Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The return of broken windows and other stopgaps

Broken windows theory, often confused with CPTED, is a police strategy to cut crime
- photo by Smallbones, Creative Commons

by Gregory Saville

Last year, in frustration over increasing incidents of violence, the NYPD returned to their broken window theory to cut crime, a much-criticized program from the past.

Can cops really prevent crime? There is a big difference between responding to emergencies and apprehending offenders, versus preventing crime. They are not the same. 

If you ask the Frustrated or the Cynical, they say no! Crime goes up and down regardless of police actions. Even people like urban writer Jane Jacobs said that police, while important, are not the main way to prevent crime – people in the community are. 

If you ask the Supporters or the Optimistic, they say yes! Problem-oriented policing seems to cut crime, at least in some cases. But it is a rare strategy in policing nowadays.

What of other strategies? Consider predictive policing and especially hotspot policing, a tactic that goes back decades. When I was a cop we called this showing-the-flag in troubled areas. Flag showing put cops into high crime areas at just the right time.

Some researchers, like criminologist David Weisburd, are big hotspot policing advocates. He points to research that shows early success. Still, there are plenty of questions. When Denver police tried it, they cut gun crime in 3 of 5 hotspots, but citywide gun crime increased anyway.


What about crime prevention officers? Crime prevention specialists do some good work, but they are a tiny fragment of the total police roster. They split their time between a myriad of disconnected programs and they seldom work within the operational goals of a neighborhood-based safety plan. 

What about technology? The research is not convincing. CCTV in public places, for example, has a spotty record with dubious results. We have blogged on CCTV before. We've also blogged on the problems with Shotspotter Acoustic Gun Detection technology. The NYPD domain awareness system is the latest technology in this regard. Unfortunately, crime in NY is still increasing.

What about tough-on-crime like zero-tolerance enforcement, stop-and-frisk tactics, and broken windows policing? Does it work? The research is inconclusive. In fact, parts of the NYPD stop-and-frisk strategy were ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. 


Tough-on-crime programs rely on what criminologists call deterrence theory – strict prison sentences, mandatory sentencing, and other punishments. Deterrence theory has one of the longest research histories in criminology. It shows that deterrence does not prevent much crime! It might work on minor infractions like speeding. But for hardcore criminals, substance addicts, gang members, and others, it does little. 

Jail is also part of deterrence theory and while it may incapacitate an offender for the duration of the sentence, without intensive programming (like Colorado’s horse whisper program) and post-release supports, results are discouraging. If a convict exits prison and returns to the same blight, poverty, and desperate conditions that led him or her to prison in the first place, not much will change. 

Great programs exist but they are too few and too underfunded. 

Fire prevention...not the same as crime prevention. But close enough!
- photo Hungryogrephotos Creative Commons


In the final analysis, stop-and-frisk, hotspot policing, CCTV, tough-on-crime, and many others are little more than stopgaps. They calm the winds, but the hurricane continues. 

Fire prevention takes a whole different approach. Fire officials learned long ago that driving around blindly on random patrol waiting for the fire was futile. They might send fire specialists to places where fires often break out – fire hotspots (pardon the pun), and then dispatch the engines. But those are nothing but stopgap measures.

Instead, they learned about the root causes of fire, the materials, and the types of situations where fire was likely. They developed preventive education about risky situations, like smoking in bed. They created building codes with fire-resistant materials and regulations requiring extinguishers in new construction. That is how they prevent fire. They dug at the roots and used scientific knowledge about the causes.

Paradox: noun - par.a.dox [a statement that is self-contradictory or logically untenable] 


It may not be exactly the same as crime, but it is close enough! And that leads to the conclusion that all the stopgap measures above have one simple paradox: In order to work, those measures need already-committed crimes. There can be no crime hotspot unless existing crime already makes a place hot. Crime prediction is impossible unless you already have an existing pattern of crime from which to make your predictions.

The paradox gets even worse when you deploy stop-and-frisk, showing the flag, or tough-on-crime, all of which show up in the hotspots where poverty, inequities, blight, and fear already exist. Stopgap programs are unlikely to prevent those things that have existed for decades. You cannot prevent something that already exists. You can mitigate it once you discover it and stop it from recurring. That is all fine and good. But it is not prevention, per se. 

The fire people are right that to prevent something, you must understand and diagnose it. You must have a local, long-term plan with specific goals. 

This deeper and more comprehensive fire prevention method is more difficult with crime because the causes of crime are complex and multi-faceted. Of course, that is no excuse to stay confined within the walls of stopgap measures. There are more collaborative ways to build communities out of crime. 


One answer is to get the police to collaborate with neighborhoods on the kind of community-building we describe in SafeGrowth: Building Neighborhoods of Safety and Livability. This method has been well-established and previous books have outlined early versions, such as Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio’s Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival.

Another answer, also linked to SafeGrowth, is Bill Geller and Lisa Belsky’s Building Our Way Out of Crime. That too describes deeper ways out of stopgaps and towards more comprehensive prevention. 

Bill Geller and Lisa Belsky published their summary of community transformation. An abbreviated summary is at POP Center Library. The full book is available online

All this points toward one particular answer to the question: Can police prevent crime? There are ways for police to prevent crime and all of them start and end with collaborations directly with the community. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

The streets of Mendoza

by Tarah Hodgkinson

In previous blogs, we have spoken about tree canopy and its correlation with reductions in not only heat, but also crime. Indeed, 3rd Generation CPTED now includes environmental sustainability as a central strategy for safer places. I recently experienced this firsthand during travel to South America.

One of the wonderful things about travel is the opportunity to see beyond your view of the world to another way of doing things. I was reminded of this during a recent trip to Mendoza. 

Mendoza is a city in Argentina home to one of the best wine regions in South America. Beyond the wine, the city itself is really interesting. Situated in the desert, Mendoza is subject to the extreme desert heat. To combat this, the streets are lined with trees. 

Indeed, the streets of Mendoza feel welcoming and engaging. You can instantly feel the difference in heat when you leave the treelined streets and enter one of the city’s many parks. 

This commitment to tree cover exists in the cities and also along the routes to the original olive farms and vineyards. This was done to protect the agricultural produce during transport so it wouldn’t spoil. It also protected the drivers. 

However, it wasn’t the tree canopy that really caught my attention, rather it was the infrastructure that supported the trees. Throughout the city, deep canals collect and supply water to the trees. These “acequias” were originally designed by the indigenous peoples of what is now known as Mendoza. Despite the destruction of much of the Indigenous peoples and culture by colonizers in the 16th century, the canal system remained. 

However, while the canals are imperative to supporting the survival of these trees, and contribute to the liveability of the city, they also pose a huge physical risk. This is because the canal system is wide open. 


In speaking with local residents about the canals, many told us stories about people walking home at night, missing a step, falling in, and getting hurt. They shared that this was often tourists, or people unfamiliar with the area, but after a few beers, the locals were just as susceptible.  But this risk seemed to be an accepted one, in order to maintain the trees. 

As someone trained to see the city in a particular way, I couldn’t believe that these canals weren’t covered with grates or something else that might protect people from falling in and getting hurt. Coming from North America, where liability is everything, it was interesting to be thrust back into another culture that prioritizes other values. 

It also reminded me that our western view isn’t necessarily the right one. For example, an extensive grate system is quite expensive and may not be achievable. Or perhaps they have agreed to trade one form of safety (physical), for another (heat exhaustion), with the acknowledgment that you can just look where you are going. Either way, the result is absolutely beautiful – albeit a little tricky to navigate. 

So, if you are heading to Mendoza, watch your step! 

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Community hotspots and digital fasts - A wish for 2023

Seeking authentic human connections in a digital age - photo by israel palacio on Unsplash

by Mateja Mihinjac

I rarely watch TV, however, in the spirit of holidays, I was recently drawn into watching one of those predictable Hallmark Christmas movies. Set in a small town where everyone knows each other, idyllic streets and small family-owned shops were decorated in a festive spirit. And there would be no Hallmark movie without a romantic twist of the two protagonists who find each other despite all the obstacles in their lives and live happily ever after.

However, despite a predictable happy ending and the idyllic small-town living that is often far from reality, one takeaway from this movie was the notion of a community hotspot.

This community hotspot is not a hotspot in a digital sense where you connect your smartphone. It is also not like a crime analyst’s high-crime hotspot. In this film, it refers to a long-standing town cafĂ© where local residents from all walks of life regularly meet, both intentionally or accidentally. 

Northley Street Organic Market, Brisbane.
This open market provides ample free opportunities for informal socializing 

In a blog this past summer Tarah referred to such places as “third places” — places where people come together, meet and socialise.

In today’s digital era we hardly ever associate a hotspot with anything else than digital connectedness. In truth, connecting online through our devices rarely creates a true and authentic sense of connection. 

What if we intentionally created “community hotspots” and “community hot-times”, designated places and times away from digital devices and purely focused on in-person human connection? What if we intentionally adopted digital fasts as a way of restraining ourselves from digital devices (especially social media), for a specific period of time in favour of real human connection?

Old's Cool General Store, Toronto.
This convenience store opened up the sidewalk with tables and umbrellas as a meeting place

My wish for all of us is that we enter a new year more intentionally and reflect on what brings us closer together with others. For me that includes spending time in nature, connecting with people in real life, and less time staring at dopamine-generating/energy-draining digital devices. 

A true hotspot should be about community and it should bring us closer together, not further apart.

Happy 2023!

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Night safety in Sebring - street & sidewalk advocacy

Sebring, Florida - sometimes, getting residents to start working together on street safety begins with a lighting contest and decorating docks for a Christmas boat parade

GUEST BLOG: Jason Tudor is an urban planner and SafeGrowth practitioner living in Florida. Jason was a facilitator of the successful SafeGrowth project in the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans. He is also a co-author of SafeGrowth: Building Neighborhoods of Safety and Livability. In this blog, Jason describes Safety Audits and street activation in his home city.

When I participated in my first safety audit with the SafeGrowth team in 2009, I felt the same thrill many first time SafeGrowthers feel when rational analysis of a space replaces the fear of it. Safety audits have appeared in this blog before. 

For many of us who do not have an academic or professional background in criminology, crime and the fear of crime are so overwhelming that one feels helpless to do anything about it. During a safety audit, you dissect what might seem like a dark street corner with shadowy figures and analyze the lighting, territoriality, and social cohesion. The audit helps residents apply an analytical tool as a way to help them see that crime and fear are not insurmountable.  

I recently leveraged tools like the Safety Audit to help organize my neighborhood in Sebring, Florida.  


Sebring is in the center of peninsular Florida about an hour south of Orlando. It was developed in the 1920s and it is one of Florida’s most rural cities that services acres of surrounding ranches and orange groves. After moving to Sebring in 2020, I quickly learned the town was still traumatized by the 2009 financial crisis. Half-built neighborhoods and closed shopping centers were common throughout the county of about 100,000 residents. 

Although my immediate neighbors were friendly, Sebring is very insular. It is planned around a large circle and the city radiates out on an arterial spoke system. Residents kept to themselves but were not shy about sharing their bitterness about a town still economically ravaged while Miami, Tampa, and Orlando were booming. Sebring is also still reeling from a mass shooting at a local bank in 2019 in which five people were murdered.

As I met more of my neighbors, I was struck by the comments about how Sebring used to be something, but isn’t anymore. Most Florida towns have had the charm paved out of them by Florida’s Department of Transportation with their ever-expanding highways. The main street leading to the downtown is now a four-lane highway without trees, crosswalks, or bike lanes.  

Sebring Fire Department got in on the community efforts
and lit up their station for the first time

As a planner and SafeGrowth practitioner, tools like the Safety Audit have helped me reframe my thinking about how I interact with space. The feeling of loss and hopelessness in many Sebring residents were the same feelings I saw years ago when I worked in a neighborhood with a violent crime problem. I knew that changing a neighborhood begins with simple steps but what was missing in Sebring was a spark to ignite residents to take action. What was that spark?


My first Christmas in Sebring provided the answer. While driving downtown I saw several men setting out decorations. Within a few days, the little town circle transformed into a sparkling decorated Christmas village. The next weekend I heard boats on the town lake blowing their horns to announce the arrival of the town’s holiday boat parade. The following week the city hosted its annual Christmas parade with crowds along the parade route. These were all volunteer-organized events without any commercial or governmental support. 

Then it hit me! This town loves Christmas, but you wouldn’t know it by walking along residential streets outside the circle. Houses and businesses were dark during the holidays. What better way to meet your neighbors and get more people involved then having a friendly competition to encourage residents to decorate their houses and businesses.  

The following year I met with neighbors and asked if they would help organize a neighborhood holiday decorating competition. Six of us met at the local Elks Club and came up with Light Up Lake Jackson. 

The residents, many of who had never met although they lived in the same neighborhood most of their adult lives, wanted Light Up Lake Jackson to encourage participation through a holiday lighting competition.   

One of the committee members offered to help us contact residents who lived along the main street. Another resident offered to design and decorate postcards, yard signs, and flyers. I built a website and everyone knocked on doors to hand out flyers talking about the competition. In just a few months, six residents had a complete plan for a neighborhood holiday decorating contest.  

The lighting decoration Christmas contest idea took off among residents.
It led to changes in street activation and also roadway safety


The response from the neighborhood was incredible. We got 27 entries in that first year with residents decorating their palm trees, apartment buildings, churches, and docks on the lake. The dark streets of Sebring during the holidays began to light up. The success of Light Up Lake Jackson encouraged the committee members to do more the following year. 

The next year the residents recruited more neighbors to volunteer. Local civic organizations created a calendar of activities to connect existing activities with new ones, activities that included a Christmas market, a Christmas festival, food trucks, and live music. The committee hosted another light-up competition which brought some of the most over-the-top decorating the neighborhood had ever seen.

As residents walked around town to see the lights they noticed how unsafe the streets felt with the four lanes of traffic speeding through town. According to one resident, it was a “shame” we can’t safely cross the street when walking to enjoy the Christmas lights. The neighbors asked to meet with the city to find out how to calm the speeding traffic. This led to the Florida Department of Transportation recommending a speed reduction and prioritizing the street for wider sidewalks, crosswalks, and bicycle lanes.  

The SafeGrowth philosophy is premised on the collective power of activated residents driving change in their own neighborhoods. Getting residents to recognize their collective power is the first step. Finding a reason, like a Safety Audit, to bring your neighbors to the street and see their neighborhood from a different perspective is all you need to do. The collective imagination of residents is a powerful force. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

A post-Ferguson wake-up & recovering lost memories - Part 2


Police patrol cars in New York - crime prevention
is considered a primary goal of policing. 

by Gregory Saville

The problem-oriented policing (POP) model has been around for decades successfully teaching police officers how to solve problems in partnership with communities. As I mentioned in last week's blog, years ago I chatted with POP founder, Professor Herman Goldstein, and asked him: When will police adopt a fundamentally better way to work with the community and solve problems?

The Ferguson riots unfolded in 2014, along with subsequent protests about excessive force and racism in dozens of other cities, but few remembered that POP had already pointed to better police methods. Eight years ago we knew very well there was a better, and proven, way forward. 

Yet, it seems that POP faded from police planning and development so much that by the time the federal government published the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing a year after Ferguson, there was not a single reference to the POP movement. It is as if the Task Force authors had collective amnesia. It did not mention the successes of POP as a crime-fighting or as a community-building tactic. 

Instead, authors conflated “problem-solving” as a catch-all term under community policing. “Problem-solving” is a ridiculous term that means everything and nothing at the same time. Without a clear definition and coherent steps, the term is meaningless.

Clearly, they lost the plot. 

Finding, and responding to, crime hotspots in parks, apartments, businesses,
and other places is the latest and greatest in police tactics


Why did this happen? Police had already figured how to implement problem-oriented policing. They already knew how to make it part of their regular duties.  And yet the evidence did not sway police leaders and their political bosses. 

Since 1979, when Professor Goldstein first introduced POP, we have seen the emergence of dozens of tactics for police effectiveness:

Each tactic has admirers and detractors, but none have survived the test of time like POP. Many have already been debunked or, at least, challenged on questionable ethics and constitutional grounds. For example, critics claim SQF can exacerbate the crisis of legitimacy and trust. In another example, predictive policing is criticized for “perpetuating systemic racism through the use of biased data”.

Hotspots are often locations where crime opportunities flourish,
such as vacant and unsupervised downtown parking lots

And then there are outright failed strategies like the ‘put-a-cop-on-every-corner’ idea. Consider Philadelphia Police who ran “Operation Safe Streets” in 2002 and put over 200 cops on the worst drug dealing intersections 24-7 in the hopes it would stem the tide of drugs and violence. Like all methods that hack at the branches, it did not go as planned. 

One scientific evaluation put it bluntly: There were no city-wide impacts on drug crime, homicides, or violent crimes. 


Luckily, some approaches like hotspot policing are re-discovering problem-oriented policing. Hotspot policing is not really a prevention strategy. It is not what police do, but rather where they do it. Crime analysts and patrol supervisors locate small areas of repeat crime and violence and then have officers target that spot. By focusing on micro-locations at apartment buildings, local bars, troublesome parks, or risky parking lots, the eventual goal is for crime to drop across the city at the macro level. 

Arguably, the unstated motto of hotspot policing is: start small, finish big. Of course, there is no guarantee small starts will do the trick, but that’s the goal.  

The concept of hotspots in criminology emerged a long time ago. Studies on auto theft in Peel Region and the Minneapolis hotspot experiment emerged in the 1980s, but not until fairly recently did police do anything with that knowledge. Unfortunately, the fact that one of the worst examples of excessive use of force and racial conflict in recent years arose in Minneapolis, suggests that hotspot policing is not really an answer to some important bigger questions. 

Today hotspots are the popular prevention-kid-on-the-block. There is a flood of studies on every aspect of hotspots: how to find robbery hotspots; how to calculate the “hottest” part of a hotspot; or how to find hotspot schools. Criminologists are renaming whole areas of criminology the criminology of place or place-based policing. Perhaps the best review of the topic is Martin Andressen's exceptional book “Environmental Criminology: Evolution, Theory, and Place”.

Simple prevention signs are one preventive tactic in hotspots  

Insightful researchers are also careful to describe hotspot policing as a deployment tactic, not a community crime prevention strategy. Interestingly, in some hotspot projects police use POP with great effect. 


This brings problem-oriented policing back into the limelight and returns us to 
my conversation with Professor Goldstein in the last blog. I don’t know what he would say about this recent bevy of policing tactics. He seldom publicly aired his views about such things without prudent analysis and careful thought. 

I do know Goldstein was enormously proud and impressed by those officers who, through creativity and perseverance, worked with others in the community, used thorough crime analysis, and made places safer with POP. He loved hearing their stories and talking to them about how they found inventive ways to work with communities. 

And that is as good an ending to this story as I can imagine.

The International Problem-Oriented Policing conference for 2023 will be announced on the POP Center website. Watch for it. 

Monday, November 28, 2022

Police triumph and amnesia - Part 1

NYPD officers are watched by teens. Where is the future of police crime prevention?

by Gregory Saville

Once upon a time, I sat with famed police reformer and law school professor, Herman Goldstein, and chatted about the future of policing. 

“You know, Greg,” he started, “the more change I see in policing, the more it looks like things stay the same.”

“It’s just old wine in new bottles,” I replied, hoping my trite metaphor would impress (it didn’t).

“Will police ever adopt a fundamentally better way to work with the community to solve problems?” I asked aloud, wondering what kind of response I might expect.

We were talking, of course, about the Problem-Oriented Policing movement (POP) a so-called mid-range strategy to prevent crime that Professor Goldstein founded decades earlier. As Professor Goldstein described the program in his writing, “it places a high value on new responses that are preventive. It is not dependent on the use of the criminal justice system, and [it] engages other public agencies, the community, and the private sector.” 

Goldstein's 1990 book, Problem-Oriented Policing, and
his 1979 article by the same name set the stage for successful police strategies  

Echoing urban writer Jane Jacobs a few decades earlier, Goldstein wrote about the need for police to engage the community: “A community must police itself. The police can, at best, only assist in that task.” That is why community engagement is at the heart of the SafeGrowth philosophy.


Professor Goldstein and I noted the ample evidence for POP success and how it offered a powerful crime prevention strategy. Even now, years later, researchers at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy confirm that POP continues to have success in cutting street violence and drug crimes.

Researchers found that most prevention success emanates from a targeted approach at a local micro-level. They analyzed 31 projects of the latest and greatest prevention strategies at a micro-neighborhood scale and discovered half were POP oriented (13 of them had outright successful interventions and the last two were focused on tactics, not crime). 

Toronto police at a public event. Have police in Canada (with a few
notable exceptions) also dropped the ball on problem-oriented policing?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the signposts for police triumph were clear. Hundreds of police agencies were trying bits and pieces of the model and reporting good results.

  • Police Chief Jerry Sanders and his agency led the country with POP innovations in San Diego, California
  • Police Chief Darryl Stephens had similar success in his North Carolina city of Charlotte/Mecklenburg
  • The International POP conference drew over a thousand delegates with stories of reduced robberies, assaults, gang shootings, and others
  • Canadian POP projects triggered Canada’s first Problem-Oriented Policing conference in Vancouver in 1995
  • In Britain, a similar POP movement grew (and continues to this day).

Surely, after decades of cutting crime and building community relations, this triumph should lead to positive reform in police service delivery?

You would think.


Somehow, in the intervening years, those efforts fell on deaf ears. Police executives I meet today seldom mention POP as one of their strategies. While the POP movement continues, and the POP conference remains vibrant and relevant, many other POP efforts faded. 

The Canadian POP conference vanished. Police academies rarely teach POP in any meaningful way (or at all). When police leadership in San Diego changed, they eventually dropped POP as an embedded approach, as did many other police agencies. 

In a recent SafeGrowth project we trained 35 NYPD officers alongside community residents. Mindful of the alignment between SafeGrowth and POP, I was disappointed to learn that few of those officers had any experience in POP. In fact, most didn’t know anything about problem-oriented policing. 

It was a sad statement, especially since the annual POP conference, with dozens of innovative crime reduction strategies from around the world, was held later that year a short 3-hour drive north of New York City. 

Of the 40,000 officers in the NYPD, I saw none at that conference. Neither did any of those 35 officers in our training attend and when I asked their Sergeants to drive up, they too were told by supervisors it was not going to happen. That is not to say other police agencies are any different or that others did not attend - they did! At least the progressive ones. But it does make you wonder why success like this does not cling to police organizations?

Disney’s Jiminy Cricket – When you ask about the future of police,
you don't want to hear the sound of crickets
- Image Creative Commons

After four decades, hundreds of POP cases reported on the POP Center website, thousands of officers attending the conferences, dozens of books, and proof of success, when I ask police trainers and leaders today about POP, I get crickets. 

Chirp, chirp. 

It’s a lovely sound on a warm summer night on freshly mowed grass. But in answer to the question of whether police will ever adopt a fundamentally better way to work with the community to solve problems, it is the malady of cultural amnesia.

Why do we find ourselves here?