Hot spots and shame, New tactics needed to fight criminals who flout the law.

February 11, 1996|By Lawrence Sherman

Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier's 1996 crime control strategy raises some very important issues.

To increase patrols in the "hot spots" of crime, Mr. Frazier proposes reducing the time police spend in station houses processing arrests on minor drug possession cases. But his detractors say cutting arrests is an even greater invitation to even greater lawlessness -- the only way to prevent crime is to lock up as many people as possible, they maintain.

Recent research in criminology, however, suggests that our national obsession with incarceration may be far less effective in preventing crime than the kinds of alternative strategies Mr. Frazier is suggesting.

Nationally, 96 percent of all arrests are for offenses other than serious violent crimes. Most of these arrests are followed by immediate release and no further incarceration. Thus there is a close trade-off in police time between deterring a crime on the streets and hours spent keeping only one offender off the streets for a minimal time.

Informed discussions of this trade-off must take into account two key factors in dealing with crime and criminals. One is opportunity; the other is shame.

Most offenders are "opportunists." Interviews with criminals ranging from shoplifters to serial killers consistently show a lack of planning. Instead, the interviews reveal spur-of-the-moment decisions when the offenders just happen to encounter a reasonable opportunity to commit a crime. And opportunity is found more often in some places than others.

Less than 3 percent of addresses produce more than half of all crimes reported to the police. In cities across the country, computerized police records show that crime is not random, but highly predictable by location, especially in the handful of places criminologists call "hot spots" of crime. The concentration of crime in hot spots is much greater than it is among career criminals -- the 3 percent of all addresses with half the crime compares with the 18 percent of known offenders who account for half of all arrests. Thus, if you want to predict, and even prevent, a crime, you are more likely to be right if you focus on specific addresses rather than individuals.

Reducing opportunity as a crime control method may have substantial results.

From 1990 to 1995, the number of murders, shootings and robberies in New York City dropped almost in half. Over the same time period, there was no apparent change in the way in which serious offenders were punished. But there were drastic changes in police strategy, including relentless computerized mapping of crime hot spots and the daily assignment of special police squads to cool down those hot spots.

While there are many questions about the exact reasons for the crime decline in New York, the results are consistent with the findings of controlled experiments in other cities.

The Kansas City, Mo., police, for example, saw gun crimes drop 50 percent on one violent beat when they targeted gun crime hot spots and increased seizures of illegal guns by 65 percent.

The Minneapolis police reduced overall crime by 13 percent and minor offenses by 50 percent in 55 crime hot spots by assigning patrol cars to an intermittent presence of about two hours per day. And as Commissioner Frazier points out, patrols of about 15 minutes per visit yield the optimum crime prevention.

In contrast, it is not clear what we gain from making large numbers of drug arrests -- other than putting an entire generation out of the work force because they have a criminal record. One thing we do not get is shame.

Examine what we are doing in our courts from the perspective of 14 million arrestees who will walk out of them this year and go back out on the streets.

The arrestee is completely helpless in the hands of the state, cut off from friends and family, subjected to a bodily search, often handcuffed or forced to disrobe, unable to bathe or use private toilet facilities until arraignment. The experience is often humiliating, to be sure. But it is far too rarely a cause of shame, and far more often it is a cause of defiance. Rather than blaming themselves for what they have done, many arrestees become angry at the police, the jailers, the lawyers and the judges who treat them like a car in an automated car wash. Typically, they are set loose on the streets again with minimal remorse, minimal concern for their victims, and substantial anger at the agents of law and order. It is little wonder that many studies find that arrest without prison terms actually increases an offender's rate of offending rather than reducing it.

We may get better results by convening a group of people affected by a crime to help an arrestee feel ashamed of what he has done.

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