A crime-reduction strategy abandoned by Louisville police after the March 2020 fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor has since spread to other major U.S. cities, gaining favor with police chiefs for its potential to reduce violent crime despite its ties to the case that sparked widespread calls for police reform.
In the months preceding the shooting, Louisville officers had studied a model known as “place network investigations.” The then-novel approach pioneered by an academic posited that crime could be curbed if police and other community partners focused on geographic connections in areas plagued by violent crime. It is the latest in a long line of U.S. policing philosophies that have used data to target crime concentrated in small areas known as hot spots.
In early 2020, a newly formed Louisville police squad installed cameras and tracking devices to surveil several vacant homes that officers believed were linked to a drug operation, according to a review of city documents. One officer was later fired and accused of lying about some of the evidence used to connect Taylor — who lived over 10 miles away — to her ex-boyfriend’s alleged drug activity.
“It was an epic failure on so many levels,” Sam Aguiar, a lawyer who has represented Taylor’s family in litigation against the city over her death, said of the city’s place-based plan. “It was destined to fail from the start.”
At the time of Taylor’s death, Louisville was one of three cities to try the strategy. It later scrapped the initiative. Now, at least nine jurisdictions either plan to or have already adopted a similar model, according to a Washington Post review.
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Tamara Herold, an associate professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and the architect of the place network investigations model, said that Taylor’s death should not be viewed as a consequence of the strategy. Louisville officers have said they were inspired by Herold’s research. She said she shared information with them about the strategy, but had no involvement in how they conducted their investigations or the decisions they made.
“This particular search warrant resulted in a horrific tragedy. It is not a defining feature of this initiative,” she said. “The defining feature of this particular initiative is really to bring in city resources to remove the need for continuous police enforcement.”
In statements provided to The Post, officials from some departments pursuing the strategy have stressed that it has shown great potential to reduce crime.
In Philadelphia, police spokeswoman Jasmine Reilly called the plan “a holistic approach to crime reduction.” In Las Vegas, police spokesman Larry Hadfield said the collaborative effort among city agencies has “substantially reduced gun-related victimization” and has helped direct “resources to our most vulnerable communities.” And in Tucson, Police Chief Chad Kasmar has called it “a comprehensive and meaningful plan to reduce violence,” saying that his department is “a staunch supporter of evidence-based, science-informed policing.”
Studies of Herold’s strategy have so far been limited, but the private fund Arnold Ventures, which invests in social causes, has pledged more than $2 million for training efforts and evaluations of the program in Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Tucson, Denver, Wichita, Baton Rouge, and Harris County, Tex. (A Baton Rouge police spokesman said plans for the program were paused in December because of a shortage of officers.)
“Policymakers, mayors and city councils are looking for answers of, ‘How do we sustainably decrease violence?’ ” said Walter Katz, the vice president for criminal justice at Arnold Ventures.
In Dallas, Police Chief Eddie Garcia said that before he took over the department in 2021, he consulted with criminologists, telling them: “I want to come up with a scientifically based crime-reduction strategy from the best that criminology has to offer.” In 2020, Dallas had ended the year with 251 homicides, its highest count since 2004.
Those discussions led Garcia to turn to place network investigations alongside a traditional hot-spot-policing effort.
“This is not just about making arrests and police proactivity,” he said of the place network strategy. “It’s about lighting, streets, traffic, parks and [recreation], schools, the city attorney’s office and holding landlords accountable — I mean, you name it. It’s a holistic approach about truly trying to invest in that neighborhood and take care of a problem.”
A strategy rehashed
Police chiefs under pressure to quickly reduce crime have long turned to plans prioritizing small areas of a city that account for outsize rates of violence.
One of the earliest uses of hot spots was in Minneapolis in the late 1980s during an experiment co-led by the criminologist David Weisburd. That work identified 110 clusters of addresses with the highest number of calls to police. Officials analyzed the calls to determine the “hottest” times and assigned officers to patrol half of the areas for at least three hours a day. In the end, hot spots with increased patrols reported reductions of between 6 and 13 percent in the number of calls about crime.
“As opposed to having to just ride around in incoherent ways, have them go to the hot spots,” said Weisburd, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Let’s use police patrol in a more rational way.”
The success of such early experiments gained notice. The strategy soon took hold in police departments across the country as officials routinely found that a small percentage of city blocks accounted for significant portions of citywide crime numbers.
As the use of hot spots spread, Anthony Braga, now the director of the Crime and Justice Policy Lab in the department of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, reviewed 78 tests of hot-spot-policing interventions conducted in more than two dozen U.S. cities and in eight countries from 1989 to 2017. He found that nearly 80 percent of the tests reported “noteworthy crime and disorder reductions.”
In his review, he noted that just 10 percent of hot-spot studies measured the effects of such policing on community residents. Those that did found little detriment to community and police relations, but Braga noted that some initiatives could lead to more men of color being swept into the criminal justice system — a point also made by critics of such programs.
“Flooding the zone isn’t going to solve the problem of poverty or economic stagnation in certain communities,” said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at American University in Washington and author of the book “The Rise of Big Data Policing.”
Ferguson suggested that greater funding of schools and jobs programs would have longer-lasting positive results. “But they’re police chiefs,” he said. “They don’t actually have the tools to do these things, so all they can come up with is an answer that sounds good, which is: ‘Don’t worry. We have a new policing strategy’ — which is really just the old policing strategy with a new name.”
Before taking over the Dallas department last year, Garcia consulted with criminologists at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) to draft a crime-reduction plan and to oversee an effort to evaluate its results.
The first step would be to divide the city into tens of thousands of grids, about the size of football fields, and to flag roughly the top 50 grids for violent crime. Officers would patrol those areas with greater visibility and, in some grids, use investigative tactics to gather intelligence.
Also within the 29-page plan was the place network investigations model that promised to “identify and disrupt networks of criminogenic places.”
“It’s a relatively new theoretical advance in our understanding of crime and place,” said Michael Smith, a professor in the department of criminology at UTSA. “It’s certainly not been around as long as hot spots policing has been around. But I think it has shown great promise.”
The Cincinnati experiment
Throughout the new Dallas plan, Garcia cited the research of Herold — whose “place-based investigations of violent offender territories (PIVOT)” model was first used in Cincinnati in 2016 as an experiment to combat gun violence. There, she and police officials developed a scoring system to flag “micro-locations” that were “chronically violent,” according to a summary. The strategy relied heavily on intelligence gathering — surveillance, undercover policing and the use of confidential informants — and leaned on community partners. Drug crime was one factor often driving gun violence, Herold found.
In the Cincinnati experiment, street parking was eliminated after the team concluded that the spaces were used to conceal drug transactions. Streetlights were installed. Blighted buildings were demolished. When investigators examined one residential area used by gang members, they found guns and ammunition hidden in tall grass with children playing nearby. So, they mowed the grass.
From 2015 to 2016, the pilot micro-location program reported a drop of more than 80 percent in the number of shooting victims. Capt. Matthew Hammer of the Cincinnati Police Department said that the strategy remains effective but that the city, which had a record number of homicides in 2020, has struggled to scale up the program. It is in use in just four locations.
“The amount of resources that it takes to work through some of these challenges and to untangle some of these problems is extraordinary,” Hammer said.
Officials in Louisville had embraced the strategy after high-ranking members of their police department attended a presentation in June 2019 about Herold’s model. In October, they traveled to Cincinnati to observe meetings about the strategy. By December, Louisville had created its own “Place-Based Investigations Squad.”
The goal, according to documents later made public by Louisville, was to “dismantle the entire physical infrastructure, or place networks, used by offenders.” The city planned to use “all city resources” to do so, focusing on areas of chronic violence and then disrupting networks of violence. Then, officials would create “sustainable solutions” for public safety.
By New Year’s Eve, city leaders assigned five officers to the squad and selected its first target: a “microcell” in West Louisville comprising several blocks. In the middle was Elliott Avenue, the site of an increase in aggravated assaults and drug-related crimes.
During a May 2020 interview with the Louisville police department’s public integrity unit, then-detective Josh Jaynes described how the squad decided on the location.
“It’s like a hot spot,” he said.
‘Typical trap house’
Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old hospital technician, had no criminal record and lived more than 10 miles outside the “microcell” under police scrutiny. Yet she quickly became ensnared in what Jaynes later said in the investigative interview was “probably one of the bigger casefiles I’ve ever been a part of.”
On Jan. 2, 2020, Louisville police officers installed a camera on a utility pole, pointing the lens west at South 24th Street and Elliott Avenue. Within one hour of the camera’s activation, detectives observed as many as 20 cars drive to and from 2424 Elliott Ave. The constant flow of cars there, they noted, was “indicative of narcotics trafficking.”
“Just [a] typical trap house,” Jaynes remarked in his interview. “People coming and going.”
One of the cars spotted was a white 2016 Chevrolet Impala carrying Jamarcus Glover, who had a felony record for selling cocaine in Mississippi. The car was registered to Taylor, his ex-girlfriend, although detectives did not report seeing her in the vehicle that night. In later reports detailing the camera’s surveillance, detectives documented one sighting of Taylor with Glover, along with reports of her black Dodge Charger seen “numerous times” in front of the Elliott Avenue home.
On Jan. 3, 2020, police arrested Glover on charges related to guns and drugs recovered from the Elliott Avenue home and two other houses, and he was booked into jail, from where he called Taylor. After his release, the squad installed a GPS tracking device on his car that recorded six trips to 3003 Springfield Dr., Taylor’s apartment complex across town. A detective photographed Glover leaving Taylor’s apartment with what appeared to be a U.S. Postal Service package in hand.
The squad developed a theory that Glover was using Taylor and her apartment to store his drug money. “They get other people involved, and it’s usually females,” Jaynes said in his police interview.
In March, Jaynes prepared the request for no-knock warrants to enter 2424 Elliott Ave. and two neighboring houses, along with Taylor’s apartment on Springfield Drive. For Taylor’s apartment, Jaynes wrote that he had “verified through a U.S. postal inspector that Jamarcus Glover has been receiving packages at 3003 Springfield Drive #4.”
Shortly after midnight on March 13, 2020, a Louisville SWAT team raided 2424 Elliott Ave. and recovered “a large amount of suspected crack cocaine and suspected Fentanyl pills” hidden in a bag in a tree in the backyard, along with “other evidence of narcotics trafficking” including a digital scale and large amounts of cash, according to documents. Glover was arrested at the house.
Across town, officers carried out what they have described as a “knock and announce” entry into Taylor’s apartment. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, opened fire, and police returned fire, fatally shooting Taylor. Walker, a licensed gun owner, has said he heard banging sounds but did not hear any identification — leading him to think the officers were intruders. Officials said officers found no drugs or money in Taylor’s apartment.
The revelation that a Louisville officer had been shot in the leg left Jaynes feeling unsettled. “It stinks, because I feel like some of our investigation, I would have done it a little bit differently,” he said in the interview with the public integrity unit. “These are our warrants. We all had a hand in this.”
The city later agreed to pay Taylor’s family $12 million. Former police officer Brett Hankison was acquitted this month of charges that he endangered three people when he fired through a wall into an adjacent apartment during the raid.
Eleven months after Taylor’s death, the Louisville Metro Police Department disbanded the squad dedicated to place-based investigations. Jaynes was fired last year after officials said he had lied on the search warrant affidavit about the claim that he had “verified” through a U.S. postal inspector that Glover received packages at Taylor’s apartment complex. Jaynes has sued the department’s merit board in an attempt to regain his job.
In an interview with The Post, Jaynes said he did not lie but was instead relying on information conveyed by a fellow officer. “We’re still pursuing my appeal in circuit court, and I’m going to fight this until I can’t fight no more,” he said.
Jaynes, 39, declined to answer questions about the investigative tactics his team used to focus on Taylor and Glover. But he said he believed in the philosophy behind his team’s work and disagreed with the decision to end the department’s initiative on place based investigations.
“We all had good intentions to implement the strategy and to see results and to see criminal activity decrease,” he said.
The department declined to make Police Chief Erika Shields available for an interview.
“Place Based Investigations (PBI) was a hot-spot-policing strategy intended to help focus limited resources in specific high-crime areas. It is no longer in existence,” said a statement issued by a department spokeswoman. “The Criminal Interdiction Unit, which oversaw the initiative, was revamped under Chief Shields’s administration to align with current intelligence-led policing practices focusing on illegal guns and violent offenders — knowing ‘who’ you are looking for and ‘why’ rather than ‘where.’ ”
Herold has said that Louisville’s attempt to implement her strategy was not fully formed because it had not adopted the core tenet of her program: a board of citywide partners working together to address issues in the places under scrutiny.
Although there was no board in place, emails later released by the city show that the efforts to confront crime on Elliott Avenue extended beyond the police department. In early 2020, a Louisville code enforcement officer emailed detectives assigned to the squad, discussing nuisance orders related to criminal activity at 2424 Elliott Ave. Months after Taylor’s death, the city took ownership of the property.
Aguiar, meanwhile, said he is “absolutely” certain that Taylor would be alive if the Louisville department had not embarked on a place-focused strategy. He said the effort was a misguided attempt to gentrify blighted neighborhoods under the guise of fighting crime — a claim disputed by city leaders.
“They should have never been at Breonna Taylor’s house that night,” he said. “And the only reason they were is because you had five detectives that were given such a minor task that had to consume 40 hours of their workweek and became their life. They just became obsessive over it.”
‘In a perfect world, crime is zero’
Back in Dallas, Garcia has a go-to phrase to sum up his long-term vision: weeding and seeding.
“We need to weed the criminal element that’s responsible for violent crime,” he said. “But we’re also trying to seed those same areas with positivity. And that’s part of the plan that I hope doesn’t get missed.”
Dallas officials, citing security concerns, have not publicly identified the roughly 50 hot spot grids or the two locations in which they are testing the broader place network investigations strategy. But The Post was allowed to observe the hot spot strategy in a handful of locations last fall.
Within the grids, opinions from community members ranged from anger to ambivalence, and in some cases, cautious praise.
In southwest Dallas, the hub of Grid No. 6913 is the Super 7 Inn — a long-term-stay motel that police officials say has been plagued by violent crime. One night last fall, an officer in an unmarked car entered license plate numbers of nearby cars into an electronic system — looking for stolen vehicles or other violations. Officers in a marked cruiser soon pulled over a Dodge Charger with an expired registration tag and arrested the driver for outstanding warrants on traffic tickets. A small amount of marijuana was recovered, but officers said the quantity did not meet the threshold for criminal charges.
Two passengers in the car, who were released without being charged with a crime, criticized the policing tactics used in the area.
“They’re not going to protect us,” said Marquez Penagraph, a 22-year-old Black college student. “Ain’t no African American, male or female, thinking they’ve got police help. I guarantee you — they are not.”
Across the street, a small group of men watched from a grassy field as police swarmed the area during the stop.
“This is an area of high crime and high drugs,” said Christopher Middleton, 37, a long-term resident of the Super 7 Inn. “If nobody wasn’t doing nothing, [the police] are not gonna be here, right?”
Across the city, in Grid No. 46649, a stretch of rundown houses on Hamilton Avenue had been flagged by police as one of the city’s most violent areas. One house, painted blue, was boarded up. Three women sat on a bed of blankets and pillows on the porch, playing dominoes.
Lauthasal Langley, 45, said that for the past few months, she has used the porch as a place to sleep and keep an eye on her two friends.
“They think that every time that they see a group of Black folks together, it has to be some drugs going on, or a crime going on,” she said, pointing at the nearby Dallas police officers. “No. We just like to hang out. This is what we do.”
In a command staff meeting in October, police leaders described evidence of an illegal drug operation within the block of Hamilton Avenue. One official suggested that the next step to address the house where Langley and her friends live would be to work with city code enforcement to declare it uninhabitable and possibly tear it down.
Garcia said the place network investigations strategy aims to provide assistance to people such as Langley by coordinating services from multiple city agencies, including the Office of Homeless Solutions.
“Solving a problem isn’t necessarily arresting people,” Garcia said.
At the end of the year, homicides were down by 13 percent, against a 5 percent increase in homicide numbers in major cities nationwide. Dallas officials also reported a citywide 9 percent decrease in violent crime from the previous year.
Smith, the criminologist guiding Dallas’s plan, said the crime reduction program is working. Grids that were prioritized in the fall showed a nearly 53 percent reduction in violent crime from the three-month period before the experiment began, according to summary data. Grids that did not receive enhanced policing recorded only a 12 percent decrease.
And although Smith says he thinks policing efforts within the grids probably drove the citywide decrease in violent crime, he does not yet have the data analysis to prove it.
“Can I as a scientist draw a direct causal line? At this point, no,” said Smith. “This is not a lab. This is the real world. You can’t control for any input that could have contributed to a crime drop.”
Critics caution that any police-gathered data should be viewed with the highest level of scrutiny because of the danger of confirmation bias.
“The data that they have about where crimes are committed and by whom is all based on police decisions about where and how to collect the information,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. “And so it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the police will focus a great deal of resources on certain Black and Brown neighborhoods.”
Back in Grid 6913, at the Super 7 Inn, Middleton and his partner, Brittney, have lived at the motel since last summer. The sound of gunfire from a drive-by shooting across the street in January left the couple and their two young children feeling rattled. But Middleton said they have felt safer because of the hot-spot-policing effort.
“This motel complex used to have a lot of unsavory characters,” he said. “The dope dealers, they’re gone. Either they were arrested or they got smart and left.”
Deputy Chief Richard Foy, who oversees the police department’s South Central and Southwest divisions, proudly credits the officers who patrol hot spots such as Grid 6913. He calls them his “crime-fighters” — a superhero-like reference to the men and women working the high-priority shifts.
“On violent crime, we kicked ass,” Foy said on New Year’s Eve as he analyzed numbers on his work computer. “Just because we have a successful year doesn’t mean that we’re done. In a perfect world, crime is zero.”