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Using Crackdowns to Address Specific Problems

This section briefly summarizes the effects research has shown crackdowns to have on specific crime and disorder problems. Obviously, police have used crackdowns against other problems, as well, but those cited here are the most prominent in the research literature.

You should use this information cautiously. To properly develop responses for specific crime and disorder problems, you should first carefully analyze your jurisdiction's problem. Responses other than just crackdowns are often recommended. You should consult the guide covering the specific problem you are trying to address.

Serious Crime Problems


Police have commonly used crackdowns to try to control robbery problems. Several studies have concluded that in jurisdictions where police aggressively enforce the law, the robbery rates are lower. 34 Aggressive field interrogations35 and traffic enforcement36 are among the specific crackdown tactics reported to have contributed to reductions in robbery rates. Large increases in police patrol in a subway system also appear to have been effective in reducing robbery. 37 A broader problem-oriented approach showed considerable success in reducing prostitution-related robberies.38 Drug crackdowns can help reduce robbery where users rob to finance their purchases.39, †

† See the problem-specific guides on Robbery at Automated Teller Machines and Crime Against Tourists for further information on addressing specific types of robbery.


Crackdowns designed to reduce burglary are typically of two types: those that focus on known burglars, and those that focus on other behavior thought to be connected to burglary (e.g., drug dealing, traffic violations, suspicious activity).

Directly focusing on known burglars has proved successful in at least one carefully planned initiative in the United Kingdom.40 There, police sought to identify all known and active burglars in a target area and to take them out of circulation, mainly through arrest. Police and researchers believed that an area's burglary rate is directly proportional to the number of burglars operating in that area—that is, the supply of burglars drives burglary as much as the demand for stolen goods does. When they succeeded in taking the majority of burglars out of circulation, the burglary rate dropped significantly.†, ††

† Measures taken to better protect potential burglary victims and their property also contributed to this project's success.

†† For further information about establishing repeat offender programs, see Spelman (1990).

Crackdowns that focus on behavior that might be connected to burglary can help reduce burglary rates along with other crime rates. Intensive field interview initiatives have been shown to help reduce burglary,41 as have aggressive patrol,42 traffic enforcement,43 drunken-driving enforcement,44 and street-level drug enforcement.45 Simply adding more patrol officers to an area does not appear to reduce burglary,46 although one study did conclude that extra slow-moving patrols did reduce nighttime commercial burglaries (but not daytime residential burglaries), albeit at a prohibitively high cost.47, †††

††† See the problem-specific guides on Burglary of Single-Family Houses and Burglary of Retail Establishments.

Gun-Related Crime

Several well-evaluated studies have shown that crackdowns targeting gun offenses can reduce gun-related crime. In a gun crackdown in Indianapolis , police used two different tactics—one was to make a lot of short traffic stops of limited intrusiveness, and another was to target known offenders in high-crime areas and make longer stops with more aggressive follow-up investigation. The tactic targeting known offenders with more aggressive investigation proved more effective.48 Intensive field interrogations with an emphasis on seizing guns significantly reduced crime in a Kansas City, Missouri, initiative.49 In Pittsburgh , extra patrols that focused on seizing illegally carried guns significantly reduced citizen calls about gunshots and gunshot injuries.50 In both Indianapolis and Kansas City , there was reason to believe that targeting high-risk known offenders or high-crime areas for gun enforcement produced better results than the less focused efforts.†

† For further information on reducing gun-related crime, see Problem-Specific Guide No. 23, Gun Violence Among Serious Young Offenders.

Gang-Related Crime

Truancy and curfew crackdowns have been shown to reduce gang-related violence,51 and there are some reports of successful efforts to control gang-related crime through intensive enforcement, prosecution, incarceration, and probation supervision of gang members.52 But for the most part, crackdowns targeting gang members have not been evaluated well enough to know what effect they are likely to have. A notable successful initiative against gang-related crime was Boston's Operation Ceasefire, in which a crackdown on violent youth gangs, combined with a variety of other responses, significantly reduced youth homicides.53, †† One possible unintended consequence of gang crackdowns is that they might increase gang members' solidarity and commitment to their gangs and lifestyle: by targeting gangs, police can inadvertently give them some of the recognition and status they seek.54

†† This initiative was not a conventional crackdown in that it had many elements to it and was highly focused on known offenders, but clear threats of enhanced enforcement were communicated to target offenders, and in some cases carried out.

Traffic Problems

Traffic Crashes

Traffic enforcement crackdowns have had mixed results in reducing traffic crashes. Several studies have failed to show that aggressive enforcement had any significant impact on the number of crashes.55 Concluded the authors of one study: "[W]ide variations in the overall levels of enforcement have no immediate measurable impact on the frequency or severity of traffic accidents, even when these interventions are highly publicized."56 One of the earliest crackdown studies was on a 1955 crackdown on speeding in Connecticut ; more speed enforcement and stiffer sentences reduced the number of speeders.57 Crackdowns on seat belt violations might increase the number of drivers who wear them and thereby reduce crash-related injuries.58

Drunken Driving

Police checkpoints can be effective in reducing drunken driving and alcohol-related crashes. 59 (However, the effect of drunken-driving crackdowns on crashes is typically short-lived.60) They should be clearly focused, intensive, and well-publicized.61 Drunken-driving crackdowns have the advantage over other crackdowns in that they target potential offenders who are likely to pay attention to media publicity about the crackdowns.62

Drug Problems

Most studies and practice have demonstrated that crackdowns can disrupt local drug markets, but for the most part, only in the short term.63 Drug crackdowns are specifically intended to

  • Reduce the visibility of drug deals
  • Reduce the amount of drugs used
  • Reduce the number of drug users
  • Reduce the number of drug-related street crimes (especially crimes committed to get cash for drugs)
  • Improve the quality of life in the target area
  • Improve citizens' attitudes about police64

Drug crackdowns raise the nonfinancial costs of dealing and buying: increasing the time it takes dealers and buyers to find one another and make a deal, increasing the risks of getting arrested, and increasing the risks of having drugs confiscated.65 Dealers become less willing to sell to strangers, thus changing an open drug market into a closed one; this can reduce some of the disorder associated with open drug markets.†

† See Problem-Specific Guides No. 4, Drug Dealing in Privately Owned Apartment Complexes and No. 31, Drug Dealing in Open-Air Markets, for a discussion of the different challenges presented by open and closed drug markets.

However, additional responses, particularly those that emphasize better management of places where drug dealing occurs, are typically required to achieve more lasting effects. Providing adequate treatment services and monitoring offenders after conviction to ensure their sobriety are particularly important to maximize the benefits of drug crackdowns.66 Most drug crackdowns require some period of police maintenance to ensure the market does not reemerge after the crackdown ends.67

A number of local factors affect the likelihood that a specific drug crackdown tactic will be effective against a particular market. Consequently, it is important that you develop a solid understanding of the market's dynamics before choosing your tactics. Among the factors you should consider are the characteristics of the drug sellers, the drug users, and the drug market (including the physical environment); and community attitudes toward the police and drug dealing.68

Drug crackdowns can displace at least some of the market to other locations (or from outdoors to indoors), or cause some buyers to move to new drug markets altogether. You should be alert to any spatial displacement and take steps to ensure it does not create a worse problem in a new location. If a drug market is in an area that is relatively hard to enter and exit (due to natural geography, street design,† gang turfs, etc.), then spatial displacement is less likely to occur after a drug crackdown. Police are more likely to remain in the crackdown area, and offenders have more difficulty evading them in a confined area.69

† See Response Guide No. 2, Closing Streets and Alleys for further information about the effects of street design on crime and disorder.

Motivated drug buyers and sellers can adapt to police crackdowns—for example, by finding alternative ways to contact one another and negotiate a deal (e.g., via cellular telephones, beepers, steerers).70 Compared with newer users, more experienced and seriously addicted users are probably less likely to be deterred by drug crackdowns, and more likely to adapt to them. Dealers are less likely to carry drugs on them when they are aware of crackdowns, and more likely to stash the drugs elsewhere. Of course, drug stashes are vulnerable to theft and police confiscation.

Drug crackdowns can also have some negative consequences. Heroin users made nervous by crackdowns might rush intravenous drug use; use unclean needles; use the drug in remote places where they might not be found if they overdose; hide the drug in body cavities, increasing the risk of accidental overdose or infection; and more carelessly discard used syringes.71 When buyers and sellers become more wary of one another due to a crackdown, the risk of violence can increase. If buyers remain highly motivated to get drugs in spite of a crackdown, and the crackdown causes drug prices to rise, buyers might commit more crime to finance their habit.72 (However, street-level drug enforcement typically reduces drug availability rather than raises prices.73) Each of these possible consequences poses a challenge for police.

Street Prostitution Problems

Crackdowns, together with other responses designed to help street prostitutes quit their trade and to alter the environmental conditions in which prostitution flourishes, have been demonstrated to be effective in reducing prostitution and related crime.74, To be fair and effective, crackdowns should target both prostitutes and their clients.

† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 2, Street Prostitution for more information about effective measures to address street prostitution.

Arrests alone are ineffective in addressing street prostitution.75 Merely processing offenders through the criminal justice system, often with modest fines and short jail terms, does little to reduce the problem, and can even make it worse by putting prostitutes under further financial pressure, which many can alleviate only through more prostitution. Follow-up education, monitoring, drug treatment, counseling, and other measures to integrate prostitutes into a prostitution-free lifestyle are essential. Some prostitutes can be compelled to quit altogether, while others may be forced to work indoors, where they are less susceptible to arrest, but also less of a nuisance. Moving prostitution indoors is a form of displacement, but it is generally preferable to the problems street prostitution causes. Prostitutes, like drug dealers, sometimes adapt to crackdowns by devising new ways to negotiate transactions (e.g., via beepers and cellular telephones).

The following passage from the problem-specific guide on Street Prostitution directly relates to prostitution crackdowns:

In addition to routinely enforcing prostitution laws, the police often conduct intensive arrest campaigns against prostitutes, clients, or both. These campaigns significantly increase the risks of arrest, at least temporarily, bringing large numbers of prostitutes and clients into the formal justice system. When combined with media coverage, the campaigns are intended to deter those arrested from offending again, and to deter potential clients. The campaigns' deterrent value wears off after time, however. In high-volume arrest campaigns, the chances that police will arrest innocent people increase, unless they take special precautions. Without some follow-up court intervention or measures to change the environment, intensive enforcement campaigns only temporarily interrupt street prostitution, or move it elsewhere; they do not shut down a street prostitution market entirely.76

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