that greater patrolling (which requires more police, more resources, bigger budgets, higher taxes reduces crime is the most important point made when arguing for any expansion in police departments. To that end, this study sought to go out and test that assumption. Thanks to the dispute between mayor DeBlasio and the NYPD in 2014-15, an opportunity arose that would allow researchers to look at the crime rates during the intentional slow-down by the police.
The study came to the conclusion that, during the slowdown period, major crimes dropped by 3-6%. The so-called Ferguson effect didn’t happen. The Ferguson effect is named after Ferguson, MO, where it was anecdotally reported that crime increased as a result of cops being less inclined to do their job for fear of being the target of further protests.
To be sure, this is just one study, but the subject of the study was a city of over 8 million people. The period of time consisted of 7 weeks at the end of 2014 to the beginning of 2015. If nothing else, the study warrants more studies, for, even as this article is being written, the talk of expanding policing, of increasing the proactive action of police, of further militarizing the police is going on from the local municipal level to the state level across America.
If this study proves to be accurate by other studies, then the whole notion of decreasing crime by increasing policing will be turned on its head. If that happens, then other, perhaps more difficult, questions will have to be asked.
Here is the abstract from the study that details the methods of how the study was undertaken.
Governments employ police to prevent criminal acts. But it remains in dispute whether high rates of police stops, criminal summonses and aggressive low-level arrests reduce serious crime. Police officers target their efforts at areas where crime is anticipated and/or where they expect enforcement will be most effective. Simultaneously, citizens decide to comply with the law or commit crime partly on the basis of police deployment and enforcement strategies. In other words, policing and crime are endogenous to unobservable strategic interaction, which frustrates causal analysis. Here, we resolve these challenges and present evidence that proactive policing—which involves systematic and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations—is positively related to reports of major crime. We examine a political shock that caused the New York Police Department (NYPD) to effectively halt proactive policing in late 2014 and early 2015. Analysing several years of unique data obtained from the NYPD, we find that civilian complaints of major crimes (such as burglary, felony assault and grand larceny) decreased during and shortly after sharp reductions in proactive policing. The results challenge prevailing scholarship as well as conventional wisdom on authority and legal compliance, as they imply that aggressively enforcing minor legal statutes incites more severe criminal acts.
In the last few decades, proactive policing has become a centerpiece of “new policing” strategies across the globe. The logic, commonly associated with the broader theory of order maintenance policing (OMP; also known as broken windows), is that rather than wait for citizens to report criminal conduct, law enforcement should proactively patrol communities, maintaining order through systematic and aggressive low-level policing. According to proponents, increasing police stops, quality-of-life summonses, and low-level arrests deters more serious criminal activity by signalling that the area is being monitored and that deviance will not be tolerated. As a corollary, following a phenomenon termed the Ferguson effect, disengaging from proactive policing emboldens criminals, precipitating spikes in serious crime.
But while elected officials commonly justify proactive policing by pointing to the enforcement of legal statutes, the strategy’s efficacy continues to be debated. A serious concern is that proactive policing diverts finite resources and attention away from investigative units, including detectives working to track down serial offenders and break up criminal networks. Proactive policing also disrupts communal life, which can drain social control of group-level violence. Citizens are arrested, unauthorized markets are disrupted, and people lose their jobs, all of which create more localized stress on individuals already living on the edge. Such strains are imposed directly through proactive policing, and thus are independent from subsequent judgments of guilt or innocence. Inconsistency in aggressive low-level policing across community groups undermines police legitimacy, which erodes cooperation with law enforcement. The cumulative effect increases ‘legal cynicism’—individual reliance on extra-legal sanctions and informal institutions of violence as a replacement for police. Reflecting these mechanisms, we propose that sharply reducing proactive policing in areas where it had been deployed pervasively may actually improve compliance with legal authority, thereby reducing major crimes.
To assess these claims, our study analyses an aberration in NYPD strategy, in which police sharply limited foot patrols, criminal summonses and low-level arrests in a manner unrelated to the city’s underlying crime rate. In the midst of a political fight between Mayor de Blasio, anti-police brutality protesters and the city’s police unions, the NYPD held a work ‘slowdown’ for approximately seven weeks in late 2014 and early 2015. Within New York City (NYC), the most proximate cause of protests against the NYPD was the strangling death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. While there was considerable fallout from the incident itself, the conflict intensified when a grand jury declined to indict the involved officers on 4 December 2014. Thousands of protesters marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, while others blocked portions of the West Side Highway as well as the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. Then, two weeks after the non-indictment decision, two NYPD officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were fatally shot by an anti-police extremist. Because they are legally prohibited from striking, NYPD officers coordinated a work-to-rule strike. Officers were ordered to respond to calls only in pairs, leave their squad cars only if they felt compelled, and perform only the most necessary duties. The act was a symbolic show of strength to demonstrate the city’s dependence on the NYPD. Officers continued to respond to community calls for service, but refrained from proactive policing by refusing to get out of their vehicles to issue summonses or arrest people for petit crimes and misdemeanours.
Emblematic of the slowdown’s effects (and the change from proactive to responsive policing), zero summonses were issued for quality-of-life violations on New Year’s Eve 2014, while just the week before, two officers were fatally shot responding to a reported robbery. Eventually, under pressure from the media as well as growing demands for city revenue, Commissioner Bratton conceded to the ‘self-initiated’ slowdown in proactive policing, before publicly ordering his officers to return to work by 16 January.
The change in tactics appears particularly stark when compared with the aggressive strategy of proactive policing the NYPD pursued during the preceding decades. Correspondence between the introduction of proactive policing in New York and the city’s historic drop in major crime has been heralded as prima facie evidence of the strategy’s effectiveness. As a result, cities across the globe adopted the NYPD’s protocols and practices, which suggests not only that proactive policing strategies are presumed to deter major crime in NYC, but also that these policies are widely thought to work in other contexts as well.
If, as would seem to be the case, the slowdown was unrelated to the city’s underlying crime rate, this makes for a unique natural experiment to identify the causal effects of changing police practices. While Garner was being arrested for a misdemeanor offense, and the killings of Liu and Ramos were homicides, these three crimes neither reflect nor predict citywide (nor precinct-wide) crime. And while anti-police brutality protests and the ensuing political conflict were tied to policing practices across the country, it is difficult to argue that the protests were caused by NYC’s crime rate.
To assess the slowdown’s effects, we filed a series of Freedom of Information requests soliciting a comprehensive set of NYPD CompStat reports from 2013–2016 (see Supplementary Fig. 1 for an example). CompStat (short for computer statistics) was introduced in New York as part of a series of reforms to target proactive policing at ‘hotspots’ in which crime was most concentrated. The reports document weekly activity in each NYPD precinct. On the basis of findings from earlier research, we are confident that CompStat data represent the best available source of disaggregated information on police behavior and crime, and correlate strongly with the underlying reality (see further discussion in the Methods section). Perhaps the best evidence of their validity comes from the fact that the NYPD uses CompStat reports to allocate police resources and develop strategy in real time.
Examining citywide time series, we find evidence of the timing of the NYPD slowdown, as well as preliminary indications of its effects (Fig. 1). Several policing measures are considered. “Criminal summonses” are charges issued for summary Penal Law Violations (that is, quality-of-life violations, including, most commonly, public consumption of alcohol and disorderly conduct, but not ticketable parking fines or moving violations). “Stop, question and frisks” (SQFs) are temporary street detentions and searches of individuals for contraband. Use of SQFs dropped precipitously to a new baseline in anticipation of the judgment in Floyd versus City of New York, which ordered a series of reforms to prevent unconstitutional racial profiling. “Non-major crime arrests” are arrests for all crimes and misdemeanors, excluding the NYPD’s “seven major crimes”—murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and grand theft auto. It includes arrests made by members of the precinct as well as officers from the Transit and Housing Departments and two specialized bureaus: the Organized Crime Control Bureau (OCCB) and the Detective Bureau. According to annual NYPD statistics, misdemeanor arrests represented 92% of all non-major crime arrests in 2014.
Read the full report here.
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