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Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns

Response Guide No. 5 (2006)

by Emmanuel Barthe


Developing innovative efforts to reduce crime and social disorder is an integral part of modern police work. Police agencies that undertake such interventions should consider advertising their work and ideas. Departments can help remove crime opportunities by teaching and encouraging the public to adopt better self-protection measures, or they can warn offenders of increased police vigilance or improved police practices. When designed properly, publicity campaigns can offer police departments another problem-solving tool in the fight against crime.

Defining Crime Prevention Publicity

There are many different ways that the public can learn about a police crime-prevention initiative. There could be a news story detailing the initiative, people may hear about it through word of mouth, or newspaper editorials may mention it. All of these “sources” do in fact publicize the initiative, but there is little control over the content or its portrayal. To separate this kind of general information from a crime prevention publicity campaign, the term crime prevention publicity should refer to:

  1. a planned effort
  2. by an agency
  3. to promote crime prevention practices
  4. by creating distinct campaigns designed
  5. to educate victims, or deter offenders.

This definition focuses on clearly defined efforts that incorporate information with practical crime prevention measures.

Using Publicity to Complement Police Efforts

Publicity serves to pass relevant information to potential offenders and victims. Informing a community about a crime problem, introducing target-hardening measures, or warning of increased police patrols can lead to an increase in self-protection and/or a decrease in offenses.

The figure below shows the impact of a stand-alone (no publicity component) crime prevention strategy aimed at offenders. While the initiative does manage to deter or help police apprehend a segment of the offending population, many offenders remain unaffected. This is partly because in this kind of scenario, the crime prevention benefits are limited to those who have heard about the operation or who have been directly affected by it.

figure 1

In the following figure, a complementary publicity campaign advertises the same crime prevention strategy. Through the advertisement, however, a bigger segment of the population hears about the strategy, and more crime reduction results.

figure 2

Publicity campaigns in crime prevention operate much like advertising campaigns in the private sector. Commercial advertisements are intended to persuade a target audience to buy a particular product by publicizing information meant to appeal to that audience. Effective commercial advertisements therefore sway customers to change their behavior, usually by buying something. When it comes to crime prevention, the same dynamics are at work. Those targeted by the intervention (offenders and victims alike) need to be exposed to information that will influence their future decision-making processes. The key is to devise proper campaigns and to match the message to the audience. There are numerous ways to use publicity, and agencies can benefit from succinct and properly designed campaigns to support crime prevention efforts. This guide’s purpose is to help local police plan and implement effective publicity campaigns by exploring their benefits and pitfalls.

A Word of Caution

Police agencies should not blindly resort to publicity campaigns or rely on them to replace proper police interventions. While it may be tempting to adopt publicity campaigns to support police efforts, such attempts should incorporate proper planning and adequate implementation. A poorly designed publicity campaign may inadvertently increase fear of crime, with undesired consequences such as vigilantism. Police agencies should also refrain from relying on publicity campaigns as a generic response to crime problems. Randomly posting signs advising residents to lock their cars is unlikely to reduce a city’s car theft problem. Publicity campaigns should always complement police initiatives, and police departments should be wary of relying on publicity alone to combat crime.

Police should also remember that repeatedly relying on campaigns meant to scare offenders without implementing concrete programs or enforcement is essentially “crying wolf,” which harms police-community relations and causes no crime reduction.

Before mounting a crime prevention publicity campaign, police should carefully analyze the crime problem. For instance, if a burglary analysis indicates that victims would benefit the most from prevention information, then a campaign is more likely to succeed by focusing on educating victims. Agencies should therefore undertake a publicity campaign only in the context of a broader response to a problem.