At a pivotal moment in American policing, two widely respected criminologists — Lum heads the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, Nagin is a renowned professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College — have a set of proposals aimed at both lowering crime and improving police relations with the community. I spoke to both about their ideas, based on proven policing strategies, and their answers follow the essay.

By Cynthia Lum and Daniel S. Nagin

These are tumultuous times for policing in the United States. Deadly uses of force by the police have led to protests, heated debates, and riots. Video footage has exposed instances of bad policing to the American public, which heretofore has mostly heard only accusations. The President has created a special task force to recommend reforms. At the same time, sharp increases in homicide in many large American has reignited public demands that police take all necessary steps to keep us safe.

Cynthia Lum, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University. (Alexis Glenn/George Mason University) Cynthia Lum, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University. (Alexis Glenn/George Mason University)

How can police effectively prevent crime and keep citizens safe, while at the same time, maintain the community’s trust and confidence? Both objectives form the bedrock of policing and neither should have the standing to trump the other. But in difficult times our national discourse focuses on one objective over the other. Today, the focus is on citizens’ confidence in and trust of the police. At other times, especially when crime is on the rise, or the threat of terrorism looms, the emphasis is on public safety.

Daniel Nagin, criminology professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College. (Heinz College) Daniel Nagin, criminology professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. (Heinz College)

To achieve both these objectives two principles must be followed. The first is that crimes prevented, not arrests made, should be the key metric in judging police success in keeping the public safe. Decades of research leads to a provocative bottom line: we can’t arrest our way out of crime. Neither “broken windows” nor “zero tolerance” policing tactics that make lots of arrests for minor offenses have been shown to be effective in preventing crime. However, there is much evidence that other proactive and problem-solving alternatives that do not emphasize arrest are effective.

The second principle is that citizen reaction to the police and their tactics matters independent of how successful  police are in preventing crime. This principle seems to have been lost in the heated debates about the use of stop, question, and frisk (SQF). One side argued that these tactics were effective in preventing crime and were applied in a non-discriminatory way, and the other side argued they were ineffective and discriminatory. Strikingly absent were two important acknowledgements: that citizen reactions matter, regardless of crime control effectiveness; and that there are many evidence-based alternatives to SQF with far less noxious impacts on community relations.

Creating balance between these two principles requires fundamental adjustments to the practice and expectations of American policing. Such reinvention starts with seven important changes:

1) Prioritize crime prevention over arrests.

The priority must be crime prevention—not arrests. This does not mean that police should stop making arrests—arrests for serious crimes are a necessity but more than 80% of arrests are for minor crimes.  Research shows would-be offenders are not deterred by harsh punishment or by rapid response and clearing cases. Preventative alternatives work better.  They include proactively targeting problem places, people, and situations with problem-solving, and deterrence measures that may include non-police partners.

2) Create and install systems that monitor citizen reactions to the police and report results back to the public.

Police should routinely survey citizens on their reactions to the police and to specific tactics. Results of surveys should be regularly reported back to both citizens and officers.  The purpose of feedback should not just be informational. It should also include the changes in police strategies and tactics made in response to the polling information.

3) Reform training and redefine the “craft” of policing.

The content of police training depends on what agencies, trainers, supervisors, and fellow officers define as the “craft” of policing — the functions, purposes, and methods of good policing. Current training reinforces a traditional, reactive and arrest orientation in policing. If we want officers instead to see their craft in terms of prevention and citizen reaction, they need to be trained in the tools and perspectives necessary for achieving these two objectives.

4) Recalibrate organizational incentives.

Rewards, promotions, and informal “pats on the back” shape the actions of leaders and the rank and file.  The metrics used to judge performance and suitability for promotion should measure the officer’s knowledge of evidence-based strategies known to reduce crime and improve community trust and confidence. Candidates for promotion should be evaluated on how well they translate this knowledge into practice. The basis for awarding medals, citations, and commendations should be given for preventing crime or improving citizen-officer interactions as well as success and bravery in apprehensions.

5) Strengthen accountability with more transparency.

Police accountability encompasses a complex array of legal, procedural, and organizational issues.  Transparency is a vital part of this. Large gaps in the availability of data and policies related to police-citizen interactions should be closed — particularly those involving the use of force.  The public should be regularly informed of the outcomes of investigations into allegations of police misconduct.

6) Incorporate the analysis of crime and citizen reaction into managerial practice.

Officers, supervisors and leaders should shift from reactive and procedures-based decision making to more critical thinking and analytic problem solving. This requires that personnel at all levels have access to high quality analysis of crime and citizen reactions and are adequately trained to manage that information to obtain specific outcomes.

7) Strengthen national level research and evaluation.

Decades of research and research-practitioner partnerships in policing have brought us to these conclusions. But as with medical research, we are only at the horizon for cures to some of the toughest problems we face in policing, crime prevention, and police-citizen relations. Yet, national funding of research on policing and crime prevention more generally is miniscule compared, for example, to money spent on dental research.

American policing in the 21st century should be the era when both crime prevention and citizen reaction are recognized as independent values that not only support one another, but that also require sophisticated integration into policing organizations. Some agencies have already broke important ground in pursuing these goals with their communities. They should be models for the rest of the country.

Cynthia Lum was an officer in Baltimore for five years before becoming a criminology professor at George Mason University. She wants to offer police proven, realistic ways to change the way they work on the streets.

“With everything that’s been happening now, this is an opportune moment in the history of policing to highlight not only the fundamentals of policing but what it takes to get us there. The reality is it’s not ingrained into the habits of everyday policing…This is the perfect time to remind all of us, not just the police, but the citizens, the media, researchers, what policing is about. We can’t fix community relations with the police simply by having a community meeting or some superficial thing. You have to reimagine the performance metrics of the police”


Lum said the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy has devised ‘The Evidence-Based Policing Playbook,” which offers officers concrete ideas for improving, and measuring, the way patrol officers do their job. “We developed the playbook to show what officers on the street can do to be proactive,” such as identifying local crime hot spots, directed patrols and preventing repeat burglaries in a neighborhood after one has occurred.

“You need to give them a way they can act within the system,” Lum said. “You also need leadership. This requires a different type of a police leader, one that’s critical, highly educated, open to change in a dynamic learning environment. Open to the community’s input, not just citizens but researchers and the media. I feel like we’re on the cusp where police are the most open to change.”

Daniel Nagin is a nationally known criminologist and winner of the 2014 Stockholm Prize in Criminology. I asked how police departments could measure whether an officer had prevented crime, as discussed above, since that would be quantifying something which didn’t happen.

“There are ways in which you can measure the success of crime prevention,” Nagin said. “If there is a crime problem, like a crime hot spot, and you intervene and there is a subsequent decline, those are reliable indicators. Beyond that, there are things that we know are effective in preventing crime. For example in medicine there are therapies which can prevent conditions from occurring. The same kind of reasoning can be used in policing.”

Your essay talks about frequently surveying citizens and improving transparency. This seems to add a more social work-ish component to policing.

“There will be reactions like that,” Nagin said. He said officers making more effective use of their time between calls, and police commanders devising ways to measure and even give awards for that, is a way to “change the culture. The activity they’re doing to prevent crime and enhance community relationships, much of that data is completely lost. Converting that into data, which could be used to convert into performance metrics, those are the kinds of things we need to explore. It’s using technology, but strategically. People do what they’re rewarded for. You’ve got to come up with effective and efficient ways to measure their performance.”