• Center for Problem oriented policing

previous page next page

Methods for Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems

The police can apply a variety of methods to get others to assume greater responsibility for public safety problems.2 The list of methods in Figure 1 is not intended to be exhaustive or definitive, but rather illustrative. One way in which the methods differ is the degree of coercion that police apply to achieve their objective. The list begins with methods that are generally less coercive and proceeds to those that are generally more coercive, although the degree of coercion may depend upon the specific context and not necessarily on the nature of the method applied.

In many instances, it may make sense to first employ the methods that are relatively non-coercive and to move to more coercive methods only if the former fail to achieve the desired cooperation. (See "Determining the Appropriate Degree of Pressure Police Ought to Bring to Bear to Shift Responsibility," below, for further discussion of this matter.)

In its ultimate form, the police effort to shift responsibility for public safety problems entails assisting others to develop the capacity to identify and rectify problems without further police intervention. A prime example occurs where police work at the neighborhood level helps residents develop what sociologists term collective efficacy, "the ability of neighborhoods to realize the common values of residents and maintain effective social controls."3 Short of a complete shift in responsibility, in most instances police look to shift or share part of the responsibility with respect to a specific problem or set of problems, bounded in time and space.

Explanations and examples of the successful application of the various methods for shifting and sharing responsibility for public safety problems follow. For many of the examples, a more complete and detailed account can be found in the original source documents, many of which are accessible online via the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing website at www.popcenter.org.

In many instances, police and others employ a variety of methods to address a problem, thereby complicating efforts to understand precisely the effect that each method has had on the problem. The methods used are not mutually exclusive.

For example, where the police succeed in encouraging another agency to confront the persons causing a particular problem, while at the same time they persuade a legislative body to enact a law imposing special fees for the relevant police services, a combination of methods has been employed.

Figure 1. Methods for Convincing Others to Accept Responsibility for Community Problems
  • Educating others regarding their responsibility for the problem
  • Making a straightforward informal request of some entity to assume responsibility for the problem
  • Making a targeted confrontational request of some entity to assume responsibility for the problem
  • Engaging another existing organization that has the capacity to help address the problem
  • Pressing for the creation of a new organization to assume responsibility for the problem
  • Shaming the delinquent entity by calling public attention to its failure to assume responsibility for the problem
  • Withdrawing police services relating to certain aspects of the problem
  • Charging fees for police services related to the problem
  • Pressing for legislation mandating that entities take measures to prevent the problem
  • Bringing a civil action to compel entities to accept responsibility for the problem

Two important notes of caution are in order. First, many of the examples cited below are drawn from reports prepared by police agencies. Although such reports have been widely accepted and considered credible, few of these initiatives have benefited from rigorous and independent evaluation; consequently, the conclusions drawn should not be considered the sort of proof that is demanded by social science. The study of policing would benefit greatly by subjecting police initiatives to more rigorous assessment. Second, some methods that police may propose to persuade others to assume greater responsibility for addressing public safety problems, such as a newly-crafted ordinance, may will undoubtedly face legal challenges. Police should make full use of legal counsel where such challenges are likely. At the same time, however, counsel would be well-advised not to reflexively nix all initiatives that might face such a challenge. Proper legal analysis in the problem-oriented context may, on balance, conclude that the degree of coercion inherent in the new alternative may be less intrusive and more refined than is current practice. An ordinance controlling solicitation for prostitution, for example, may be preferable—in both the resulting fairness and effectiveness—than continued overuse of less discriminate arrest and prosecution.

Educating Victims and Offenders

Police have long been involved in systematically conveying information to the public on how to prevent crime. They do this through presentations, brochures, and a variety of other programs. Some of these efforts are aimed broadly at the general public; others are targeted at specific constituencies. Educational messages and programs are directed either at potential victims, instructing them on how to avoid being victimized, or at potential offenders, instructing them on how to avoid offending. Central to all of these efforts, however, is the fact that those to whom the message is directed are in a position to take actions that will protect themselves from either victimization or arrest. Such educational materials and presentations are generally low-key; one can take the advice or ignore it. Educational messages to potential offenders adopt a helpful rather than a warning tone: they are aimed at people who are inclined to obey the law, but who might offend out of ignorance or carelessness.

  • San Diego, California police analysis found that a high percentage of sexual assault cases were acquaintance rapes involving teenagers. By examining and analyzing the relevant case files, the sexual assault unit identified the patterns of conduct that led to such assaults and then constructed a school-based curriculum designed to inform students on reducing the risk of victimization. The initiative produced brochures—different ones for males and females—that sought to inform students, using language and scenarios familiar to them, about what constitutes acquaintance rape, about how women can avoid being victimized by it, and about how men can avoid being accused of it.4
  • Based upon the analysis of their experience in dealing with crime and disorder in apartment complexes, some police agencies have developed remedial manuals for both landlords and tenants, and sponsor seminars at which such materials are presented.5 The goal is to encourage both landlords and tenants to assume more responsibility for conditions in their housing units by employing specific prevention measures, such as the enforcement of occupancy restrictions and prohibitions against illegal activity, control over entry and public areas, the installation and operation of security systems, and so forth. In many instances, persuading property owners and managers to lease only to responsible tenants, to enforce the rules that govern proper behavior on the premises, and to design and maintain properties in ways that discourage problems can be more effective than criminal law enforcement.
  • Concerned about the problem of underage drinking, police in Plano, Texas developed an informational presentation for the owners and managers of stores licensed to sell alcoholic beverages outlining the measures that could be taken to help store clerks comply with laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to minors. Although stern warnings and enforcement were essential components of the initiative, police found that some clerks were confused about the law and about how to detect fraudulent attempts to purchase alcohol. Consequently, the informational programs were more than a way of issuing a polite warning; they in fact helped people who were inclined to obey the law to do so.6
  • Police in Lancashire, England and in Portland, Oregon have conducted and supported programs designed to educate hotel and motel owners on how to recognize common crimes—ranging from burglary to prostitution to drug manufacturing—and how to prevent them from occurring in their establishments.7
  • To address the problem of children being hit by cars, police in Hamilton-Wentworth, Ontario spearheaded an initiative to develop educational materials and programs designed to teach children how to cross streets safely. The materials and programs were based upon a careful understanding of how young children best learn and apply new rules and skills and was informed by advice from traffic engineers, educators, childcare professionals, parents, and public health officials.8
  • Police in Blackpool, England, in partnership with local government, health, and transportation authorities, liquor licensees, community groups, and the media, developed an educational campaign to inform visitors on how to behave in and around licensed establishments in order to avoid becoming either an offender or a victim.9

Making a Straightforward Informal Request

The use of straightforward requests is a natural first step that police take when seeking to have specific individuals or organizations take responsibility for addressing a crime or disorder problem. Naturally, a positive response to the initial request obviates the need for any increased pressure.

Here, the police are not simply broadcasting prepared advice on prevention to a large audience. Rather, they are focused upon asking citizens to resolve an immediate problem by taking a specific remedial action. Although the fact that the police are making the request may imply that consequences will follow if the request is ignored, it is often the case that police are merely informing a citizen of something of which she was not aware, and the citizen gratefully and graciously complies with the request.

  • Police in Chula Vista, California concluded that new housing developments were vulnerable to burglary simply because many of the homes were not designed to safeguard against it. Based upon their analysis of the problem, police developed a series of recommendations on how new homes could be designed and built to deter burglary and made a complete presentation of their findings to executives of the largest housing development companies in the target area. Ultimately, the developers entered into a memorandum of understanding whereby they agreed to install recommended locks and windows in all new houses and to assist the police with other burglary prevention measures. Although the developers did not accept all of the recommendations, the police achieved some improvement without resorting to confrontation or coercion. Early indicators suggest that the new measures are contributing to significantly improved burglary rates in the target area.10
  • After an exhaustive analysis of the problem of appliance thefts from houses under construction, police in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina concluded that the best method of preventing such thefts was for builders to delay the installation of appliances until after a house had been purchased and properly secured by its new owner. Police presented their analysis to area builders, several of which voluntarily agreed to adopt the proposed policy. As a consequence, appliance thefts in the target area were reduced significantly.11

Making a Targeted Confrontational Request

One of the clearest results of recent changes in policing is the increased tendency of police agencies to confront aggressively those adjudged responsible for a large volume of incidents that fall to the police to handle. Police typically resort to this more confrontational mode when straightforward requests are ignored.

Typically, police document both how a problem is caused and how it is aggravated by the actions or inactions of others. The resulting documentation is then presented to the offending party, together with a request that preventive measures be taken. The hope is that when confronted with such documentation the party will feel obliged to assume responsibility for taking the requisite preventive measures. However, depending on the specific situation, the confrontation may be bolstered by either a subtle implication or a more overt threat that failure to comply will result in more coercive measures. The potential for more coercive measures argues for a high standard of accuracy by police in documenting conditions.

Community policing efforts, which place a great deal of emphasis on cultivating relationships with citizens affected by problems, also contribute to an increase in confrontational requests. Whether confronting a drug house, a troublesome bar, or disorderliness in a park, police may feel empowered to be more confrontational by virtue of the support they receive from aggrieved citizens.

  • Police in Peel, Ontario identified establishments with a high incidence of serving persons subsequently arrested for drunken driving and forwarded the information to the local liquor licensing board. Armed with these data, licensing officials confronted the owners of the problem establishments, advised them to take preventive measures, and offered detailed advice and training for management and staff on how to meet their legal obligations. These confrontational requests were made prior to the initiation of any formal investigation in order to allow the proprietors to comply voluntarily with the law.12
  • Police in St. Louis, Missouri informed a finance company that a property it had financed was being used for illegal drug trafficking. This suggested to the company that their investment was at risk, perhaps of being seized by the government. Realizing that an outright foreclosure and eviction of the property's elderly resident might bring adverse publicity, the company instead opted to pay the offending resident to relinquish the property and move out. The finance company then took possession of the property, thereby eliminating the drug trafficking problem.13 In this case, police did not need to ask the finance company to take remedial measures; merely bringing the matter to its attention suggested the proper course of action.
  • Police in Miami, Florida persuaded wholesale fruit and vegetable merchants to improve their method for disposing of discarded produce, to clean up and improve the appearance of the commercial area in which they operated, and to improve the traffic flow and parking of commercial vehicles, all as part of an effort to reduce crime and disorder in a large outdoor produce market. These improvements helped to reduce the population of transient criminals in the area and to alleviate traffic congestion.14

Engaging Another Existing Service Agency

Much police business consists of handling problems and cases that fall through holes in the social safety net or that constitute an overflow stemming from the limited resources of other agencies: mentally-ill persons who are not adequately cared for in the community; drug addicts who do not receive adequate treatment services; parks, playgrounds, and housing developments that are not adequately maintained; cars and homes that are abandoned; and so forth. In such cases, police sometimes attempt to shift the responsibility for crime prevention to another government agency or nongovernmental organization that provides relevant services in the community.

In-depth inquiry of the type called for in problem-oriented policing often identifies a default or a gap in services that, if corrected, would reduce or eliminate a problem. Although a particular situation or circumstance may initially be characterized as a crime or law enforcement problem, penetrating inquiry often redefines the problem and more clearly identifies the conditions that contribute to it. Thus, a problem initially reported as disorderly, threatening teenagers may upon further analysis turn out to be a case of strained relationships between senior citizens and teenagers that is brought on by the policies of a neighborhood school. Engaging school authorities in exploring preventive strategies may well result in their taking responsibility for the problem.

Brokering preventive strategies to another agency can create tension if the agency perceives the police initiative as an effort to set the agency's agenda or to off-load work onto it. This is particularly true during periods of government retrenchment when budgets may be limited. Other agencies might not be precisely positioned to provide the type or level of service recommended by police and may need additional resources to meet these new service demands.

Often, public health and safety departments and nongovernmental organizations that serve the disaffected and disenfranchised must weigh the initiatives recommended by the police against other priorities. Therefore, the documentation of the case by the police and the links they are able to establish between their findings and their recommendations can be critically important.

It is equally important for police to establish an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding between themselves and agencies with overlapping interests; applying more coercive measures to shift responsibility is warranted only when trust and mutual understanding have broken down. The whole movement toward greater institutional partnerships has been tremendously important in this regard. Whether such partnerships are mandated by legislation, as is the case in the United Kingdom, or are either wholly voluntary or compelled by executive decree, as is more common in the United States, police requests that other agencies change their policies and practices are better received if the members of those agencies understand and trust the police. Indeed, some individuals and organizations may see such police requests as helpful rather than coercive. In some cases, police documentation of a problem has been used by local authorities and governmental organizations to justify programs they have long advocated. In other cases, private groups have used police documentation to justify expansions in their programs and supporting budgets.

  • A police constable in Lancashire, England succeeded in resolving a longstanding problem in which a scrap yard was used to sell stolen vehicles and generally was a source of nuisance to the community. The constable did so not by enforcing the criminal law, as had been tried before, but rather by referring the matter to the local environmental protection agency. That agency found, upon inspection, that the scrap yard was inadequately protected against the emission of hazardous pollutants. Rather than complying with new environmental protection requirements, the scrap yard operator opted instead to close the business.15
  • Relying on careful data analysis, police in Blackpool, England persuaded outside agencies that the most prolific drug-addicted criminal offenders ought to receive intensive drug treatment and other social services immediately upon release from incarceration. This ran counter to conventional practices, wherein many newly released offenders were forced to wait long periods for drug treatment, by which time most had resumed using drugs and committing crime. Police engaged probation officials, prosecutors, social workers, and drug treatment providers to ensure that qualifying offenders who were willing to accept such services received them in a timely and reliable fashion. A 12-month evaluation indicated that the initiative yielded a 30 percent reduction in reported crime in the target area, no evidence of geographical displacement, and evidence that most offenders participating in the program had committed fewer offenses while receiving treatment than they had in a comparable period before treatment.16
  • Police in Fremont, California succeeded in persuading the local domestic violence victim assistance program to accept direct referrals from police officers. Police demonstrated through analysis that there was a critical need to give high priority services to repeat victims of domestic violence. Previously, victims themselves had had to seek out such services. An assessment of the intervention indicated a demonstrable reduction in repeat calls for police services to victims of domestic violence. In this instance, although the police assumed a greater responsibility for dealing with chronic domestic violence victims and offenders, their closer working relationship with other service providers enabled them to concentrate limited police and social service resources on the most problematic individuals.17
  • Police in Charlotte, North Carolina initiated discussions with the Mexican consulate and local banks to persuade recent Mexican immigrants to use secure financial services for bank and checking accounts, wire transfers, and so forth, in order to reduce the amount of cash carried by—and stolen from—immigrants. The police recognized that a lack of trust and understanding of U.S. financial institutions discouraged recent immigrants from adopting safer and less expensive financial practices and further recognized that the consulate and banks were better positioned to convey this message to immigrants than were the police.18

Pressing for the Creation of a New Organization

Police are not always in a position to implement measures that will best address a specific problem, and there may not be any other appropriate entity to do so. Police may then find themselves advocating the creation of a new organization with the mandate and resources to address the problem.

With the increase in efforts to organize neighborhoods, especially in large urban areas, it is frequently not necessary for police to be the primary catalyst of such efforts; instead, police often assume a supportive role. There are also situations in which a community organization grows organically out of concern for a given problem, with the police enlisted in support of the objective. However, as organizations come into existence and are sustained, police find that they are gradually transferring responsibility for specific prevention strategies to the new organizations.

  • In an effort to reduce the large demand upon police resources created by divorced parents seeking assistance with the enforcement of child custody orders, police in Fresno, California helped establish and promote the use of the privately owned and operated Child Custody Program. The Child Custody Program assists parents with child custody exchanges by providing a safe facility where parents can exchange children without the need for interaction. The Child Custody Program also mediates disputes between parents about custody orders. Police worked with the courts to develop a process that allowed parents to file their own court reports alleging breaches of custody orders. The new program and procedures reduced the volume of calls for police service for this problem by about half. Thus, the police interest in preventing domestic disputes and violence related to child custody was met in a more efficient manner.19
  • Police in Glendale, California organized an effort to create a new center for day laborers as a means of eliminating the disorder, drunkenness, fighting, loitering, noise, litter, and traffic congestion attendant to an unregulated day labor market. Police secured commitments from private charitable organizations to operate the center and its programs, which included social services, language improvement classes, and legal and labor negotiation services. The local transportation authority provided the land and a local building supply company donated the materials to construct the new facility and the staff to help operate it. An advisory board comprising representatives of the various stakeholders was created to oversee the center. Police then persuaded local authorities to pass an ordinance that required all day laborers to secure employment through the center. The net result was a dramatic reduction in all aspects of the problem, a marked improvement in the employability, wages, and working conditions of laborers, and a substantial reduction in demands on police and other emergency services.20
  • Police in Racine, Wisconsin concluded that one solution to cleaning up drug-infested neighborhoods was to purchase problem properties and either convert them for use as community police stations or refurbish and sell them to responsible occupants. In order to accomplish this, police convinced local business leaders to create a private not-for-profit organization that could buy and sell real estate for the purposes espoused by the police and city government. This new arrangement led to the purchase and rehabilitation of a significant number of residential properties and inspired other private redevelopment in troubled neighborhoods. The initiative yielded dramatic reductions in violent and property crime, a concomitant reduction in calls for police services, and a substantial improvement in the housing stock in the target areas.21
  • Police in Fontana, California worked with over 20 local charities, churches, and businesses to form a new network of services for homeless individuals, many of whom were creating extraordinary problems for police by their criminal and disorderly behavior. The so-called Transient Enrichment Network consolidated services for the homeless, providing a central facility where each individual's special needs—whether mental or physical health, job placement, housing, food and shelter, or substance abuse—could be diagnosed and addressed. This new network inspired police officers to deal more directly with homeless individuals, confident that doing so would lead to improvements in the individual's behavior and circumstances. Early results were overwhelmingly positive: over 500 individuals benefited from the program in its first two years of operation. Moreover, crimes and calls for police service attributed to homeless individuals declined substantially.22

Shaming Delinquent Parties

Public shaming is often an intermediate step between the type of private confrontation described earlier and resort to legal action. The stakes in resorting to public shaming are high for both the police and those against whom it is directed. The police must obviously be on solid ground. Public reputation is of great value to individuals, businesses, and agencies; hence, having police publicly discredit them can have significant long-term consequences. This method of shifting responsibility can be perceived as the most coercive. Consequently, police typically resort to it only after more private methods of persuasion have failed. The police goal is to call to public attention the nature of the problem, the factors that cause or contribute to the problem, the reasonableness of police requests, the refusal or failure to respond to less coercive measures, and the arguments for holding others accountable for their contributions to the problem.

  • Police in Lancashire, England sent letters to the registered owners of vehicles spotted cruising around areas in which street prostitution was a problem.23 Although the tone of the letters was purely educational, the unspoken effect—and no doubt intention—of the letters was to expose "curb crawlers" to possible shame by creating a risk that others might read the letters. Similarly, police in many jurisdictions collaborate with local media outlets to publicize the arrests of persons caught soliciting prostitutes.24
  • In an effort to reduce alcohol-related problems in Green Bay, Wisconsin, police officers persuaded local media outlets to expose both the irresponsible practices of certain tavern owners and the reluctant enforcement of alcohol licensing sanctions by certain public officials. This effort, in combination with other actions, resulted in the closing of several problem taverns through stricter enforcement of liquor licensing provisions and a concomitant reduction in calls for police services, all of which inspired new economic development in and a nearly complete transformation of the target area.25
  • Police in a number of jurisdictions have developed ranking or rating systems by which they communicate to the general public the relative security of different vehicles, alarm systems, houses, apartment complexes, and parking facilities.26 Operated by British police, the Secured by Design program is a prime example of how publicity for meeting safety and security standards can become institutionalized. This sort of publicity both rewards the manufacturers and operators of responsibly designed and managed products and properties with favorable ratings and penalizes those with unfavorable ratings.
  • Seeking to persuade a reluctant owner to improve the management and design of a video arcade in the hope of reducing the problems associated with its disorderly clientele, police in Delta, British Columbia recruited a local university's environmental criminology students to conduct a detailed study comparing the problematic arcade with others in the area. The findings, which clearly demonstrated the inadequacies of the arcade's design and management, were presented to local government officials and reported in the media. As a result of the adverse publicity and persuasive findings, the arcade owner agreed to the requested changes and the city council enacted a new bylaw requiring minimum safety and security provisions for all arcades in the jurisdiction. Attendant calls for police service declined substantially. Perhaps the ultimate measure of success was achieved when the arcade owner began advertising that his arcade was safe and secure because it adhered to the highest industry standards.27

Withdrawing Police Services

Police occasionally seek to force the adoption of preventive strategies by refusing to respond, investigate, arrest, or take other official action where an individual or organization has refused to implement measures that are designed to reduce the likelihood of victimization. If a complete service withdrawal is not feasible, police may respond with fewer resources, which can be done by lowering the priority given to certain types of incidents, by putting more of the reporting burden on the complainant, or by reducing the level of follow-up service after the taking of an initial report.

Typically, the withdrawal or modification of police services occurs in the context of a business operation, where there is overwhelming evidence that a problem would be eliminated if certain measures were put in place, measures which the business owner or operator will not implement based upon a belief that doing so would reduce sales.

The decision to withdraw services should only be made after a consideration of the disparate impact withdrawal might have on those who cannot afford even the most elementary remedial measures. For example, where imposing such a cost forced an already marginal business to close its doors, an additional consequence might be to deprive a depressed neighborhood of a vital business or service.

Complete withdrawal of police service is rare, most likely because police are reluctant to be seen as refusing to perform what others perceive as "their job." Police may also worry that the failure to respond to a simple request for assistance may result in their failing to attend to a more serious infraction than the one that was originally reported.

Most service withdrawals arise out of commercial transactions that are arguably civil rather than criminal matters. A few typical examples follow.

  • Some police agencies refuse to respond to reports of motorists who drive away from self-service gas stations without paying where a station has experienced a high volume of drive-offs but has refused to install a pre-payment system. Alternatively, police may merely refuse to send an officer to take the report of such an incident, instead requiring station staff to file a form with police.
  • Police may refuse to investigate a case in which a diner leaves a restaurant without paying, particularly if the restaurant has a poor system for monitoring customers and collecting payments.
  • Police may advise shops that have checks returned for lack of sufficient funds that they will not investigate the incident, especially if the store does not require proper identification or does not maintain a registry of those from whom checks will not be accepted. Alternatively, police may require merchants who expect the police to process bad check cases to obtain a fingerprint on the back of the cashed check.
  • Police may refuse to prosecute the failure to return rental property such as videotapes, tools, appliances, or furniture, knowing that the posting of a credit card or other security would eliminate such incidents. So-called rent-to-own stores can generate a high volume of thefts in jurisdictions where reporting requirements are lax.

Other than commercial transactions, the most common incident that police refuse to provide service for is intrusion alarms that have not been verified as suspicious. (See the example and reference under "Pressing for Legislation," below).

Charging Fees for Police Services

Some police agencies seek to recover the cost of providing a particular service from the individuals who benefit from the service. The rationale for cost recovery is that those who make excessive claims are consuming more than their fair share of public resources, or at least more than their tax payments reasonably entitle them to. In some jurisdictions, legislation authorizes police to recover the actual cost of police investigations from defendants. In 2003, for example, police in Oakland, California successfully recovered $35,000 in investigative costs from the owners of a problematic motel.28 Elsewhere, police and emergency rescue agencies charge thrill-seekers for the costs of rescue if their adventures go awry. Increasingly, police are extending the cost recovery principle to owners whose properties generate an inordinate volume of calls, such as taverns and apartment complexes.

Such fees are not intended as penalties; therefore, recovery is typically limited to the actual cost to the police agency. Nonetheless, the fees provide an economic incentive to individuals and businesses to keep the cost of police services under control by keeping problem behaviors under control.†

† Fees differ from fines in that fees merely recoup the governments costs while fines may exceed the governments costs, imposing punitive costs. Either fees or fines can be effective incentives to encourage those required to pay them to change their policies and practices so that police are less likely to be needed.

  • Among the most common problems with which police deal are security alarm systems installed in homes and businesses, which account for an extraordinarily large percentage of police business in many areas. In fact, well over 90 percent of all such alarms are false, whether the result of system malfunction, triggering by animals, or operator error. In this situation, the business person or private citizen has taken responsibility for a prevention strategy, but ends up imposing a major portion of the cost associated with that strategy on police. In response, police in many jurisdictions have arranged for the enactment of a fee schedule that escalates based upon the number of false alarms that are handled, thereby pressuring the user to take actions to prevent the alarm from registering falsely. In other areas, an annual fee is assessed in anticipation of whatever services the police may be called upon to render in connection with an alarm, including simply maintaining their readiness.
  • Police in Halton, Ontario successfully addressed chronic problems involving alcohol-related crime and disorder—including several full-scale riots—at a large dance club, in part by shifting some of the cost for police service back to the club's owners. After strict law enforcement and efforts to close the club had proven impractical and ineffective, police successfully lobbied for a change in the liquor licensing law so that licenses stipulated that the cost of any excessive consumption of police resources resulting from efforts to ensure safety and security in the neighborhood of a licensed establishment would be charged to the license holder.29

Pressing for Legislation

In addition to having recourse to the many laws that directly proscribe illegal and harmful conduct, police have long been aided by a variety of municipal ordinances and administrative regulations that are designed to manage and control the conditions that foster and engender offending and harm. These reflect a legislative judgment that certain businesses, organizations, and individuals are responsible for ensuring that the activities in which they are engaged are carried out in a safe and orderly fashion; a prime example is the extensive regulation of the sale of alcoholic beverages. Police now commonly establish conditions for issuing permits for public events such as parades, festivals, demonstrations, and street parties—conditions that require event organizers to provide for the public's safety and to prevent disorder and crime. The primary responsibility for such measures rests with the license or permit holder. The police role is secondary: to reinforce the responsibility of the license or permit holder through regulatory enforcement. By virtue of the special knowledge they have acquired by analyzing crime and disorder problems, police are often in a position to propose specific new laws and regulations that assign responsibility for controlling criminogenic conditions to certain individuals, businesses, or groups, and that impose penalties upon those who fail to do so.†

† Legislative enactments of this sort are to be distinguished from those which merely give police more authority to arrest offenders, provisions which while potentially useful, reinforce the notion that police bear primary responsibility for controlling problems.

The adoption of such measures is typically preceded first by informal public discussions and later by formal public hearings. The police may be among the proponents; occasionally, they are the initiators. And in the typical scenario, the individuals upon whom the new regulatory burden will fall oppose the proposal. The evidence in support of such a proposal is sometimes more anecdotal than statistical and efforts may be made to introduce data that are imprecise or unverifiable. One exception to this pattern is the heated debate over whether to require convenience stores to keep two or more staff on duty at specified hours of the day; this debate has drawn heavily on studies that measure the value of the strategy, and has been especially contentious because of the conflicting results of those studies.

  • To reduce residential burglaries, some cities have implemented building codes that mandate design and construction features that prevent burglary. Some codes, such as the one implemented in Overland Park, Kansas, in 2003, go well beyond simply requiring locks on doors and windows and regulate features such as lighting, natural surveillance, and door and window strength.30
  • As part of an initiative to reduce assaults with glass objects on the streets of Liverpool, England, police in Merseyside persuaded the Liverpool City Council to enact a regulation making the proprietors of licensed establishments responsible for preventing bottles and drinking glasses from being removed from their premises. Police then persuaded the Home Office to approve new legislation authorizing police to confiscate glass containers carried on the streets in the city center of Liverpool. These legislative actions helped to reduce dramatically the number of glass-related injuries in the target area.31
  • Police in Salt Lake City, Utah persuaded the city council to enact an ordinance requiring companies that sell home and business intrusion alarm systems to respond and investigate any alarm activation prior to summoning the police. Known as "verified response," this policy nearly eliminated police responses to false intrusion alarms. Evidence to date suggests that this policy has had no adverse effect on the underlying problem that intrusion alarms are intended to address—burglary—and has yielded substantial savings in police resources that are then available for more productive activities.32 Interestingly, the verified response policy supplanted a more commonly-used means of shifting responsibility for false alarms: charging customers fees to offset the cost of police response. The fee system reduced the volume of false alarms, but not to the same degree as verified response.
  • Police in Fresno, California assumed a primary role in reviewing applications for business licenses and permits and in recommending general and specific conditions under which such licenses and permits could issue. The conditions were tailored to the public safety problems posed by the particular business. Fresno police concluded that their new and more active role in the licensing process had resulted in significant reductions in calls for police services to a number of businesses.33

Bringing a Civil Action

There are several avenues by which police and others can bring legal actions to force individuals and organizations to implement measures to prevent crime and disorder.34 This strategy is normally reserved for the most egregious conditions and is employed only as a last resort, because, with some exceptions, the process is difficult and the costs are high. Among the numerous forms of civil actions police may either initiate or support are nuisance abatement orders (in the United States), anti-social behavior orders (in the United Kingdom), civil injunctions and restraining orders, civil asset forfeitures, civil fines, enforcement of codified regulations, and evictions.

Studies relating to the problem of drugs inevitably focus attention on drug houses. The search for an alternative to simply acquiring evidence and making arrests has led police to dust off largely unused abatement proceedings and to obtain new specifically tailored legislation that enables them, through a court proceeding and upon the presentation of adequate evidence, to seize properties associated with a high incidence of crime. Their authorization to do so, punctuated by some successful efforts, is intended to force landlords to take greater responsibility for controlling the activities that take place on their properties. It is the threat of an abatement action that often renders targeted confrontational requests effective.

In one of the more novel uses of civil actions, the Safe Streets program, based in Oakland, California, trains local citizens to acquire the evidence needed to petition in small claims court for the abatement of a drug house, without any need for a lawyer; any receipts from sale of the premises are distributed among the petitioners. Police involvement in this process is limited to cooperating with community members seeking police documentation of criminal activity occurring in or near the subject premises.

An emerging, although unsettled, development in the United States is for police to support civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers and distributors as a means of controlling gun-related violence. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of such suits, their success would provide an extraordinary example of how police and local government could compel a large industry to assume a significantly greater responsibility for the harm associated with its products.

  • Police in Oakland, California filed a civil suit against the parent corporation of an international motel franchise for failing to control drug dealing, prostitution, and assorted crime and disorder on its property.35 The suit followed repeated attempts by police to educate the property manager and corporate executives about the problems at the motel, requests for improvement, and warnings of possible legal consequences. In this case, police steadily increased the pressure on the corporation in a careful and measured manner. Indeed, the special unit of the Oakland Police Department that brought the civil action had developed a formal process for documenting such problems and for bringing increasing levels of pressure to bear upon property managers and owners.
  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Burnaby, British Columbia collaborated with tax, fire, building, health, immigration, and licensing officials to inspect and file code violation charges against the owner of three blocks of flats that were being used for large-scale illegal immigrant drug trafficking. The owner resisted efforts to improve the management of the properties, which were later closed by the government and emptied of tenants. This led to the geographic displacement of the drug market to a nearby public transport station—where police persuaded the managers to make design improvements to deter drug dealing-and the displacement of the base of operations to other nearby blocks of flats—where police helped property managers form an information sharing network to prevent problem tenants from securing leases. An assessment by police concluded that drug trafficking, related crime, and citizen complaints all declined substantially.36
previous page next page