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Government, Politics & Issues

Hot spots help keep crime under control

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 26, 2012 - The premise sounds simple, even obvious, but in St. Louis at least, it seems to be working:

“By and large, criminals tend to avoid areas where police are present.”

That observation by Rick Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is one of the keys to a new approach to fighting crime that emphasizes data analysis, public awareness and an intense focus on areas where lawbreakers are most likely to strike.

The result, say Rosenfeld and Eddie Roth, the city’s public safety director, has been a steady reduction in crime and a corresponding move to make sure that city residents know about the decline.

Roth acknowledges that violence can still be an unwelcome part of city living, and when high-profile crimes occur like the killing of Megan Boken in the Central West End over the summer, his job doesn’t get any easier.

But by concentrating police officers in certain areas, to let would-be criminals know that they are being watched, Roth and Rosenfeld say that the effects can be dramatic – a 68 percent drop in the one-month period from late August to late September in 12 high-crime areas of the city.

“We have neighborhoods where violent crime is a daily issue,” Roth said, “and we are addressing those with hot spot policing. But most areas and most neighborhoods don’t experience a risk to public safety that the news coverage of more sensational events imply.”

Added Rosenfeld, on the results of such intensive efforts:

“The question of whether the effects last is a critical question. The answer is they do last to the extent that you can retain patrols in the areas with serious violent crime.”

Coordination, information among departments

Roth and Rosenfeld have been key players in a push to make sure that all departments in St. Louis that are involved in criminal justice know what the others are doing and have access to statistics to help their jobs run more smoothly. UMSL’s expertise in planning, implementation and evaluation of data-based strategies has been a key in using information to fight crime, Roth said.

“It’s an overlay that allows you to keep track of what you are doing and how it’s working and how you compare to what is going on in other communities,” he explained.

“It’s been really energizing for the department for the rank and file police officers and the commanders.”

And it has helped get vital information out to city residents as well, he said, in a variety of formats including social media.

“There’s a pent-up demand for more context and information that transcends traditional media.”

Hot-spot policing is a good example of how the system works.

In certain areas of the city, often compressed into just a few blocks, police make their presence very well known, in and out of their patrol cars, so anyone thinking about committing a crime will think twice if there may be uniformed officers about to drive slowly down the street.

“If you’re about to break into a car and steal something, and you see a police car turning around the corner, at least right then you aren’t about to do it,” Rosenfeld said.

And, Roth added, having the right information is as important as having the right equipment and the right personnel.

“You want a police officer with good instincts who is out there doing good police work,” he said. “But there is no substitute to following in a disciplined way what actually happened on the street, and we are able to do that now.”

Soon, the wariness becomes a habit, and even though there aren’t any signs posted on the boundaries of the hot-spot area – “Intense patrol ends here. Resume crime” – the effects seem to last, both geographically and in terms of time.

“The crime is not displaced,” Roth said. “We don’t just push it to another place. The pressure in the hot spots lowers the temperature overall.”

With the city spending $250 million a year on public safety, Roth wants to make sure St. Louis residents know they are getting the most for their money. So information plays a big role, both internally and externally.

Before, the courts and the police and the probation and parole personnel might not have been able to share information because they have different data systems. Now, increasingly, they can share the facts needed to keep track of offenders.

“How likely is it that a person picked up on a gun charge will be prosecuted?” Rosenfeld asked. “It’s a straightforward question, but too often it has to be answered by anecdote.”

Now, as the city is getting ready to take control of the police department, after approval by voters in November, even more departments of city government will be involved in the overall topic of public safety. Roth, the man who will coordinate it all, said he wants to be able to give good answers to the questions he gets often from Mayor Francis Slay:

How are we doing? Where are we making a difference?

Roth said that based on geography and population, St. Louis has one of the largest police departments in the nation. But, he adds, efficiency remains a key element to make sure the drop in crime persists.

“We used to have 2,000 police officers on the street,” he said. “We won’t be able to return to those days, but we can make best use of the 1,200 we have now.”

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