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Investing in Fair and Effective Policing to Reduce Crime and Improve Community Safety

Research into investigative strategies, training, and other police practices can help build safer neighborhoods and improve police-community relations.

Rear view of police officer walking street during investigation.
(Brad Vest/ Getty Images)

The solemn duty of law enforcement since Sir Robert Peel founded the London Metropolitan Police Force in 1829 is to protect and serve their communities. To do so effectively, police and sheriffs must build and maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the community they serve. When police are not equipped with the necessary evidence-based tools to guide their efforts, tragedies and abuses of power can occur and legitimacy will suffer. This is what happened last month in Memphis, Tennessee, when members of the city’s Scorpion Unit” — which was ostensibly created to address an increase of violence in specific neighborhoods — killed Tyre Nichols.

As President Biden mentioned in his recent State of the Union address, society asks a lot of police. They are expected to prevent and investigate crimes, as well as be the main point of contact between the state and people who may be experiencing all forms of mental and physical distress. Policymakers and law enforcement leaders need to have the best practices and strategies for policing at hand to build legitimacy with the communities they police and restore accountability. The desire for better policing is an issue that connects academics and activists, police union leaders and politicians, Republicans and Democrats. 

And it’s a priority for Arnold Ventures. 

When we think about effective ways to reduce crime, the view was to rely on traditional law enforcement and prosecution, centered on both certainty and severity of punishment,” said Walter Katz, vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. Over the last decade or so, there has been an evolution in how to think about public safety by applying different interventions.” 

There has been an evolution in how to think about public safety by applying different interventions.
Walter Katz vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures

Figuring out how to make policing more fair and effective is an ongoing effort with plenty of challenges, which is why it requires serious investment. 

Where are the police additive to community safety and wellbeing, and where might they be causing unnecessary harm?” Katz said. Understanding that through the lens of research and evidence to inform better policy is what we’re all about.” 

Sustainable and Collaborative Problem-Solving: Place Network Investigations

Place Network Investigations (PNI) is one such strategy of interest. Conducted in partnership between the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)/University of Cincinnati Center for Police Research and Policy, the National Policing Institute, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the method provides a new alternative to traditional police responses by studying and disrupting the specific places where violent crime typically takes place in a city. 

The idea takes the principle of hot-spot policing, which at its root simply implies focusing resources and attention on areas experiencing concentrated crime, and infuses it with a different set of tactics and strategies,” said Anita Ravishankar, director of criminal justice research at Arnold Ventures. 

Much of hot-spot policing is like, Okay, a lot of crime happens on this corner. Let’s park a police car there or deploy a specialized team to conduct focused enforcement, like the one in Memphis,’” said Ravishankar. That might deter crime temporarily, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem in that location. Moreover, these tactics may not only be ineffective, they can be counterproductive if implemented in an overly aggressive manner that erodes community trust. Instead, PNI takes a problem-solving orientation, asking what features of the environment are causing the bad things to happen in a given location. The goal is to interrogate the why, to do it in partnership with a broad set of stakeholders, and have that directly inform what the police and other government actors do to solve the problem in a more sustainable way.” 

The concept was piloted in Cincinnati before being used in Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Tucson, Denver, Harris County, Texas, and other jurisdictions. Steps vary by city, but generally include identifying the micro-locations where violence is concentrated and which crimes take place there, then enlisting a working group of city employees — including police officers — to solve the location’s problems, and finally, evaluating impact. 

We block opportunities for offenders to use specific places in our most vulnerable communities,” said Tamara D. Herold, Ph.D., an associate professor in criminal justice at UNLV and the lead consultant on PNI. In that sense, we’re building community resilience. We’re bringing necessary resources into at-risk communities in a very strategic way.” 

We’re bringing necessary resources into at-risk communities in a very strategic way.
Tamara D. Herold, Ph.D. associate professor in criminal justice at University of Nevada, Las Vegas

The aim, she says, is to achieve sustainable, long-term reductions in violent crime. Getting law enforcement officers and other government employees to think about municipal challenges in a new way is a key part of the process.

The wonderful thing about the Arnold Ventures support is that we’re able to provide the training needed in these jurisdictions,” Herold said. We explain how to conduct community-involved investigations and how best to problem-solve when police identify community-specific issues.” 

For the PNI effort in Tucson, investigators were happy to see how residents in the micro-location were eager to point out community safety issues, such as broken streetlights and stairwells commonly used for drug consumption. 

If we’re going to activate space in a positive way, we need to know the community’s needs and desires,” Herold said. The end goal, she says, is community participation and partnership.”

High-Quality Training for Better Outcomes: Procedural Justice and De-escalation

Measures to improve accountability and fair policing also increase the effectiveness of law enforcement, which helps them to prevent and solve crimes and promote community safety. For instance, integrating procedural justice and de-escalation through agency policy, training, and performance evaluation can yield benefits for community members and the work of police officers.

Sgt. Sean Norton of the Cambridge, Massachusetts Police Department had an interesting interaction with a member of the public and a few fellow officers in 2019, soon after he received intensive procedural justice training as part of a study conducted by the National Policing Institute. 

We were in one of the hot spots, in a pretty active park, and somebody accosted us: Why are you guys hanging out? You’re here when we don’t need you, and then when we do, you’re nowhere to be found,’” he recalled. 

The angry citizen kept walking, but Norton’s colleague encouraged him to come back and have a chat. 

We spoke for an hour about his concerns, our concerns, his goals, our goals, and it turned out we wanted pretty much the same things for our community,” he said. 

In letting the person vent and then seeking common ground, the officers made a meaningful connection and even exchanged contact information. Norton was only a half-dozen years into his police career at the time and the experience stuck with him. The procedural justice training led to a desire to be more intentional when interacting with the public. 

Have I explained what my goals are for this situation? Am I being as respectful as possible?” he asked himself. The overarching theme is just good communication.”

That sort of training — which takes the concept of procedural justice and translates it into more actionable tools for officers — was the core of a study of police officers in three cities conducted by the National Policing Institute, George Mason University, Arizona State University, and University of Pennsylvania with joint funding support from the National Policing Institute and Arnold Ventures. 

The research team completed the study in 2022 and found that this training in procedural justice resulted in fewer arrests, less crime, and more positive interactions between police officers and the community.

In fact, researchers are increasingly finding that training can improve outcomes for law enforcement. For example, de-escalation training has been found to decrease use of force rates.

A nearly year-long study supported by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (the predecessor to Arnold Ventures) conducted by International Association of Chiefs of Police/​University of Cincinnati Center for Police Research and Policy looked at the effect of an Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT) program, a type of de-escalation training. The center found that the average monthly uses of force dropped significantly in six of eight of the city’s police divisions (from ‑16% to ‑52%).

Researchers also found that the majority of officers said they believed the training to be useful and would recommend it to other officers. 

Informed by these promising findings, Arnold Ventures is supporting further research on the efficacy of ICAT de-escalation training, along with active bystandership training to prepare officers to intervene to prevent harm and misconduct, through a statewide study in New Jersey. Active bystander training reinforces that officers should step in rather than stand aside when they see a fellow officer overreact to a situation or engage in excessive force. 

Helping Police Improve Low Clearance Rates

When a crime does occur, solving it is one of the most important — and fundamental — responsibilities for law enforcement. However, clearance rates (that is the percentage of reported crimes that result in an arrest) remain persistently low in many U.S. cities. Even as the recent rise in homicides appears to have crested in many locales, police departments are struggling to bring those responsible to justice. According to the most recent data available, less than 50% of homicide cases are closed by police. 

Given the challenge to solve cases, and the important role that the swiftness and certainty of being caught plays in deterring crime and building safer communities, Arnold Ventures partnered with the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy (CEBCP) at George Mason University to conduct a review on the current state of empirical knowledge and to identify evidence gaps. The project was led by CEBCP director, Cynthia Lum, a former police officer.

Findings from the review informed a workshop with academic experts and leaders from the Chicago and Philadelphia police departments to reflect on what research was needed. Participants identified several needs, including: improving the effectiveness of investigations through management, training, policies, and technology; developing a deeper understanding of the role of the community – such as when and why victims and witnesses are reluctant to work with the police; and an interest in developing new ways of thinking about how to solve crime and deliver justice.

We need to more precisely identify ways in which police engagement with the communities will lead to positive results, not just for investigations, but for relationships more generally,” said Lum.

We need to more precisely identify ways in which police engagement with the communities will lead to positive results.
Cynthia Lum director for the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy

As much work has been done in recent years, there is always more to do, and more to study. 

Looking ahead, we want to better understand how to measure key performance indicators in investigations as well as pinpoint challenges and opportunities for further research and policy change.” Katz said. We are drawing on lessons by hearing from a broad range of stakeholders as well as from our early research support to identify and evaluate promising innovations to improve crime solving.”

Even as the criminal justice reform movement has looked beyond traditional law enforcement for new, more holistic approaches to community safety, policing still plays an important function, but one which needs to be open to continual critical learning. In the same way that Arnold Ventures is applying rigorous research to community-based violence intervention strategies, law enforcement interventions should have similarly high standards of evidence-building in order to ensure that law enforcement builds community safety in an effective, just, and equitable manner.