When it comes to crime prevention, the police have always said they can’t do it alone. In New Jersey, criminologists at Rutgers University are getting communities involved in “Risk Terrain Modeling” to help analyze where urban crime hot spots are located, and bringing citizens and police officers together to target them, both reducing crime and saving public dollars.

By Joel Caplan, Leslie Kennedy and Alejandro Santana

As America thinks about new ways of responding to violent crime, we recommend an approach that is multifaceted and focused on places, not only people. Focusing on places to make them safer surroundings to live and work is cost-effective, transparent and sustainable. What’s more, evidence proves that it works.

A place-based approach to prevention focuses on why certain crimes occur at particular places. It does not remove the importance of human factors, it simply shifts the focus away from personal characteristics to, instead, considering why offenders select the environments where they commit crime. These settings become crime hot spots because they are the most suitable places for illegal behavior. And these hot spots will persist if the environmental contexts for crime located there are not adequately addressed.

With a place-based approach to crime prevention, people in high-crime areas become partners in problem-solving. Building safer spaces requires all members of the community to be involved, not just police. Restorative justice is an established principle and practice in the criminal justice system that aims to repair the harms caused by crime. Results can be transformational for people involved, but the places plagued by crime need deliberate attention as well.

To accomplish this, we must know what makes some places attractive for illegal behaviors over and over again, and what needs to be done to reduce opportunities for crime in these settings. Using the analytical technique of Risk Terrain Modeling (RTM) developed at Rutgers University, we began working with Atlantic City in 2015 to address gun violence. RTM pinpoints where and how environmental features such as convenience stores, laundromats and vacant properties are contributing to situations and contexts for crime — it diagnoses crime patterns (see above).

Community members looked at the results and then connected shootings to drug sales and related turf conflicts. Convenience stores, they believed, are the places where drug buyers are solicited. Second, nearby coin-operated laundromats are locations where drug transactions are made out-of-sight. Third, vacant buildings located nearby are used by drug dealers as stash houses for drugs and weapons, or by drug buyers to use drugs after purchase.

When community stakeholders used the data-driven evidence from RTM to suggest that drugs, retail businesses and vacant properties are related in this way to shootings, they were able to agree with police that certain places will be vulnerable to shooting incidents in the future. This informed discussions about how to effectively remediate the situational contexts for crime around these locations. Through their combined efforts, police and their community partners quickly reduced homicides and shooting injuries by over 25 percent from 2016 to 2017. A subsequent and similar effort yielded a more than 50 percent reduction in robberies within four months, as published in the journal Police Practice and Research.

Following our experiences in Atlantic City, we initiated a crime reduction strategy in Newark, that empowers multiple community members to engage in the effort. Housed in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, the Newark Public Safety Collaborative (NPSC) prioritizes crime problems with guidance from its community partners. It diagnoses crime patterns with RTM, then shares this information with multiple stakeholders who coordinate their own resources to intervene by doing what they do best at the places that need them most.

As a neutral convener, the Public Safety Collaborative hosts regular meetings, which include Newark city officials and police, but mostly nonprofit organizations, business and neighborhood groups. For a point of comparison, whereas the widely popularized police “CompStat” meetings rely heavily on only police resources and crime hot spots, NPSC meetings solicit and value input from multiple community stakeholders to make data-informed decisions following a transparent process of problem definition and information gathering. They all get access to the same data and analytics, add context to these, then form strategies to disrupt the opportunities and contexts for crime at priority places based on their own unique missions and expertise. Their independent initiatives combine to produce a deliberate and impactful response to crime problems throughout the city as a whole.

We call this “data-informed community engagement” (DICE). DICE serves as the backbone of a comprehensive public safety strategy that mobilizes existing local resources to share the burden of crime prevention. It empowers multiple community organizations to become co-producers of public safety. The result is a comprehensive, dynamic, transparent and effective crime prevention strategy tailored to the local problem. Law enforcement is only one part of the effort. Data analysis is a key component of DICE, but so is a human element that makes the analytic outputs relatable and the place-based intervention activities pragmatic and impactful.

In one example focused on aggravated assault, the NPSC’s risk terrain maps showed locations to deploy resources, and other information detailed what to focus on when they got there. Police directed patrols to priority places, and other city services addressed abandoned buildings and vacant lots at these locations.

But also, the New Community Corporation used this information for their site suitability analysis to purchase and remediate abandoned properties and improve access to affordable housing. The South Ward Children’s Alliance and Newark Community Solutions teamed up to adopt city-owned vacant lots in high-risk places and turn them into usable, maintained spaces with library boxes, stages and murals. The Newark Community Street Team deployed outreach workers to the highest-risk places to help ensure safe passage for children walking to and from schools. Social workers and residents from the Urban League of Essex County and the Fairmount Heights Neighborhood Association organized community walks around a select number of liquor stores that were identified through RTM (and validated by Newark residents) as being associated with various types of deviant behavior.

Another program to address motor vehicle theft due to car idling involved a poster contest winner from a local school, neighborhood associations, Newark Downtown District ambassadors, merchants, police and others for a “take your keys, lock your car, no idling” educational flier distribution campaign that has proved to be highly effective. Community engagement flourished and motor vehicle theft decreased by over 40 percent within designated intervention areas during the last three months of 2020. Other examples from the NPSC can be found here.

Fostering positive community interactions while addressing crime problems are some of the many positive outcomes of the NPSC. Consider the benefits already known to be possible with DICE approaches to crime prevention in the context of the roughly 20,000 violent crimes that occur in New Jersey each year. Data-informed community engagement programs could improve over 5,000 lives each year through anticipated crime reductions. There could also be exponential returns on investment in terms of local criminal justice system and emergency health care costs. As each violent crime prevented could save over $30,000, focusing just on assaults could equate to saving over $75,000,000 across the state.

DICE addresses elements of social justice and economic inequality, and empowers communities to find ways to address crime by means other than police enforcement. The Newark Public Safety Collaborative proves how it’s not about selecting just one strategy to prevent crime. It’s about the process for data sharing and problem-solving with inputs and actions from many perspectives. The NPSC differentiates law enforcement from public safety, and demonstrates how a process for diagnosing crime patterns, forming shared narratives to guide responsive actions, and coordinating multiple stakeholders can be structured and repeatable. Making cities safer succeeds when the strategy is multifaceted and focused on a collective goal that brings people and resources together around places.

Joel Caplan and Les Kennedy are professors at Rutgers University and faculty advisers to the Newark Public Safety Collaborative at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice. Alejandro Santana is director of the Newark Public Safety Collaborative and deputy director of the Rutgers Center on Public Security.