Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Avoiding whac-a-mole while preventing crime

A violence interruption neighborhood in Syracuse
during our SafeGrowth presentations

by Gregory Saville

A number of years ago I watched an impressive problem-oriented policing presentation about a homicide reduction program in Boston that cut murders in half in a single year. Officially called Operation Ceasefire, it became known as the Boston Miracle and the magician behind it was David Kennedy, one of the brightest criminologists I know, professor of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York.

Ceasefire has evolved into what is now called the CVI method of violence and homicide reduction – Community Violence Intervention. There are two forms of CVI:

  • The first version of CVI is the one I saw from Boston. It goes by a number of names (commonly the “call-in” method where police call-in offenders for a meeting) and it is run through the Center National Network for Safe Communities
        The call-in model is described on the National Network website:    

"Community members with moral authority over group members deliver a credible moral message against violence. Law enforcement puts groups on prior notice about the consequences of further group-involved violence… support and outreach providers make a genuine offer of help for those who want it. A central method of communication is the call-in, a face-to-face meeting between group members and the strategy’s partners."

  • The other version of CVI tends to avoid the justice system, but rather taps into the street knowledge of former street offenders. 

The Cure Violence, also known as The Interrupters, is like the Guardian Angels on steroids. We have blogged on it before. It is described in the 2011 film called The Interrupters and it shows how “Interrupters” are hired directly from the community, sometimes people with a history of gang affiliation. When information arises indicating a potential outbreak of gang conflict, Interrupters visit the neighborhoods and speak directly to those involved. They describe of their own street experience and the consequences of violence and shootings. Their success rate is impressive. 

Cure Violence was the brainchild of Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist from Chicago.


There are better ways to prevent violence than after-the-fact arrest

Both styles of CVI programs are visiting cities across the U.S. and now Europe and they have an impressive evaluation history. We could certainly use those CVI strategies to tamp down violence in some of our communities in the first few months of our capacity-building work. 


However, all CVI programs require one essential element in order to function – existing crime! 

That means that, whether police call-in suspected gang members, or if Interrupters visit a potential offender for a shooting, CVI practitioners must already know of a crime underway or about to occur. And these pending events obviously do not happen in a vacuum, they occur in high crime areas or with known perpetrators of violence, shootings and gangs.

In other words, the social, economic, and psychological conditions that led to those risky moments were already in place long before CVI practitioners arrived. There is nothing wrong with preventing violence and shootings. But there is little evidence that intervening with a small group of offenders will do anything to sustainably transform the neighborhood conditions that led to their criminality in the first place. They might get some job offers, training, or perhaps social support for drug addiction. But what about the economic, social, and psychological conditions in the neighborhood where they and their families reside? 

If you tamp down the fireworks, do you address how those fireworks started in the first place so they don’t start again? One published long-term evaluation of the Ceasefire approach concluded “Boston has been challenged to sustain the implementation of the Ceasefire strategy over extended time periods. High profile replications of the Boston approach has experienced similar challenges.” 

What can be done to transform the long-term livability in such places that breed violence in the first place?

Whac-a-mole is a circus tabletop game from Japan 
- photo Creative Commons


It is like going to the circus and playing the game called ‘whac-a-mole’. 

The whac-a-mole game is played on a tabletop with a number of holes filled with plastic moles. The moles randomly pop up and the player whacks each one with a plastic hammer as fast as possible to gain points. The player never knows which mole will pop up, why they pop up, or how to keep them down, other than smashing them with the hammer as fast as they can. 

Prevention programs like CVI require an offender, or offenders, to whack (to deliver CVI programming), but CVI programs have little to say about the root causes why they are violent, why they deal drugs, or from where their criminality arises. Other than individualized programs to help each offender (an important part of prevention, to be sure), CVI programs are not designed to transform the neighborhood so crime-causing conditions no longer create a breed of next-generation offenders.

SafeGrowth addresses many pieces of
neighborhood livability leading to crime


That is what SafeGrowth does. By combining 1st, 2nd, and now 3rd Generation CPTED, we help residents rebuild troubled neighborhoods and attack crime at the roots where it grows. SafeGrowth is less about whacking moles, and more about the social ecology and cohesion of a community. CVI is attractive because it works quickly. SafeGrowth takes time. 

Both strategies are important. But without digging at the roots, you hack at the branches and do not fundamentally change neighborhoods where the seeds of crime are planted. We describe this work in SafeGrowth: Building Neighborhoods of Safety and Livability, and in scholarly articles on neighborhoods where we cut crime from New Orleans to Toronto.

We need programs like CVI for effective alternatives to ineffective arrest strategies. But we also need neighborhood transformation programs, like SafeGrowth, to sustain early successes over the long term. 

Otherwise, we find ourselves back to where we started, perhaps one reason the decades-long crime declines are now reversing in far too many cities! 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Blinded by the light

The Greek philosopher Aristotle created the scientific method - knowledge proceeds through evidence, objective analysis, and logic.
Photo Creative Commons

by Gregory Saville

As Bruce Springsteen writes in his song, it’s easy to get blinded by something you are passionate about. That especially applies to crime theory.

It’s hard enough to implement crime prevention without having to constantly check whether the prevention theory itself is under attack. Of course, prevention practitioners should know the strengths and weaknesses of their programs, including theory veracity. But when theory itself remains unchallenged by scientists, even when emerging data contradicts that theory, it makes the practitioner's job much more difficult. 

When that happens, practitioners are unsure whether it is the theory that is wrong or the implementation. 

Take crime displacement theory. When a crime happens in one location, will preventive measures move it somewhere else? Traditional displacement theory says crime will not necessarily move elsewhere. Or if it does, it might create benefits in other ways (the so-called diffusion of benefits theory).

Most likely, we are told, the displaced crime will reduce in impact – it won’t get worse! We are told dozens of studies confirm this theory over a number of years. 


Then a British undergraduate thesis on displacement uncovered some disturbing patterns in the evidence.

Catherine Phillip's analysis discovered, “that displacement may, in fact, be more common than is widely claimed, particularly in the case of studies with offenders. Furthermore… the findings of the Kirkholt Burglary Prevention Project, which purport to demonstrate a diffusion of benefits, are shown to be based on questionable evidence.”

Curiously, this was met with deafening silence in the situational crime prevention community. Phillip's referring specifically to the scientific evidence would, one would think, sound alarms to scientific theorists. Not so.

A few years later, Tarah Hodgkinson, myself, and Martin Andresen, conducted a detailed study on displacement over a multi-year timeframe using extensive ethnographic/statistical research in a city where we had delivered CPTED for over a decade. We combined the best qualitative and quantitative research. Our research discovered that, indeed, displacement was not benign, there was no diffusion of benefits, and alarmingly, we uncovered clear evidence of malign displacement in which crime got much worse in two different areas. 

We published our study in one of the most prestigious journals in the criminological community – the British Journal of Criminology.

Again, from the displacement research crowd… crickets! Apparently, data and evidence, even in a thorough crime study, were also not enough to sound the alarm about troubles with displacement theory. 


Marc Brackett's Permission To Feel


For many years, Gerard Cleveland and I have taught our police students emotional intelligence (EI). EI was created by psychologists in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly the work of Yale University’s professor Peter Salovey and his colleagues. The best recent book on EI is Marc Brackett’s, Permission to Feel.

The role of emotions, it turns out, is poorly understood among professionals and, I would add, researchers. Emotions explain why researchers get attached to their theories and, when it comes to criminology, why they refuse to accept new theories or abandon old ones.

The methodology of science suggests that researchers should carefully manage their emotions and follow the data. In displacement, at least, it seems that may not always have been the case. The attachment to theories – this clinging to something when contradictory evidence arises – emerges from poor emotional intelligence and the inability to detach from a theory and look at alternate theories with a clear eye. 

Avoid theory blindness by looking carefully at the data,
self-awareness, and detaching from bias


Take, for example, 2nd Generation CPTED! For years, Gerry Cleveland and I heard complaints from traditional crime prevention practitioners that “if it’s not about changing the physical environment, it’s just not CPTED”. 

When we pointed out that the founders of CPTED – Jane Jacobs, Oscar Newman, C. Ray Jeffery – did not limit their discussions to architecture; they also spoke of the interconnectedness between theories, of the role of neighbors in crime prevention, and of social cohesion in neighborhoods. Getting locals to create a sense of defensible space was the mantra in authentic CPTED, yet those practitioners attached to physical target hardening ignored this part of the theory. 

This is theory-blindness! It is often triggered by emotional attachments to a particular view and it is known in psychology as confirmation bias – the tendency to search only for information that confirms your prior beliefs of something. It is not surprising we are sometimes blinded by the light of a theory to which we are attached. We are all, after all, human. But ignoring data and cherry-picking evidence that supports only one particular theory is not only unscientific – it obstructs our work to help create safer places. Our communities deserve better.


I spoke too soon in regards to crickets from the criminological community. The situational theory cluster inside the movement might ignore, but not so the mainstream criminology community. The American Society of Criminology just awarded our own Tarah Hodgkinson the prestigious Robert Bursik Award for the displacement study I referenced above that Tarah, Martin Andresen, and I co-published in the British Journal of Criminology. Congratulations Tarah.  

Friday, November 19, 2021

Finding third places after the Pandemic

Places like the Capitol Bar in Hamilton, Canada, create a shared
dining space and opportunities for live music and conversation 

by Tarah Hodgkinson

We have written extensively on this blog, and elsewhere about the importance of the “third place”. In Ray Oldenburg’s work The Great Good Place, Oldenburg discusses the importance of the third place: Third places are spaces other than home (first place) and work (second place) where folks can meet, gather, connect and build social cohesion. He names several types of third places including cafes, hair salons, barbershops, pubs, libraries, bookshops and more that are at the heart of any great community. These are spaces that people can spend lots of unstructured time in without having to spend much money. 

The Red Bowler cafe in the west end of Brisbane, Australia, holds seating
for dining and comfy couches and eclectic decor for evening events

In the wake of COVID-19 many of these local places are starting to disappear. Unable to keep up with the rising costs of rolling lockdowns and having to restrict the number of patrons, many of these establishments have either limited the time you can spend in them or been shuttered altogether. This has led to several issues including vacant storefronts, reducing foot traffic and eyes on the street, and increasing monopolies of these spaces by large corporations that are less interested in creating a space for their neighbours and building community cohesion. 

We know that social cohesion relies on third places to bring together people together. We also know that a lack of these places, can reduce social cohesion and increase risks of crime. Never has that been a more prominent issue, than during a pandemic when we are literally more separated than ever before. 

"Third places" draw people together for more than food and dining - they
are gathering places, relaxing spaces, and conversation bases

However, there are some shining rays of hope in neighbourhoods around the globe. In Brisbane, Australia for example, a small café called the Red Bowler, feels exactly like a third place. Here, the café is not only a place to grab a coffee and a bite to eat, but the staff also know the locals, regulars sit down at comfy couches near you to strike up a conversation and the owners hold weekly events including movie nights, live music, and even mobile dog washes. No one is rushed out and as a result, the community builds. 

This is just one example of a commitment to create places that are neutral, inclusive and a home away from home. As we continue to emerge from the seemingly endless impact of COVID-19 on our everyday lives, it is more important than ever that we revive and support these third places. They are the neighbourhood cornerstones of connection that will help us to not only recover but thrive again as communities.