POP Center Responses Focused Deterrence Page 9

PHASE 6: Assessment                      

After the initial group of high-risk offenders has been notified and some time has passed in which they have either persisted in or desisted from their offending, you should assess how well the initiative is working. Properly assessing an FDI should include both a process evaluation and an impact evaluation. A process evaluation should assess how and whether the action plan was implemented. An impact evaluation should assess the impact the initiative had on the targeted problems. This should include assessing whether it is effective, fair, and efficient.l

Determining Whether Focused Deterrence is Effective

Possible indicators of an FDI’s effectiveness include the following:

  • Reductions in the types of crimes that are the focus of a particular FDI, such as violent crime, drug-related crime, gun-related crime, robbery, or domestic violence
  • Reductions in offending (especially of targeted offenses) by high-risk offenders after their notification
  • Reductions in offending (especially of targeted offenses) by non-high-risk offenders who are likely to have learned about the consequences to high-risk offenders
  • Improvements in community members’ perceptions about community safety

Although research evidence is not sufficient to declare focused deterrence unequivocally effective in reducing violence, evaluations conducted to date demonstrate mostly positive impacts on the targeted crime problems.32 A review of 10 reasonably rigorous evaluations of FDIs concluded that they are “associated with an overall statistically significant, mediumsized crime reduction effect.”33,m Among jurisdictions that have implemented the strategy’s essential elements, most have realized significant short-term reductions in the types of violence the initiative was designed to address.n A major open question is whether focused deterrence can be effective over the long term within any jurisdiction.34

More is known from research evaluations about the net impact of FDIs on targeted crimes and on crime groups’ behavior than is known about how the intervention changes individuals’ behavior.35This needs more careful study. Nonetheless, we know from FDI assessments that some high-risk offenders, even if only a relatively few, make remarkable lifestyle changes. Some do not succeed in turning their lives completely around. Some continue criminal offending, although usually committing less serious offenses. Some try to get jobs and live a non-criminal lifestyle but don’t succeed. Focused deterrence appears to be more effective at reducing crime and improving conditions in the areas affected by it than at completely rehabilitating habitual offenders.36

The strategy is admittedly hard to evaluate because it encompasses a combination of specific interventions, not just one.37 This means that although some evaluations may conclude that the strategy effectively reduced violence, they may not be able to identify the components that made it work and why.38 As a prime illustration, even in the highly acclaimed Boston initiative of the 1990s, it is difficult to specify what contribution each of the various interventions—including public health measures, police-probation partnerships in monitoring offenders, police-clergy partnerships, and enhanced federal gang prosecutions—made to the initiative’s overall success.39 Although it’s likely that each of these interventions were integral to the multi-faceted strategy, observers and other jurisdictions seeking to replicate Boston’s success often focus on one intervention to the exclusion of others. Because the primary objective of FDIs is to improve safety in the community, rather than to isolate causes, some uncertainty about multi-faceted interventions is probably inevitable.o

How quickly an FDI can be expected to generate positive results can vary depending on the nature of the targeted problem. When prolific violent offenders are targeted, results have often been dramatic and almost immediate. When nonviolent offenders are targeted, the impact may take longer to materialize.40

Properly assessing FDIs requires considerable expertise in social science research methods and statistics, ideally doctoral-level expertise. If an agency does not have this expertise in-house, it is highly recommended that FDI partners engage an external research partner—perhaps at a local university—who possesses both the technical expertise and the knowledge and experience of working with criminal justice practitioners in an action-research model. Such expertise is not always easy to find. If an agency lacks the resources to pay for an external evaluator, internal personnel should nonetheless document how the FDI operates and capture and analyze as much data as possible.

Determining Whether Focused Deterrence is Fair

Possible indicators of an FDI’s fairness include the following:

  • Improvements in community attitudes toward police and other criminal justice officials
  • Noticeable shifts in community norms from tolerating or excusing criminal behavior to discouraging it
  • Expressed perceptions by community members that the FDI is fair to the high-risk offenders and to the community
  • Perceptions that the FDI officials (both criminal justice and social service) are trustworthy and that they deliver on their promises

Historically, police efforts that target specific individuals for enforcement are subject to criticism as being fundamentally unfair because of the perception that individuals are being targeted for who they are rather than for what they have done. Properly administered, FDIs can not only escape charges of unfairness but also be perceived as extraordinarily fair, even to the individuals being targeted for attention. When this occurs, overall police-community relations and the public’s belief in the legitimacy of the police stand to improve. This is so for several reasons:

  • The process for selecting offenders to target:
    • Is established prior to any individuals being nominated
    • Is based on clear, objective criteria relating to individuals’ proven offending history
    • Is conducted such that individuals’ identities are revealed only after targeting selections are made
    • Is conducted by a group of decision-makers representing different perspectives
    • Is conducted transparently
    • Is documented
    • Is data-driven
  • Individuals are not targeted merely for law enforcement; they are simultaneously offered valuable social services that, if accepted, would help them improve their life circumstances.
  • The active involvement of civilian analysts and/or external researchers, social service providers, and community members provides evidence that FDIs are not merely clever ways of putting offenders behind bars.

FDIs are likely to be perceived as fairer than some alternative approaches to reducing gang violence, such as the use of civil gang injunctions, which have been challenged on both ethical and legal grounds as being unfair because they punish all gang members irrespective of their individual behavior and because they prohibit even what is seen as otherwise lawful and harmless activity.41

Some objection to FDIs should be expected, not because it is unfair to high-risk offenders, but because it provides high-risk offenders with prioritized social services, arguably at the expense of other people in need of such services.42

Determining Whether Focused Deterrence is an Efficient Use of Resources

There is not much reported information about the costs of running an FDI, and costs are likely to vary widely across jurisdictions depending on specific activities undertaken, size of the initiative, how costs are accounted for, which costs are tallied, and other factors. One study of two FDIs revealed that the actual costs for police personnel to work directly on focuseddeterrence activities—including community mobilization, communicating with high-risk offenders’ families, crime analysis, incident and case file reviews, and undercover investigations—for one year ranged from $90,000 to $150,000 (in 2011 dollars), the rough equivalent of 1½ to 2½ full-time police officers.43 The study wasn’t able to account for a number of important cost variables, such as costs that the police would have spent anyway addressing the same problems using some strategy other than focused deterrence, costs associated with non-police personnel, and cost savings from reduced criminal behavior, or determine whether focused deterrence is cost-effective in achieving its goals. However, considering the rather significant crime reductions realized in several FDIs that have been carefully evaluated, and considering the high monetary and non-monetary costs of violent crime to a community, the direct police costs reported in this study are likely to strike many as well spent (in addition to improved rates of conviction, higher case clearance, and fewer parole violations).


l See Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 1, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem Solvers, by John Eck, for a better understanding of assessment in the context of policing, as well as Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 11, Analyzing and Responding to Repeat Offending, by Nick Tilley, for more specific guidance on evaluating repeat-offender initiatives.

m Arguably, randomized controlled experiments would be ideal in determining whether FDIs are effective in achieving their objectives. To date, none have been conducted. Independently conducted evaluations with some control groups (e.g., quasi-experimental designs) and reliable statistical data analysis are the next most reliable.

n See Appendix for a summary of FDI evaluations conducted to date.

o Determining whether a focused-deterrence strategy is effective and what precisely causes the effect would require a rigorous evaluation design—one that would involve randomly assigning high-risk offenders to either a focused-deterrence response strategy or some other strategy (including perhaps no special intervention at all). To date, no study has used a randomized controlled experimental design, which is often the strongest design for determining causation.