If Horses Could Fly – Why You Can’t Police Your Way Out of Gun Violence?

Community policing has been around for at least twenty years. For many this approach which utilizes foot patrols and increased interaction with residents in a community has long been touted by police administrators and especially politicians as the most effective way to reduce crime. In theory, it is a commendable belief based on a foundation of optimism and hope but in reality, it falls flat when we look at the evidence. For politicians, a community-based policing model is attractive because it helps to allay the fears of communities that have been the location of violent crimes. The problem of course is that perception is one thing while reality is quite another.

In the mass media the well-known saying is that ‘if it bleeds it leads.’ Media both electronic and print are largely to blame for the exaggerated fears of people because they disproportionately misrepresent the level of violent crime when the actual evidence shows that violent offences comprise only a tiny percentage of all criminal offences that occur in society. This fuels the fears of people who start demanding that their elected representatives solve the problem. What this means in concrete terms is dramatically increasing police presence and visibility in their neighborhood. 

The plan by the Ottawa Police Service to focus on community-based policing is not driven by research evidence that it’s the most effective policing model to reduce crime.  Rather, it’s because some councillors facing pressure from their constituents are demanding a greater police presence. In short, what this translates into is that more police equals less crime. In theory it sounds plausible but in practice it is completely devoid of empirical evidence. For example, at one time police administrators believed that more police patrols would reduce crime in neighborhoods. This view was grounded on the belief that the very presence of more police patrols would deter people from committing crimes. 

In order to test this hypothesis in 1974, Kansas City launched what became known as the Kansas City Preventative Patrol Experiment. This study examined whether a significant increase or decrease in police patrols would have any effect on crime rates when compared to the status quo.  What the research revealed is that for all patrol strategies there was no decrease in the crime rate. So, it didn’t matter whether you flooded the area with more police patrols or dramatically reduced them it had no appreciable effect on the crime rate in those localities.

When it comes to community-based policing the results show that foot patrols are no more effective especially when it comes to reducing crime. If the purpose is to reduce serious crime from occurring in neighborhoods than the current research evidence about the effectiveness of foot patrols does not bear this out. A number of studies in the United States that were carried out by the Police Foundation in Newark New Jersey (1974); The Neighbourhood Foot Patrol Program in Flint Michigan (1979) and the Boston Foot Patrol Program (1987) showed that foot patrols had no significant impact on either violent or property crime.  In some of these studies the public’s view of the police improved. However, this hardly justifies introducing such a program when you consider the cost involved and the negative results. Surely the purpose of introducing a community-based model of foot patrols is to reduce the crime rate and not just act as a token gesture of public relations for the local police.

In addition, what the researchers found is that in some cases the criminals sensing an increase of police simply shifted their criminal operations, whether it was drug trafficking or prostitution, to another neighborhood. It’s not surprising that an increased police presence on foot or by automobile is unlikely to reduce crime since the evidence indicates that the vast majority of crimes are committed indoors and out of sight of the police.

If we want to reduce violence and gun related crime in society we need to use measures that have been shown to be effective through empirical research. It is disingenuous for politicians and police agencies to give residents the impression that foot patrols will lead to a decrease in violent crime in their community. If the issue is gang related shootings, then the city of Ottawa has to devise a strategy that works and that is based on more than just political expediency. Any other approach lacks credibility and has about as much hope of succeeding as the belief that horses can fly.

Several years ago, the Boston Gun Project did exactly that by targeting those individuals who were responsible for a rash of gun shootings in the Boston area. The Project included participation from police, parole officers, lawyers, social workers and academics. The project proved so successful that it was subsequently adopted by several US Cities. In the end it showed that by targeting the problem namely the gang members themselves that they were able to reduce gun violence in Boston. There is no reason aspects of that program cannot be implemented in Ottawa.

The belief that we can reduce violence by utilizing foot patrols is not only misguided it is not based on empirical research. Until our politicians recognize that you can’t police your way out of poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, dysfunctional families and mental illness, our neighborhoods will continue to be the receptacles of gun violence.

Darryl T Davies is a professor of criminology in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University.