AQ Feature

Eight Steps to Reduce Crime

Two U.S. policing experts propose a new strategy for Latin America.

Twenty years ago, U.S. citizens had lost confidence in our ability to control crime and disorder on the streets of our cities. Urban crime had been rising steadily since the 1960s, and by the late 1980s, violent crime appeared to be taking off at an accelerating rate.

The lethal combination of lucrative narcotics markets driven by crack, heroin and methamphetamine, the increasing number of drug-addicted young people engaging in crime, as well as the ready availability of handguns, assault rifles and other automatic weapons caused an explosion of violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  There were about 675,000 more violent crimes in the United State in 1992 than there had been in 1983.  Criminal justice theorists were throwing up their hands.  Political leaders and even some police chiefs were saying that police departments could not be expected to have any significant effect on crime or to regain control of the situation.

Indeed, many experts who viewed demographic forces as a key factor driving crime were predicting a new generation of crime-prone youth who would push crime rates ever higher.

Yet over the past 20 years, the U.S. reversed these trends. New York City, for instance, is recording crime rates in recent years comparable to the rates of the 1960s. Murders are down from 2,245 in 1990 to 471 in 2009, and the city has just completed its 19th year of consecutive declines in the major crime categories. The crimes most frequently committed by repeat and career criminals—robbery, burglary and auto theft—are down 81 percent, 82 percent and nearly 93 percent, respectively. In the nation as a whole, the violent crime rate has fallen from 758 per 100,000 residents in 1991 to 445 in 2008, and the murder rate is down from 9.8 to 5.4 per 100,000 residents.

What Caused This Swift and Massive Reversal

Anti-crime measures, including new legislation, introduced by the Clinton Administration (1992–2000) led to heavy investment in law enforcement during the 1990s and enabled many police departments to add personnel and modernize equipment.

The 1994 crime bill also placed some controls on firearms, although not nearly enough. At the same time, the federal government and many state governments built new prisons, and the prison population more than doubled in the decade.

However, the key factor, we believe, was what local police departments did with their increased resources. The additional funds allowed them to better respond to community priorities and to more accurately target criminal activity. After years of remote and disengaged policing tactics, community policing ideas pushed police departments to reconnect with local communities, decentralize operations and work in partnership with citizens to prevent crime.

Beginning in New York in the early 1990s, many police departments and their criminal justice partners at the state and federal level made a focused, strategic and relentless attack on crime, criminals and crime patterns. Complacent law enforcement organizations were roused from relative lethargy by new systems of accountability, new operational paradigms and new technologies. A vast and largely under-utilized resource—the nation’s experienced and capable police officers—was marshaled, directed and put to work as never before.

The changes were not only dramatic, but lasting. Even now, 16 years later and with the U.S. suffering through its most severe recession of the past 75 years, crime continues to trend downward in most of our communities.

What Does This Mean for Latin America?

There are important lessons for Latin America in the recent U.S. experience, even though the region faces substantially more challenging crime problems than the U.S. faced even at its crime peak in the early 1990s. Those challenges include: the exponential growth of cities; the consequent proliferation of densely populated barrios and favelas with extremely challenging patrol environments; communities dominated by criminal gangs that violently resist police presence and police patrol; public distrust of police because of both real and perceived police corruption and brutality; a growing local narcotics trade, as well as a significant increase in the addict population, spawning turf wars among gangs similar to those in the U.S.; and a widespread criminal subculture that celebrates the gun, devalues human life and draws young men into a life of violence.

All this makes for a highly volatile mix that will be very difficult to counter.

Nevertheless, we believe that substantial reforms in police departments, in police strategies and in criminal justice practice can have a substantial impact on crime in Latin America, just as they did in the United States.

Crime grows unchecked in Latin America for the same reason it grew in the United States. The institutional response from the police and the criminal justice system has been wholly inadequate and uncoordinated.

Like the U.S. 20 years ago, many Latin American criminal justice systems are not organized, focused and motivated to meet the new challenges. Fundamental institutional changes are essential, both within police departments and in the wider criminal justice system, before widespread and sustainable progress can be made. Based on our experience with U.S. police departments and consulting with police agencies in Latin America, what follows are some general reforms that can mark the path toward those fundamental changes. It is not meant to be an exhaustive summary, but it should provide a working blueprint for any serious police reform effort.

1 - Establish Manageable Enforcing Units

In many Latin American cities, the basic unit of police action and enforcement is the district (the comisaría in the Spanish-speaking nations or the military police company and the civil police delegacía in Brazil). But this often covers too large an area and too large a population.

It is not unusual for a comisaría to be policing a population of 300,000 people or more. This is simply too large a community to be manageable. Modern policing models call for the local police commander to connect strongly with the community and to develop an intimate knowledge of crime and crime patterns. Ideally, police districts should have a population of 150,000 or fewer. New York City, for example, with a population of 8 million, is divided into 78 geographical areas called precincts, with the average precinct population under 100,000.

Merely establishing substations or outposts, without key commanders present, does not address the issue of focused local coverage. What is needed is a command structure at a local level that exerts authority, analyzes problems and develops strategies to solve them. Decentralizing to this degree is unquestionably costly, both in infrastructure and personnel; but failing to decentralize to a manageable level will exact a far heavier cost.

One of the chief benefits of decentralization is greatly improved community relations, as community members begin to recognize that the police are helping, not hurting, their neighborhoods. That would set in motion a virtuous cycle in which community members provide more information to the police, and the police, acting on this intelligence, become even more effective at delivering service. This happened in both New York and Los Angeles as decentralizing policing reforms took effect. It can happen in Latin American cities as well.

2 - Assign Quality Managers and Grant Them Genuine Authority

Another essential key to turning around a police department is empowering middle managers who run the local enforcement units. It is critical to identify, train and motivate these middle managers, who are the primary connections to the community—and the primary crime analysts and strategists. In a large city, most crime problems are local. They are not going to be solved from headquarters or by special units. Yet, the pattern in many Latin American police departments is for the more experienced commanders to avoid comisaría commands, especially in the more challenging communities, in favor of headquarters and special unit assignments.

For police organizations to effectively decentralize, quality commanders must be assigned to the front lines. They should be granted genuine authority to operate without constant direction from higher-ups. In our experience, many Latin American police departments have such strong top-down traditions that otherwise capable and intelligent commanders are unaccustomed to taking initiative and innovating on their own. That must change. Top-quality commanders are needed at the local level; they should be held accountable for the delivery of police service and rewarded by advancement in rank for outstanding performance. Crime patterns change swiftly, and criminals adapt to new conditions. Police commanders must learn to be flexible, too.

3 - Reform Crime Reporting and Crime Analysis

The lack of adequate crime data has left many Latin American police managers operating at a significant disadvantage. Latin American crime reporting has improved in some countries over the past decade, but it still has a long way to go.

Typically, police departments report one quarter or less of the crime reported by victimization surveys. That means that local police commanders, as well as the command staff, may be unaware of the majority of the crime committed in their jurisdictions. Their ability to respond to these crimes is therefore severely limited.

The reasons for poor crime reporting are various, but standardization and reform of the reporting system can fix most of the problems. The reforms would include authorizing police officers to take crime reports in the field so that crime victims can immediately register with the police; not referring victims who wish to report a crime to distant locations like detective headquarters or the prosecutor’s office (most of them will not take the trouble); training police officers in using standardized forms with multiple-choice fields that make it easier to record the specific facts of the crime; and entering crime reports into searchable electronic databases where crime data can be sorted and analyzed. These computerized crime analysis systems can be easily adapted to any jurisdiction, cheaply and easily.

Finally, such reports should be processed daily at the local precinct to ensure that precinct chiefs and local detective bosses have up-to-date information by the next morning. All this can be achieved by designing and adhering to an orderly crime reporting system. The key is following the system with precision, day in and day out.

4 - Develop Effective Local Crime Investigations

Latin American crime investigations are often centralized at the citywide, state or national level, with only a token contingent of investigators working local cases. Decentralizing investigative authority and power is as important as decentralizing patrols.

Investigators assigned to the local level can learn local geography, understand local crime patterns, familiarize themselves with local criminals and their methods and, most important, develop reliable sources of information in the community, which remains the primary way in which most crimes are solved.

In addition, Latin American investigators should raise their sights from merely solving individual cases to the broader crime patterns and issues affecting a local community.

The local investigators should be working closely with the local precinct chief to identify and anticipate patterns and trends and to suppress these patterns before they rage out of control. This is doubly true of drug enforcement investigations where efforts spent on interdicting large-scale traffickers do very little to improve conditions in local communities. While large-scale interdiction efforts will always be necessary, Latin American police departments should be shifting significant drug enforcement resources to disrupting the local drug markets, which have far more impact on the public than the big traffickers.

5 - Establish Effective Oversight Systems

A decentralized police department must still be centrally controlled to guard against corruption, incompetence and indifference. The simplest oversight is provided by record-keeping systems that track where officers and supervisors are assigned, what kind of activities they are engaged in, calls for service and other indicators. In many Latin American police departments, these systems need significant improvement in both design and execution.

A second layer of oversight can be provided by inspection or quality control units, which would visit precincts periodically to ensure that procedures are followed in such areas as maintaining roll calls and logs, crime reporting and investigative case management.

A third and critical layer of oversight is provided by internal affairs or corruption investigation units. These units must be well-staffed and well-equipped, capable of conducting lengthy investigations, managing undercover informants, executing “sting” operations, and soliciting and investigating confidential corruption complaints from the public, government officials and other officers.

Last, overall operational oversight can be established by a relatively new innovation, known in the U.S. as the CompStat process. CompStat is a data-driven command accountability system developed in New York City in the mid-1990s that brings local commanders to headquarters for intensive strategy sessions designed to sharpen strategic focus and more effectively manage crime. Managers at every level in the police organization are expected to understand emerging crime patterns and to answer probing questions about their approach to solving the crime, community and organizational problems in their jurisdictions. CompStat has been widely adopted in the U.S. and was a major factor in redirecting police departments and driving down crime in the past 15 years.

As police managers who were present at the invention of CompStat at the NYPD, however, we would caution that it is not a panacea. By itself, it will do very little to control crime. But if it is linked to the reforms mentioned above, it can be a decisive factor.

6 - Build A Career Path For Rank-and-File Officers

In their visits to Latin America, U.S. police officials are struck immediately by the class system that dominates many police organizations south of our border. Following a military model, many Latin American police agencies typically train a class of agents who generally can rise no higher than the rank of sergeant and a class of officers who begin their service as lieutenants and who populate the upper ranks.

In the United States, almost all police managers rise from the lowest ranks, continuing their training and education with each successive promotion. (One of the authors, William Bratton, began his career as a 23-year-old police officer with a high-school education, walking a beat in Boston, and rose to direct police departments in the nation’s two largest cities. As he rose in rank, he attended college and other schools, like the FBI Academy, at public expense.)

This system has two primary advantages: first, high-ranking officers and investigators are familiar with the realities of street policing, having been street officers themselves, and second, even low-ranking individuals can see a path to promotion, possibly even to the highest ranks. While it is important to raise police salaries, we think it is just as important to provide upward mobility. Paying police poorly damages them today; denying them a career path forecloses their future.

To serve in the upper ranks, many Latin American police agents may need remedial help in reading, writing and calculation skills, and police departments should provide that assistance. Departments should want police agents to have these skills in any case to function effectively in the lower ranks. Effective police institutions are established on the basis of equality and mobility, just like the wider democratic social order. Police who have a stake in their department and a stake in the future are far less likely to engage in corruption and misconduct that might jeopardize that stake.

7 - Develop Explicit Use-Of-Force Policies To Control Police Violence

To control excessive use of force, Latin American police departments must seize the initiative. In the past 40 years, U.S. police departments have made enormous strides in controlling the use of force by police officers. The main reason for this success was the development of explicit use-of-force polices in the 1970s and 1980s. Before then, U.S. police officers were largely on their own in determining what they could and could not do with their weapons, and that is still the case in some Latin American countries.

If a police department wants its officers to follow best practices and exercise restraint, it is imperative that the agency itself define its expectations in clear and simple terms. U.S. police departments now train officers in gradations of escalating force to be applied in a developing situation, with deadly force used only to protect the lives of police officers or other people.

Fifty years ago, a U.S. police officer might have shot a fleeing suspect in the back; today that almost never happens, and police use of deadly force is a tiny fraction of what it once was. The path to reducing such abuses begins with use-of-force training and the establishment of a clear policy.

8 - Reform Criminal Justice Systems

As police, practitioners and consultants, we see many opportunities for reform in Latin American criminal justice practice, just as we can see the need for change in the criminal justice systems of many U.S. states. We recognize, however, that not every change sought by police professionals is acceptable to the legal establishment. Needed reforms should be negotiated across the wide gulf that usually separates police from lawyers and judges, and perhaps the gulf could be somewhat narrowed in the process. We see a need for reform in four basic areas:

•    Something must be done to speed the glacial pace of criminal prosecutions, which can run into years in many Latin American countries. In the U.S., we are learning that for most criminals, and especially young ones, it is not the severity of punishment that serves as a deterrent, but the sureness and swiftness with which that punishment is administered. Cases that drag on forever have little deterrent effect.

•    Prosecutors and police investigators must work more closely together to build cases that can go to court. For prosecutors simply to reject cases as inadequate, as many do now, does not serve the public well. If investigative casework is consistently failing to meet the requirements of prosecution, then prosecutors should be instructing police investigators and managers on how to build solid cases that will lead to the successful prosecution and incarceration of criminals.

•    Legislators should ease the constraints that have been placed on gathering and maintaining criminal records in many Latin American countries. We recognize that many Latin American laws and constitutions have been written in the context of past abuses of government power, but there are better ways to prevent these abuses than to disable criminal recordkeeping. With their vast cities, Latin American countries face the increasing problem of crime committed by strangers who cannot be readily identified. Police can penetrate the anonymity of stranger crime with criminal history files, photo files, fingerprint files and DNA samples, and the technological advances in these fields have made these kind of files all the more useful and efficient. The building of national criminal databases should not be hampered by unrealistic constraints placed on the gathering and maintenance of this kind of data.

•    Police and criminal justice officials should do more to intervene with young, disadvantaged people in need of attention and guidance, with the prison population and with individuals released from prison. The U.S. traditionally has done a poor job in these areas, but we are beginning to improve by mentoring young people who may be at risk for criminal behavior, by working with the prisoners to build their self-respect and sense of responsibility and by closely monitoring parolees and other ex-prisoners to help them rejoin society. These should all be part of the modern criminal justice strategy.

This is a long and only partial list. But it should not be discouraging. If Latin American police agencies can accomplish these reforms and others like them, it will make an enormous difference on the streets of Latin American cities. As the Chinese proverb says, a journey of a million miles begins with a single step. The first step must be to accept that major changes are necessary in the way Latin American police departments are structured and in the way they operate.

Then it will take leadership, determination and perseverance to continue the journey.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Crime, law enforcement, criminal justice, police