Research highlight

Proactive policing might increase reports of major crime

Nature Human Behaviour

September 26, 2017

A reduction in the systematic and aggressive enforcement of minor violations by police may reduce major crime complaints, suggests a paper published online this week in Nature Human Behaviour. This finding challenges the conventional understanding of the relationship between authority and compliance.

The last few decades have seen widespread adoption of proactive policing strategies that are thought to discourage more serious criminal activity. These crime deterrence measures include the patrolling of communities, and increases in police stops, summonses, and low-level arrests. However, their efficacy is an ongoing topic of debate. Proactive policing has also come under intense public scrutiny for its disproportionate impacts on certain community groups, resulting in potentially discriminatory practices.

In this study, Christopher Sullivan and Zachary O’Keeffe compare baseline New York Police Department (NYPD) crime data from 2013-2016 to a specific 7-week period in late 2014 and early 2015, when the NYPD effectively halted proactive policing in response to anti-police-brutality protests (following the death of Eric Garner). This allowed the authors to draw causal conclusions about the relationship between proactive policing measures and major crime complaints. Their results show that public complaints of major crimes (murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and grand theft auto) declined by between 3-6% during the halt on proactive policing. They also show that crime under-reporting (for example, due to the public’s reduced trust in the police) did not bias the results.

The authors conclude that certain policing tactics may inadvertently incite serious criminal activity and speculate that proactive policing reform may actually decrease rates of major crime and increase well-being in heavily policed communities. Further research is needed to understand the long-term effects of a reduction in proactive policing as well as the generalizability of these findings to locations other than New York City.

doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0211-5

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