Is Hot Spots Policing Effective? | Interview with Dr. David Weisburd

Is Hot Spots Policing Effective? | Interview with Dr. David Weisburd

We met with Dr. David Weisburd to discuss the Minneapolis Hot Spot Experiment, the day-to-day life of a criminologist, and much more. Enjoy!

Criminologist and professor, Dr. David Weisburd, talks with student Karina Macosko, about how he got into the field of criminology. He discusses the development of the Minneapolis Hot Spot Experiment along with Dr. Lawrence Sherman. This tactic, widely used today, demonstrated the effectiveness of hot spots policing and ways in which the police could have a significant effect on crime, a radical idea at the time. Dr. Weisburd shares what his day-to-day life looks like as a criminologist, which may range from discussing the legalization of cannabis to field experiments. He also reminds students to follow their hearts in whatever field they choose.

Your generation, you think the police are effective, but many people think they need to change the way they behaved to be more oriented towards the community, the rights of the community and things of this sort, but at that time, the assumption was the police couldn't prevent crime.” – Dr. David Weisburd

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Karina Macosko’s Interview with Criminologist Dr. David Weisburd

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:24.2The field of Criminology

Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from, and I’m here with Professor Weisburd, and we just wanna know…

…how did you get started in your field and what influenced you to go into it?

David Weisburd: I think everyone probably has a story that’s different than one would expect in a way. I was getting my PhD in Sociology at Yale, and there were a group of people there who were interested in questions relating to crime, but I wasn’t necessarily so much interested in criminology per se. And then right before I finished my PhD, I got a job offer. I had to go get some work before I go in the job market, so to speak, and from the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City, and they told me that they’d have me run an evaluation of a new community policing program, and my job was to walk the streets with cops for four days a week. There were 10 officers involved in this program, and I would be walking with them. Each of them was assigned like a 20 square block area, which they called the bad neighborhood.

And I thought that was great actually, but some of my colleagues, who are older colleagues, had thought that it might not be such a good idea to leave the ivory tower of Yale and go off into the streets with police and the Vera Institute of Justice, but my gut told me, this would be fun and interesting, and in truth, that time walking the streets with police officers in New York City in the 72nd precinct in Brooklyn, gave me this tremendous interest, if you like, both in policing and in crime more generally. In other words, making the scene made it so much more interesting.

Karina: Wow, and going into college, did you know that you wanted to study crime, or at what point did you kind of realize that this is what you wanted to study?

David: Well, I didn’t. Maybe there’s some teenagers who know exactly what they’re gonna do, but I suspect if you think you know what you’re gonna do, you might change your mind afterwards, and I think that’s a good idea anyway.

Karina: Right, yeah.

David: But when I went to college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. And then I chose sociology because it seemed to be... It was a time of social protest and a lot of things were going on, and I thought that sociology would give me some insight into that, and in fact, I really enjoyed the classes, and it was at Brandeis University, it was a lot of fun, but I still, even towards the end of my time at Brandeis, I wasn’t interested in crime per se. I was interested more generally in social control, and how people are controlled. Why do people behave one way or another? But criminology was to come later, and as I said, the real march into criminology comes when I went to the Vera Institute of Justice.

Karina: Wow! And we just interviewed Professor Sherman, who I’m sure you know, and he focuses on a lot of experimental studies with cops.

Is this kind of what you do, or do you do something else?

David: Well, I worked with Larry very early in my career.

Karina: Oh, really?

David: He’d gone to Rutgers. And I was on a committee with two other senior faculty members and they never came to the meetings, so I became the person who chose the visiting professor coming to the department, and Larry and I spoke on the phone, and when I was at the Vera Institute on the study walking the streets with cops, what I found when I was doing it was, they were given these "bad neighborhoods," 20 square blocks, and we spent all our time on one or two blocks.

And I said to myself, "Well, that’s very different than criminologists ordinarily think about crime." Crime was not across a bad neighborhood but was really centered in specific places, and I invited Larry that year, and we came together and the two of us developed this idea of hot spots of crime and how we could get the police to focus in on those hot spots, and if they did to have bigger effects on crime.

So Larry and I sort of merged together, this was, I guess in the late 1980s. And we were sort of the young radicals who were thinking differently, both about the crime problem and also about what the police ought to be doing, and we developed an experiment called The Minneapolis hot spots Experiment, and that experiment showed that if you focused police on hot spots of crime, they could reduce crime.

…and that created a sea change, both in how police think about what they can do about crime, and also how criminologists think about the crime problem.” – Dr. David Weisburd

And that was very important, because when I was younger, everyone believed, at least scholars and many policy makers, that the police couldn’t have an effect on crime. Larry and I were the young turks, we believed they could. We ran this randomized trial in the field and found out they did, they could, and that created a sea change, both in how police think about what they can do about crime, and also how criminologists think about the crime problem.

0:05:20.4Experiments in Minneapolis

Karina: Well, and Professor Sherman also talked about this randomized experiment, but can you kind of give us a breakdown of how it works? How do you go about choosing the cops or running the experiment?

…we weren't gonna be interested in people. We were gonna be interested in places.” – Dr. David Weisburd

David: So in this case, our change was, we weren’t gonna be interested in people. We were gonna be interested in places. So we spent... This is actually something I did at Rutgers at the time. We spent a very long time, month after month after month, we got data from the City of Minneapolis at the address level, and we pulled those, all that data together, to identify where the hot spots were.

Now, later research I’ve done shows that about 5% of the streets produce about 25% of the crime, 5% of the streets produce 50% of the crime, but this is what we started observing in this study as we were setting it up. So we mapped all the crime in the city, we sent some graduate students from Rutgers out to Minneapolis to see, "Well, what does that mean that if there’s this street? Is it, should be a street or two streets?" And what they found was, for the most part, the crime tended to be on one street. There was one hot spot street here, one hot spot street there, etcetera. So once we had defined a few hundred of these hot spot streets, we then chose a number of them that would receive the experimental intervention.

Now, what’s a randomized experiment? We chose 110 hot spots of crime about a street length, a block, from interception to intersection, and we randomly allocated 55 to a treatment group, and 55 to a control group. And the treatment group got two to three times as much police patrol as the control group. By the way, we didn’t leave hot spots of crime without police attention, the control group got the attention they’d normally get. But the treatment group got extra attention ’cause whenever the cops were free in Minneapolis they’d go to these places. They didn’t like it, by the way, they complained about it.

Karina: I’m sure.

David: But they would go there, and then we saw that there was a significant, I think about a 20% drop in crime at the treatment hot spots. And that was a really important study for two reasons; one, because it was done very well, a randomized experiment like in medicine. So if the treatment group gets better, the only reason they could get better is because of treatment, there’s no difference they were just randomly chosen, right?

Karina: Right.

David: And the second reason was, because it showed a significant deterrent effect, and that helped change the attitude researchers and policy makers and police at the time, that the police couldn’t be effective in controlling crime. As hard as it is to believe today in your generation, you think the police are effective, but many people think they need to change the way they behave to be more oriented towards the community, and rights of the community and things of this sort.

But at that time, the assumption was, the police couldn’t prevent crime. And this study was very important in that regard, and Larry went on to do some other studies in this regard, and so did I. And now there about, I think 70 some odd studies that show that hot spots policing is effective, indeed that was an inclusion of two National Academy of Sciences panels on these issues.

Karina: Interesting, and after you ran this study, how do you go about finding these different hot spots in other areas? Do you have to run an experiment in each city or how do you map it out?

David: No, the experiment was a design to show that something worked, but once you know it works, it’s a treatment and people can apply that treatment. So the departments do, in most larger police departments in the country do some form of this, is they have crime analysts identify streets that have a lot of crime. And most of the streets in the city have little or no crime, in the majority. And very few streets in the city have a lot of crimes.

So you can identify the streets that have a lot of crime and you can decide what to do about them, whether it’s extra patrol, or some type of special unit to try to solve the problems there. But of course, I should note that one experiment is not enough. You need multiple experiments, and that’s why the 70 studies that have been done are so important.

We began with this idea, Larry Sherman and I, a number of years ago, but I think now it’s come to be an accepted idea in the world of these strategies, that if you’re focusing on these places, you can reduce crime. And that’s not surprising, is it? Because if crime is very focused in a relatively small number of places, shouldn’t you bring the police resources to those places? I mean, it’s a logic model that makes good sense.


Karina: Right. And so now, what do you study? What does your day-to-day life look like?

David: Oh my God, that’s a challenging question. I think the nice part about being an academic is, that my day-to-day life changes the all time, which means that life stays interesting.

But the work I’m doing now, I’ve continued doing some similar types of work with policing. Like Larry Sherman, the randomized studies, and Lorraine Green Mazerolle who’s also on this list, and was a student of mine, worked on the next major study of hot spots called The Jersey City hot spots experiment, or drug hot spots experiment.

But my day, my week goes where I’ll spend a few hours in a week on a government commission, in Israel for example, I’m on the government commission to assess whether the cannabis should be legalized. I’ll spend a few hours or more, a week of working with other people on experiments we have going on in the field, not an easy time to have experiments in the field.

Karina: Right.

Whatever you do, follow your heart, because if you like what you're doing, it's gonna be exciting and fun.” – Dr. David Weisburd

David: I spend a lot of my time sitting and writing publications. I like writing, I think it’s a lot of fun. I gave a commencement address at the University of Queensland a number of years ago, and what I said to the students was, "Whatever you do, follow your heart, because if you like what you’re doing, it’s gonna be exciting and fun. Continue that way for a long time, don’t choose something that doesn’t evoke that sort of interest." And I find still, every day I’m doing things that are interesting, and I still get a great kick out of publishing good articles, and influencing public policy.

0:11:26.5Sign off

Karina: Wow! Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was really interesting hearing all you had to say, and kind of comparing it to the other people we’ve interviewed who are in a similar field, so thank you so much.

David: My pleasure, it was nice meeting you. david-weisburd-criminologist-karina.txt Displaying david-weisburd-criminologist-karina.txt.

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