A Primer on Improving Proactive Policing

Daniel Nagin
Daniel Nagin

When he was inducted as a fellow into the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences on May 8, Carnegie Mellon criminologist Daniel Nagin delivered a concise and pointed precis of modern research into proactive policing as part of his remarks. Those remarks, sharpened by his recent work with National Research Council on its newly released study on “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States,” appear below.


My award is in honor of Thorsten Sellin, who was a pioneering criminologist who did path breaking research that linked public policy to sound science. Following his example, then, I’d like to use my time tonight to speak about what good science has to say about U.S. crime control policy.

For two decades crime rates, particularly for violent crimes, have been declining across the United States. For an even longer timeframe — four decades — prison populations have been rising throughout the country. One percent of the adult population is now behind bars. Across the political spectrum there is recognition that the social and economic cost of incarceration at its present scale is not affordable. Can the incarceration rate be cut without triggering more crime? The answer is yes, but only if we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

More than 250 years ago Cesare Beccaria – an Italian philosopher and politician who wrote extensively on crime – admonished, “It is better to prevent crimes than punish them.” The U.S. response to rising crime rates from the 1960s through the 1980s was predicated on two faulty premises that ignored Beccaria’s warning: The first was that the police were impotent to prevent crime, and the second was that sending more people to prison for longer periods of time was an effective and efficient way to prevent crime.

Conventional wisdom is that the certainty of punishment, not its severity, is the more effective deterrent. Evidence, though, gives us the correct form of the “certainty principle” which is:  the certainty of apprehension, not the severity of the ensuing consequences, is the effective deterrent. This conclusion has two important policy implications: First, it makes clear the fallacy of claims that punishments such as mandatory minimum sentencing deter crime. There is simply no evidence that increasing the risk of imprisonment post-apprehension and conviction serves as a deterrent.

Likewise, there is good evidence that lengthy sentences are ineffective in deterring crime and are not efficient ways of preventing crime by incapacitation. A just released report from the National Research Council’s Committee on the Causes and Consequences of High Incarceration Rates upon which I served affirms both these conclusions. Mandatory minimum sentences need to be repealed and sentence lengths reduced to cut prison populations. Second, the revised certainty principle places the effective use and deployment of police at center stage in deterring crime.

There is much evidence that proactive policing methods such as focusing police presence at crime “hot spots” is effective in preventing — not just displacing — crime. As we scale back prison populations, it is important that we make more effective use of the police in a way that provides for safety in a democratic society — not a safe police state.

SQF stop_opt

Policing tactics that alienate communities reduce the willingness of its citizens to cooperate with the police

Proactive policing tactics have potential negative consequences. ‘Stop, question and frisk,’ for example, has been the source of enormous controversy not only in New York City, but also in other places around the world, largely because the people police are stopping, questioning and frisking are often young, disadvantaged men. Is SQF effective in reducing crime? Evidence to answer that question is scant. In any event that’s wrong question, anyways. The right question we should be asking is: Is stop, question and frisk more effective than other forms of proactive policing in preventing crime?

There are good reasons for deep skepticism about the relative effectiveness of SQF, at least as it has been practiced in New York compared to other forms of stop, question and frisk and proactive policing methods in general. First, police effectiveness in responding to crime rests heavily on the willingness of citizens to report crimes and identify perpetrators. Policing tactics that alienate communities reduce the willingness of its citizens to cooperate with the police. Second, SQF produces far too many arrests for minor offenses such as possession of small amounts of marijuana. These arrests clog the court system with trivial cases. They also needlessly scar the records of those who are arrested in ways that limit their future employability and expose them to increased legal risk.

Proactive policing methods such stop, question and frisk need to have less noxious effects on communities. This requires that officers receive proper training on how to do proactive policing methods in ways that are respectful and minimize their impact if a trivial infraction is identified. Police also have to spend time explaining their initiatives to the community, telling them what they are doing and why.

The crime drop of the past two decades has brought us incalculable benefits in terms of lives saved, freedom to enjoy public spaces and the revitalization of cities, but the costs to society from incarceration and aggressive policing are also enormously costly – not just in terms of economic cost but human suffering. It is important that we implement policies that prevent crime rather than warehouse more people in prison to no effective end.

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Daniel Nagin

Daniel Nagin is a criminologist who uses statistical methods to analyze criminal and antisocial behavior over the course of individuals’ lives. He is the Teresa and H. John Heinz III University Professor of Public Policy and Statistics and Associate Dean of Faculty of the Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University. he received the Stockholm Prize in Criminology in 2014.

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