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The Need to Balance Police Effectiveness and Fairness

The research is clear: Proactive law enforcement does reduce crime. Reducing racially disparate outcomes is the next challenge.

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Seemingly every week brings a new criminal-justice study. So it is perhaps understandable that the National Academy of Sciences' recent report on proactive policing has not received the attention it deserves.

The weighty report is the product of several years of work by prominent academics who reviewed the scholarly evidence on a variety of law-enforcement strategies, including hot-spots policing, problem-oriented policing, broken-windows policing and focused-deterrence policing. While each of these approaches is unique, what they have in common is an emphasis on moving police away from simply reacting after crime has occurred and toward mobilizing resources to prevent future offending.

The NAS report is written in careful, measured language that resists quotability. The closest it comes to a money quote is this: "The available scientific evidence suggests that certain proactive policing strategies are successful in reducing crime and disorder."

While this may seem modest, the underlying finding here is significant. Not long ago, crime was viewed in many quarters like the weather: a force of nature impervious to human intervention. The NAS report offers powerful confirmation that police departments around the country have discovered techniques that have significantly reduced crime. The impact of these efforts has been felt most profoundly in urban communities, most notably in New York City, where the murder rate has declined by 82 percent over the past 20 years.

But while this is an achievement well worth celebrating, it is unlikely that there will be ticker-tape parades for police any time soon. The NAS study was conducted against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter and a national reckoning with police brutality and low levels of public trust in police. The report describes the long and troubled relationship between black Americans and the police, highlighting, among other horrors, the prevalence of new forms of forced labor in the South in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery and, a century later, law enforcement's resistance to the civil rights movement.

It would be naïve to assume that biased behavior by police departments is behind us. But the NAS report suggests that in many places the current reality may be more nuanced and more challenging than simply ensuring that the police meet their constitutional obligations. At the heart of many proactive policing strategies is a focus on using data to identify individuals who are particularly likely to engage in criminal behavior and hot spots where crime is particularly likely to cluster. Unfortunately, as the NAS report acknowledges, given higher offending rates among African-Americans for crimes like homicide and robbery, "there are likely to be large racial disparities in the volume and nature of police-citizen encounters when police target high-risk people or high-risk places."

The NAS findings raise the possibility that departments implementing proactive policing may well be doing everything right -- making decisions based on data rather than bias, using evidence-based strategies rather than unproven interventions, and treating individuals on the street with courtesy rather than disrespect -- and still be producing racially disparate outcomes.

How can we get out of this box? How can we continue to reduce crime while limiting the disproportionate number of black Americans who are arrested, prosecuted and jailed? The answer cannot be to abandon policing strategies that have been shown to improve public safety. Instead, we should do three things:

First, we should encourage the police to continue to use proactive strategies, but to refine them so that they are as tailored and as surgical as possible. For example, rather than targeting whole neighborhoods for enforcement, police should isolate their activities to those blocks with a demonstrable public-safety problem.

Second, proactive policing should be paired with active community engagement and collaboration. Indeed, the success of the police should be evaluated not just by crime rates but by measures of community well-being and public satisfaction.

Finally, we must make deeper investments in community crime prevention. Youth development programs, for example, can provide young people with positive, pro-social activities and pathways to employment and higher education. Beautification projects and "placemaking" initiatives that reimagine public spaces in creative ways can transform breeding grounds for crime into community assets. And neighborhood activation efforts can bring people out of their homes to reclaim the public square from those who would engage in criminal behavior. Ultimately, effective community crime prevention is the best path not just to safer neighborhoods but to increased racial fairness.

Director of the Center for Court Innovation
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