Crime watch with ‘Miami Weis’

Prof. David Weisburd, a leading criminologist, believes people have decreasing confidence in the police, and are thus not reporting incidents of crime.

Weisburd 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Weisburd 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
While crime may often seem as if it is spiraling out of control, that is far from being the case, according to Prof. David Weisburd, one of the country’s leading criminologists.
The American-born Weisburd, who in June was awarded the prestigious Stockholm Prize in Criminology for his work on “hot-spots policing” explains that crime is in fact down, but cautions that this may be the result of a decline in the reporting of criminal incidents because of a lack of confidence in the police.
“I know a lot of people who don’t report because they are so disgusted with the kind of response they get,” he says.
“So a more service-oriented police may actually initially increase the crime rate.”
Weisburd is critical of many aspects of the police’s work, in particular what he describes as its failure to become an evidence- based institution adopting the findings of academic research, including his own work, but he is also at pains not to give the impression that he sees the Israel Police as some kind of backward institution.
“It’s not like we have some brutal, horrible, Middle Eastern police force,” says Weisburd. “That’s not true; we have a modern, Western, police force. There are many commanders who are well educated; there are many people who are talented, but they [the police] haven’t recognized that they can be insulated; that they don’t understand that the movement in public institutions is toward greater transparency, toward showing they are able to produce good results and not just claiming they are capable of producing good results; to providing greater service and satisfaction to the public. I think sometimes they understand some of these ideas but certainly not the evidence-based model that I think is becoming prominent in other places in the world.”
Weisburd, a professor of law and criminology at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Criminology, was awarded the $140,000 Stockholm Prize, the largest in the field, for his work showing that when police concentrate their efforts on on “crime hot spots”– high crime locations within cities – crime rates can be cut without criminal activity moving elsewhere.
“The traditional idea is that what police should do is to spread throughout the city to show a presence everywhere, but the evidence shows that the kind of patrol that spreads widely across the city landscape is not effective,” he explains.
“The question is why, and the research that I and my colleagues have conducted says that crime in the city is concentrated in very small geographic units or ‘hot spots,’ often in a street section from intersection to intersection.
“We have found tremendous streetby- street variability. In a city, you will have a street with lots and lots of crime, and right next door hardly any crime at all. Bad neighborhoods, we should get rid of those ideas. There are hot spots of crime in some neighborhoods that may be poor, but often in very bad neighborhoods it’s all concentrated in a few places. Even in good neighborhoods there are hot spots of places with relatively high crime. If that’s true, why spread your police across the city landscape? Why not concentrate police activities at the places where the concentrations lie?” Weisburd says that research shows that in most cities about 4 percent of street segments account for 50% of crime, with his work showing that “if you push down crime in a particular place, it does not just move around the corner.”
What then happens to crime and what happens to the criminals? Weisburd says that understanding the problem requires a change in thinking.
Rather than looking at crime in terms of offenders, one needs to look at it in terms of geography and that success in combating crime should be measured not in terms of the number of arrests, but in terms of the safety of places.
“MY BASIC WORK is about the concentration of crime and place,” he says. “In other words, I’m interested not only in what the police do, I’m interested in what happens to crime across geography.
If you start thinking in that direction, it changes your whole thinking about the crime problem. You think about the crime problem in terms of offenders, I start with the problem in terms of places.
So here’s the idea – there is a reason there is crime on that block. It might be, for example, that there are prostitutes, it might be that they want to be in a block with a lot of people. It’s not so easy then for those prostitutes to move their business to the next street. If you’re a drug dealer, you want a place where people can get to easily, you want a place where the people who live there won’t be the kind of people who will call the police all the time. There are certain specific aspects of places that make them appropriate for the committing of crime.
“The reason crime doesn’t just move on to the next place is that not every place offers the same opportunities for crime,” Weisburd continues. “Certain places offer greater opportunities. Now the question is, what happens to those people. One assumption that is often made and that may not be true is what I call it the Dracula model of crime – that there are people who have to commit crime; like Dracula they need blood.
“There are people like that, but most offenders are not. Offenders are often responding to situational opportunities just like the rest of us in our lives and that means that sometimes when you prevent crime in a particular place, you may prevent some people from becoming involved.”
To illustrate his point, Weisburd cites a New Jersey study that he conducted which found that about a third of prostitutes quit the profession because of intensive police intervention.
“They couldn’t take it anymore,” he says, noting that while the police cracked down intensively, they also acted intelligently by working with with NGOs that help prostitutes to get back into society. “Some of them just decided it was too dangerous, there was too much pressure. Wouldn’t it make sense to just go elsewhere? Well, going elsewhere can be kind of dangerous. As one person said, ‘I don’t know the people round here, who’s going to call the police, who’s not.’ “Not every place is good for prostitution.
If you go to a place that’s good for prostitution, there might be prostitutes there already. Those prostitutes might be unhappy with the new girls, they might kill them. So there are all kinds of pressures.”
CRIMINALS ARE just like the rest of us, says Weisburd. They don’t like to move and they don’t like the unfamiliar.
“Don’t assume that it’s so easy for criminals to move place,” he says.
“Just like it’s not easy for the rest of us to move from where we work and where we live. Does that mean they won’t do other things? We found that some of the prostitutes started using beepers and moving indoors and taking dates. But from the police perspective, from the community perspective, that means they aren’t out on the street bothering people.”
While Weisburd says that police here have “not adopted systematically the recommendations that my work would suggest,” he does note that a project was commenced recently to map crime hot spots in Tel Aviv, with findings very much mimicking those of his research in the US.
“Hot spots policing has become a common approach – and when I say hot spots, I don’t mean you put more police in a precinct or a city, I mean you focus police, you use computers and data on crime to identify the discrete places where crime is concentrated and you focus police and prevention efforts on those areas,” he says. “It has been adopted in other places, it’s becoming more common now in places like the US, in Sweden, in the UK, in Holland, but in Israel I would say that this approach has not been adopted.
“I think the reason for that is part of a broader set of issues. First of all the police have not been as much in contact with innovation in the world in terms of strategies of policing and other issues, in my view since the second intifada. I think the second intifada created a crisis for Israeli policing, a tremendous burden for Israeli policing.
It was like a punch in the face. I think in many ways they responded very effectively to the security issues. But I’m not sure we really recovered in terms of the police department’s commitment to innovations in ordinary policing.”
Where Weisburd really takes issue with the police is on evidence-based policy.
“Evidence-based policy suggests that public institutions like the police... their strategies, their approaches, the way they manage themselves, should be based as much as possible on rigorous scientific evidence. I think it would be fair to say that is not the case with the Israeli police.
“In the US presentation of evidence by public institutions is critical for funding...
There is very strong recognition that if the police are spending X dollars on a certain type of patrol, they should be able to show that kind of patrol is helping to reduce crime. The Israeli police have not internalized this model and are still operating under an older public service model which is, how should I say it, ‘The police know better, we are professionals.’” Weisburd relates how at a meeting at the Israel Democracy Institute discussing his work, a senior police officer commented, “It doesn’t matter what the research says.”
He does, however, acknowledge that things are changing. “Nothing is ever black and white,” he says. “The police have in recent years begun to recognize more the importance of data and information and also research. [Insp.-Gen.] David Cohen has invested more resources in those activities than in the past and I believe is contemplating a large combined research unit in the police.
“The police, though, are much more insulated than they ought to be in this regard. They still do not understand the critical nature of the evidence-based model – evidence is not just useful, it’s critical to decision making. We shouldn’t be having public institutions spending millions of dollars without knowing whether that expenditure is achieving what they want. We should be having them build programs based on the best scientific evidence.”