Dr. Jed Macosko meets with top criminologist Dr. David Weisburd to discuss his theories and insights on deterring crime and much more. Enjoy!
"…when the police come to some place, one thing we want them to do is stop crime. But the other thing that we want them to do is do it in a way that is appropriate in a democratic society, and at least, to the least possible negative impact on citizens."” – Dr. David Weisburd
Leading criminologist Dr. David Weisburd offers insights into his law of crime concentration and how small pockets of heavy crime predominate. He talks about the “broken window theory, how neighborhoods can address their crime problems, and why 20 minutes of police presence may be a potent, longer-term crime deterrent. Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at the Hebrew University Faculty of Law in Jerusalem, executive director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, and distinguished professor at George Mason University, Dr. Sherman talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
See additional leaders in criminology and criminal justice in our article
Top Influential Criminologists Today
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and academicinfluence.com. And today we have a special visitor on our show today, it is David Weisburd, Professor of Criminology.
And so, Professor Weisburd, I would wanted to ask you about your work on hot spot policing, and how does it relate to what a lot of people hear about, is called the broken window policies of New York City? How do those two things relate?
David Weisburd: Yeah, I think to understand the idea of hot spots policing, you have to understand the basic research that underlies it. And I’ve been doing this basic research for a number of years. There are different types of academics I like to follow through and keep going and asking questions in a similar area, and what we found...
I developed something, I call it the law of crime concentration, and across larger cities, at least about 1% of the streets in the city produce about 25% of crime, and about... And 5% of the streets produce about 50% of crime. And this is a really exciting and interesting idea, by the way, because... And not just because crime is concentrated, but it seems to be concentrated at a relatively similar level.
But this came to me because I was doing work... I’d just finished a large study in Seattle, and in that study in Seattle, I found that 5% of the streets in Seattle produced 50% of the crime over a 16-year period every single year, even during a period of crime decline. And I had some data from New York and about 5% of the streets produced 50% of the crime. And I was working in Tel Aviv, and what do I find, that about 5% of the streets produce 50% of the crime and 1% produces 25. And that led me to this idea that it’s not just concentrated, there’s sort of a law of crime concentration that it seems to be concentrated within a fairly narrow band.
Now, if crime is concentrated within a fairly narrow band, then that means that when we think about crime control, for example, we should be thinking about focusing policing and other prevention resources on those streets.
And I should note, in Seattle also, that we did a study in which we used a kind of statistical technique that allowed us to see whether each year of 16 years it was the same streets pretty much that produced that much crime, and what we found was there was 1% of the streets that over this 16-year period consistently produced about 22% to 25% of the crime. So that means that crime hot spots produced a lot of the crime in the city. They tend to be rather stable over time.
And just to add one more basic research fact, in Seattle I did research to find out where they were, if you like, to show it. We produced some wonderful colored maps in the book called The Criminology of Place, and if you look at those maps what you see is that in the so-called bad neighborhoods most of the streets have very little crime. And there are hot spots in those neighborhoods, sometimes more than other neighborhoods, but very few streets, even in the bad areas of "town," that people sometimes call the bad areas of town, have a lot of crime. So that underlies the idea of hot spots policing.
I saw the FBI once put something up saying hot spots policing was that you fish where the fish are. [chuckle] You put the police where the criminal activity is occurring, and that’s true and it’s a relatively simple model. So that’s the model, the underlying basic research model of hot spots policing.
Now, in the experiments that Larry and I, John Eck, Lorraine Mazerolle , Anthony Braga and others, some of them students of mine, have developed, we found not only that you can reduce crime by focusing on hot spots, of something even more important perhaps, which is if you focus down on hot spots the crime won’t simply move around the corner.
"… when you crack down hard on those hot spots and you reduce crime there, that crime did not go up around the corner in the immediate areas nearby."” – Dr. David Weisburd
But this began with a study that I did because I was curious about that in Jersey City, New Jersey, and I created a situation, a controlled situation with two hot spots that were more than just a street... A group of streets, one on drugs, one on prostitution. What we found was using systematic observations, not crime data, was that when you crack down hard on those hot spots and you reduce crime there, that crime did not go up around the corner in the immediate areas nearby. There was no spatial displacement. Indeed, the areas nearby got better. The crime went down in those areas.
So if you put all this together, you get the basic research idea that if you crack down on a hot spot or if you bring police to a hot spot, that you’ll have a crime prevention benefit, and the displacement won’t just diffuse to nearby areas.
And now that there are about 70 studies, a good studies of this work, but that’s the overall finding, that hot spots policing reduce crime in hot spots and it won’t lead to displacement to nearby areas.
Now, getting back to your original question, which is how is this related to what happened in New York, per se, which got a lot of attention in the 1990s and afterwards and to broken windows? Well, it’s not related to broken windows really, hardly at all. But it’s related in the following sense. I recently chaired a panel in the National Academy of Sciences on proactive policing, and we reviewed each of the proactive policing strategies, and what we found was that broken windows policing...
What is broken windows policing? It’s the idea that if we focus in on the little stuff, it’ll prevent the big stuff. And it grows out of a study that was done in New York, in which the investigators drew an idea that on these streets what happens is, these bad streets, is things get out of control, and once they start getting out of control, it’s hard to control them. So if you can get them early before they get to that developmental sequence, then you can do something about crime.
Now, the evidence is that broken windows policing applied broadly in neighborhoods is not effective. That’s the evidence. The evidence is the broken windows policing applied to hot spots is effective. Now, it’s also the case that merely police patrol in hot spots is effective, as are a number of other approaches. So hot spots policing is about where you ought to focus resources. The problem in windows policing is a bit more about what you should be doing.
Jed: And it does sound like just getting people to fix their broken windows is not really gonna do anything.
Does it help in the hot spots to address that, above and beyond, just putting more patrols there? Like if you patrol the area like twice as much as a usual spot, three times as much, and get them to fix the small things like broken windows, does that have like an added effect or what?
David: Well, that’s a really interesting question, because I’m working on something now related to this. I did a large six-year study supported by the National Institutes of Health. What I did in that study was I wanted to understand better what’s going on with these hot spots. In particular, I wanted to understand about the people who live there, what are their issues, what kinds of concerns do they have, what kind of problems do they have, what is their socioeconomic level, et cetera.
So, and this is a lot of data collected. Fortunately, NIH became interested in this and we had 449 streets, we collected at least seven surveys for three waves. And we also collected a lot of other data, official data from the police, from the city, et cetera, about those streets, and about 300 of the streets were hot spots of different types. Violent crime hot spots, drug crime hot spots, combined hot spots, and the rest were cool and cold spots. Places with either no crime at all, pretty much, or relatively low levels of crime.
And what I did in this study recently was, I looked to see what affected whether there was crime over time. By that I mean, I looked to see whether during the period of study, the crime would increase or decrease and what seemed to cause it.
Now some of the things that caused that are things that relate to just simple opportunities, if there are more people there, there are more businesses in the streets. These are elements that set up a situation where there are more opportunities for crime, more people around, more people with money, more people shopping, and things of this sort.
But in that study, we created a measure from our interviews with citizens for each street, what we call collective efficacy. Now collective efficacy is basically whether people trust their neighbors, and are willing to intervene in problems. It was developed by a sociologist at Harvard named Robert J. Sampson .
But it had not been applied to the micro-geographic level, to the hot spots in the way we were doing it. And what we found was collective efficacy was a very strong predictor of crime in the future. And what that means is, that the way people interact, their willingness to do something about problems, that has an effect on crime. It was a very strong effect. And that’s very important, I just want to bring one more piece of information.
We also wanted to understand what predicts collective efficacy. And if the broken windows theory was right, which should predict collective efficacy, which is people willing to involve themselves in problems, do something, what we call informal social controls, then broken windows should affect that. But we found that it didn’t, broken windows in the street did not have an effect on collective efficacy over time, although social disorder did. There were with people hanging out in the street, making trouble in the street, noise, yelling, those kinds of things, that did have an effect. So our work does not suggest that the broken windows idea, at least at the micro-geographic level is having the impact one might have expected.
Jed: Now, a lot of people look at broken windows and remember it because crime did decrease in New York City. It was once a place you didn’t really want to go visit on your family vacation, suddenly became a place you wanted to visit. That was a big change. A lot of people say, well, it was tied to the economy, tied to... One person we interviewed said it’s tied to inflation. When inflation is low, then crime starts to drop. Other people said, well, you know, it certainly wasn’t stop-and-frisk, but it was partly the broken windows policy.
What do you think about crime dropping in New York City and everywhere else in the world during the same time?
David: The real problem is that this is all people just raising ideas because we don’t have strong data that allow us to tell what it was that caused the crime decline in New York, or even in the US more generally. The kinds of research that would have been necessary to establish that was not developed. So we just don’t know.
The culprits that seem reasonable are the economy, the improving economy, policing. There’s evidence now that certain types of policing activities reduce crime. And remember, you keep thinking about New York in terms of broken windows, but the CompStat program in New York was very geographically focused. When Bill Bratton came to New York from Boston, he’d learned a bit about crime and place if you like, and he came to New York and he wanted the CompStat program to focus on places where they’d put a map up and they’d say, "This bar has a lot of crime, or this street has a lot of crime. What are you doing about it?"
So I think that part of the reason for the crime decline in New York was probably the focus of the police and not of... New York City has a lot of police. At that time, there were 45,000 police officers, an army of police, and spreading them throughout the city doesn’t do much. But focusing them in specific places, that in fact, does, I think have... We have strong evidence, it does. But we don’t know enough to know what it is that causes the crime problem.
Just an anecdote about that. I went to New York City about 15 years ago, maybe more. And I spoke to the Commissioner, to do a study that will allow us to see whether CompStat, the program, that broken windows policing, I think, was integrated with hot spots policing but to see whether that was effective. And after I gave it a 20-minute spiel of why it was a good idea, the Commissioner turned to me and said, "David, you could only bring us bad news, but everybody already believes we are successful." Now, I always thought of that. I thought of it a lot afterwards.
What I thought was that was a terrible thing for him to say, because if we had a treatment for cancer in the hospital or the major medical center, and someone came in and said, "Well, we ought to check it this way to make sure it really works." And the police and the head of the hospital will say, "No, no, we have... You guys will bring us bad news," you’d say, "Well, that’s not very ethical." Something to think about.
Jed: That’s an interesting story. I think what is a struggle for a lot of normal people who are not criminologists is that the word broken windows is very memorable. And the other name of the program, is it, Comstock, did you say?
Jed: How do you spell that? Stat?
David: CompStat, C-O-M-P-S-T-A-T. No one really knows what it means. It may mean computer statistics.
Jed: Okay, Compstat. See, that’s the problem, nobody remembers that. But just people remember that the broken windows program in New York City sent police officers, when there was even the slightest trouble, they sent a whole bunch of police officers to that block. And then that’s what led to the crime decrease. And what you’re saying is, yes, actually, that was what lowered crime levels in New York City. But it wasn’t the actual broken windows part of that equation, which was to give fines to business owners when they had a broken window or isn’t that the actual broken windows part of the whole Compstat?
David: Look, there’s... This is difficult to know because some of these problems are not evaluated well. As I told you, the evaluations of generalized broken windows policing programs do not show strong impact. By the way, there’s a difference between crime and incivility. The subway program that was developed... The broken windows subway program, and if I remember correctly, was developed and stopped the graffiti in the subway, didn’t have much effect on crime. But all of us felt much safer in any event, right? When we didn’t see as much graffiti.
Look, I think it goes something like this, there is a fallacy to the broken windows idea, especially when people interpret that as zero tolerance. In other words, zero tolerance, when you don’t tolerate anything, because when the police come to some place, one thing we want them to do is stop crime. But the other thing that we want them to do is do it in a way that is appropriate in a democratic society, and at least, to the least possible negative impact on citizens.
So I suspect that if you have a program where you’re bringing a lot of police to a street, and those police are treating people with respect and decency, and you’re not just cracking down, so to speak, I used that term before, but I’m thinking I didn’t mean it maybe the way some people do. But they’re operating in a way that seeks to promote relationship with police and the public, I think it’ll have the same crime control without the same negative outcomes. But police, from my work, and from Larry’s work and other people’s work, have drawn the lesson that if we send police to a place we can lower crime. But an important part of that is, what should the police be doing in the first place to lower crime? I think that there needs to be a lot more thinking about that lately in police departments, especially given the public concerns about police behavior.
Jed: Yeah. And one thing that Professor Sherman said, was that if you spend one minute checking the street app and then head on out, it doesn’t have as much of a positive impact or maybe none. But if you spend 15 minutes, suddenly now, that does lower crime in that area. And that’s obviously work that you’ve done as well.
Can you tell us a little bit important about more how time as well as civility can help improve the situation?
David: Yes, civility may not improve the situation but it improves the relationship between the police and the public, which is as important in my view, in crime control. We want our police to control crime, that’s their purpose, and one of their key purposes, but we want them to do it in a way that’s appropriate in a democratic society.
The issue of the time, I also ran an experiment in Sacramento, where we used a 20-minute time period and we had a strong deterrent value. It’s clear that police can’t just drive through, that doesn’t create much deterrence, right? The police have to stay there, and... For some period of time. There hasn’t been enough research, really, I think to know exactly how long. There’s something called, the Koper Curve developed by Chris Koper, and Larry, in my experiment, and he suggested 20 minutes would be an optimal time. Studies that have used 20 minutes have done pretty well. But a lot more research, I think, needs to be developed.
There’s been a good amount of research on policing in recent years, but not the kind of attention it needs to be paid. To get the kind of bang for your buck, you get, let’s say, out of medical research. In medical research is over $40 billion of funding a year, in crime research it’s probably about $100 million to $150 million. So we need a lot more studies to be able to define those sorts of issues.
Well, let me just say something about this issue going beyond policing for a minute. In my work lately, I’ve become very interested in what else can we do besides policing, well, one issue I think is very important, and I have two randomized experiments I’m running now on this, that is, can we bring police to hot spots, have them deal with those hot spots in a way to reduce crime, but also have them behave towards the public in ways that increases the legitimacy of the police, or at least doesn’t lead to lower levels of legitimacy? I don’t have any answers to your... That question yet. [chuckle] Those experiments are ongoing.
But I think that’s a very, very important issue at the moment. How do we bring people to these places? How do we have them do the things that have to be done to reduce crime, but how do we have them do it in a way that will enhance their legitimacy with the public and will not lead to public outcries like we see today?
The second issue is I’ve been thinking a bit about, what can we do that would not involve policing... Are the police the only people that should be doing something about the crime problem? And that’s led me in this basic research study to look at this problem of collective efficacy. And the impact we’re seeing for collective efficacy. Remember, it means that the extent to which people trust each other, work together, and are willing to intervene in problems on their street. This is really the issue for me and something I’m trying to develop now of whether we can bring people, not the police necessarily, to go to streets and help citizens develop a greater degree of collective efficacy, help them to work together better, help them to know what city agencies they can go to, to solve some of their problems.
"I think it's very important as people start thinking about, "The police are not the only agency that should be doing something about crime, other agencies should as well.""” – Dr. David Weisburd
I think it’s very important as people start thinking about, "The police are not the only agency that should be doing something about crime, other agencies should as well." So I think it’s a very important idea. And I should note that if they do this, the citizens will have the collective efficacy. What does that mean? It means they’ll be at exercise controls, it also means that they’ll invite others. And when citizens invite others, like the police, the police have more legitimacy, when you decide to go to a street on your own. Well, you go there and tell the citizens why you’re there and you get their legitimacy, if you like. But when the police invite you in as if there was greater collective efficacy in the streets, you get a better situation.
"The community brings the police and they work better with the police because they've brought them…"” – Dr. David Weisburd
And by the way, in many well-organized communities, that’s what happens right now. The community brings the police and they work better with the police because they’ve brought them... It’s been a reactive element that they brought. So, yeah.
Jed: This is all very fascinating. Thank you so much for taking time today, Professor Weisburd, to talk about what’s going on in the police force and the research that you’ve done over the years. It’s definitely an important time. And I think there’s a lot of hope for changes that are coming on the horizon. So thank you so much for talking to us.
David: Thank you, Jed. I think there’s always hope... There always has to be hope for the future.
Stay informed! Get the latest Academic Influence news, information, and rankings with our upcoming newsletter.