Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

POP Center Tools Understanding and Responding to Crime & Disorder Hot Spots Page 6

Assessing Responses to Hot Spots

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A large body of evidence from rigorous evaluations suggests that hot spot policing can be an effective way for police to address crime and disorder. Rigorous studies use methods which maximize the confidence that a hot spot intervention was associated with a decline in the targeted problem. The highest level of confidence comes from studies that randomly allocate hot spots into an intervention (treatment) group and a comparison (control) group. The outcomes in the two groups can then be compared to assess the effect of the intervention. Several of the studies cited in the previous section used a randomized design. Others used a quasi-experimental design with a comparison group. Quasi-experimental studies do not randomly allocate treatment, but do use comparison sites that are similar to the intervention sites.

Having comparison hot spots in evaluation designs is extremely important because they provide information on trends in the problem in the absence of the intervention. In other words, if the problem declines in the intervention hot spots, we want to know if this decline was greater than any decline observed in the comparison sites (or if the trend was in the opposite direction). If not, then even a decline in the intervention hot spots might not indicate the intervention was effective. It could just reflect larger declines in crime and disorder across the entire jurisdiction. If the decline is larger, or if the problem declines in the treatment hot spots while increasing in the comparison sites, for example, there is stronger evidence that the hot spot intervention had the desired effect on the problem.

While randomized experiments are often viewed as the best way to maximize confidence about whether a hot spot intervention (or any policing intervention) caused a change in crime, they are not always the best or most realistic approach. For example, random assignment requires a fairly large number of hot spots to reasonably assume that the treatment and comparison groups are similar after randomization occurs. Thus, it may not be feasible or appropriate in studies focusing on only a small number of target hot spots.

When evaluating a problem-oriented hot spot intervention, it is especially important to assess the extent to which the problem has declined. That is, while examining trends in the overall number of policing incidents in the targeted sites relative to comparison areas gives some general information about the effectiveness of the response, it is equally important to know whether the problem targeted by the intervention has become less serious and less harmful. The assessment should address the aspects of the problem identified during the analysis. Have these aspects been successfully addressed by the response? If so, what can be done to ensure the problem does not reappear? If not, the assessment should feed into additional analysis and a new response.

Agencies often benefit from partnering with a researcher from a local university. The SPI–funded interventions described in the Responding to Hot Spots section all included police-researcher
partnerships. For more on rigorous evaluation, see Assessing Responses to Problems (Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 1).†


Summary of Results from Previous Studies

Among policing strategies, hot spot policing has shown some of the strongest evidence of effectiveness. A systematic review of all experimental and quasi-experimental hot spot policing studies completed between 1989 and 2011 found a significant effect of hot spot policing on crime. This review looked at 25 comparisons of hot spot policing with comparison sites from 19 published studies. Of these 25 tests, 20 reported significant declines in crime as a result of a hot spot intervention.

The review also directly compared the findings from studies that used increased police presence as the primary hot spots strategy with those from studies that used a problem-oriented framework to choose a more focused response. The review found that, overall, problem-oriented hot spot policing tended to lead to greater crime-control benefits, although there was support for using either type of strategy to reduce crime. In other words, just sending police officers to spend time at known hot spots can be somewhat effective, but sending them there to take specific actions tailored to the problems’ causes is more effective.


A common concern with place-based approaches such as hot spot policing is that they will not actually reduce crime and disorder, but instead just push or displace the activity to places nearby (so-called spatial displacement). A number of literature reviews, however, suggest that immediate spatial displacement is uncommon in place-based interventions. In the hot spots systematic review, just 1 of the 19 studies found evidence of significant displacement, and there the amount of crime displaced was less than the crime prevented in the target area.36

A separate systematic review of displacement in policing interventions found little evidence of displacement and some evidence of diffusion of crime-control benefits.37 A diffusion of crime-control benefits refers to situations in which areas surrounding a targeted hot spot also show improvement, despite not receiving the intervention.38 These positive spillover effects of hot spot interventions make place-based interventions even more efficient and can be explained, in part, by offenders' 
overestimating the size of target areas. That is, they think crime prevention strategies are being implemented where they are not. Additionally, the same opportunities for offending may not be present in the areas surrounding the hot spot site, which also decreases the likelihood of immediate spatial displacement.39

For more on displacement, see Analyzing Crime Displacement and Diffusion (Tool Guide No. 10).‡


Effects on Perceptions of Legitimacy

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recently warned that strategies that are effective in reducing crime could still have negative effects on how citizens view the police.40 This concern has been raised about hot spot policing, since it can involve a sizable increase in police presence and may involve an increase in enforcement levels in small geographic areas. Concerns have been raised about whether this will negatively affect citizens’ perceptions of police legitimacy.41

Legitimacy here refers to the public belief that there is a responsibility and obligation to voluntarily accept and defer to the decisions made by authorities. The police need the support and cooperation of the public to effectively combat crime and maintain social order in public spaces. Hot spot policing, especially when the response involves increased enforcement or aggressive order-maintenance policing, runs the risk of weakening police-community relations, which could have negative effects on how citizens view the police and on crime-control effectiveness. When individuals view the police as less legitimate, they may also be less likely to obey the law.42

Limited research on this issue suggests that citizens living in targeted areas either welcome the increased police presence or do not notice the intervention. A study in three cities in San Bernardino County, California, for example, found that a broken windows style intervention in street segments had no effect on resident perceptions of police legitimacy.43 Another study in St. Louis County, Missouri, found no long-term negative effects of hot spot policing on citizen perceptions of police legitimacy.44

Police-community relations are an important topic and needs further study. Perceptions of police legitimacy clearly remain very low in many communities, particularly majority-minority communities, and so police should consider the views of residents when developing and implementing hot spot policing efforts. Police can use existing data to examine areas where citizen distrust of police may be especially high. Examining the geographic overlap between crime and citizen complaints, for example, could inform the development of hot spot interventions focused on building legitimacy in areas where complaint levels are also high. The planning process for any hot spot project should incorporate perspectives from residents, business owners, faith leaders, and community groups to ensure the final
intervention maximizes both fairness and effectiveness. This process could include surveying residents or conducting focus groups to solicit community input during problem analysis and meeting with community groups to inform them of the response before the intervention.45


This guide reviewed research showing that crime and disorder problems are highly concentrated at a small number of micro places, commonly referred to as hot spots, and that these hot spots tend to remain hot over a rather long period of time if not properly addressed. This suggests a police focus on these locations could reduce crime problems across an entire jurisdiction. Analyzing hot spots beyond simply identifying high-crime places is critical to problem solving in these locations and selecting the most effective responses.

There is strong evidence that the police can have significant effects on crime and disorder when they focus extra attention on hot spots. The responses vary from intervention to intervention but usually entail some combination of increasing police presence and law enforcement, community building, and dealing with underlying opportunities for crime through situational crime prevention efforts. Hot spot initiatives using a problem-oriented framework seem to be especially effective. There is also strong evidence that hot spot policing does not displace crime to areas nearby or different times in the day. Future research will provide important additional knowledge about the effects of hot spot policing on citizens’ perceptions of police legitimacy and the long-term effects of place-based approaches, as well as more guidance on what tactics are most effective for specific types of hot spots. Overall, hot spot policing, carefully practiced, represents an efficient and effective policing strategy.46

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