Clem Onojeghou

Balancing Deterrence and Prevention: The Role of Research

John K. Roman and Jeffrey A. Butts

March 02, 2022

There is an urgent need for more high-quality evidence to support community prevention strategies.

There is an urgent need for more high-quality evidence to support community prevention strategies.

As the United States copes with the twin challenges of reducing gun violence and reforming the police, our highest priority should be to balance two critical but distinct objectives: prevention and deterrence. Although related, prevention and deterrence are not the same. Understanding the distinction makes all the difference in charting a path toward a shared and sustainable peace.

Deterrence is about generating fear among people inclined to break societal rules. It highlights the consequences of rule-breaking and demonstrates government’s capacity to carry out those consequences with certainty, severity and swiftness. Policing, by and large, does not prevent crime—policing deters crime. When police leaders say they prevent crime, they are asserting the effectiveness of deterrence. 

Prevention is different than deterrence, and it uses other tools and resources. It lowers risks and builds assets. Risks are obstacles to safety that often metastasize across individuals and increase harm to entire communities, including substance abuse, antisocial peers, unemployment, and family violence.

Assets are protective factors that help individuals and communities avoid or overcome risks. Assets take many forms—strong families, adequate incomes, education and careers, quality housing and a shared sense of belonging—virtually anything that helps people achieve stability, and ultimately happiness, in their lives.

Prevention and deterrence are both critical, but they are not substitutes. It is not reasonable to do one and not the other. A city focused on public safety must invest in both deterrence and prevention, carefully and judiciously, without confusing the two models. They are radically different approaches to violence reduction. 

Deterrence inspires fear of punishment. Prevention builds peace with investments that foster social bonds. The most effective and durable policies rely on an appropriate balance of both mechanisms. Unfortunately, the evidence base is not balanced. Researchers and their funding sources are more likely to investigate the effects of deterrence, at least in part because prevention is more difficult and more expensive to measure. Prevention mechanisms incorporate many levers across many systems. Outcomes are often diffuse, more akin to a rising tide of social improvements than a singular tidal wave. Despite its generally smaller size, however, the research literature on violence prevention includes promising results.

The New Public Safety Context

Looking forward, researchers must generate evidence in a new social context. Until recently, violent crime rates were falling in the United States, and policy prescriptions to reduce crime and violence were increasingly optimistic. One accomplished scholar even published a book to explain how New York City became safe.

The cause of the declining rate of violence since the 1990s will remain a subject of debate, but deterrence through mass incarceration and larger police forces likely played a role. As the deterrent of legal punishment affects an ever-larger proportion of the population, crime will necessarily decline. The social costs may be unbearable, however, and any marginal returns in safety eventually evaporate. Still, 20 years of good news about falling crime can generate public support for law enforcement among those not directly affected by mass arrests and incarceration. 

Then, after a generation of optimism about falling violence, 2020 arrived. As the world confronted a deadly coronavirus, interpersonal violence and especially gun violence surged in the United States. In percentage terms, the number of homicides and the homicide rate increased more in a single year than at any time since reliable data became available in the 1960s. It may take further analysis to isolate the role of the pandemic in the violent crime surge because the country faced another compelling crisis in 2020 that might have affected crime and changed the context of crime policy. In May 2020, Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. On video. 

With the nation in a pandemic-induced state of home confinement, consuming unprecedented amounts of news and information, Americans reacted with horror to the excruciating video of George Floyd suffocated by an indifferent man in a police uniform. George Floyd’s killing followed other notorious, often video-recorded police killings, including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark and Breonna Taylor. The glaring injustice of police killings led to urgent demands not only for police reform but also extensive investments in community-based violence interventions.

When the public demands violence prevention tools other than policing, reformers point to community-based programs such as Cure Violence, Advance Peace, and READI Chicago. These programs are relatively new and continually evolving. Research findings so far are promising, but the optimum mix of their key ingredients is not yet known. The challenge for policy and research is to establish the bona fides of community-based violence prevention programs with solid evaluation methods, not simply as a public relations exercise meant to appease critics of law enforcement. 

Evidence Matters

Research plays a crucial role in this effort. Researchers must collaborate with communities to identify best practices that can institutionalize the community-centered approach to violence reduction. The goal must be to isolate the causal mechanisms that lead to violence reduction through rigorous, objective and transparent research studies. Communities should participate, even lead such efforts, but the community role cannot be an excuse to use lesser standards of evidence. 

Prevention strategies centered in the community require strong evidence to overcome the deep and long-standing affinity that many American officials have for policing.

The desire for community-centered public safety models is strong enough that public officials sometimes forgive advocates for drawing on weak evidence. In June 2021, the Biden administration recommended expanded funding for community violence interventions, saying such programs had been “shown to reduce violence by as much as 60 percent.” Only the safety clause “as much as” prevented the claim from being obvious hyperbole. The White House supported the assertion by citing a report from advocacy groups, including Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and “grassroots, faith-based” organizations.

Supporters of community-based violence prevention strategies should seek out evidence created with professional evaluation methods and causal inference. The number of community intervention models is growing, and the findings of evaluations are promising, but it is too soon to designate any of the programs as “evidence-based.” Advocates put their growing movement at risk when they eschew solid evidence in favor of rhetoric and slogans. Clever marketing can help mobilize political support, but it is not evidence, and it will not persuade sophisticated public officials in a debate over policy. Prevention strategies centered in the community require strong evidence to overcome the deep and long-standing affinity that many American officials have for policing.

Elected officials instinctively turn to police when confronted with crime and violence concerns, and just as instinctively, the police answer with bold claims about their effectiveness. The popular narrative is that only policing can make the public safe. It is a deviously recursive strategy. When crime rises, it indicates a need for more policing. When crime falls, it must mean policing is effective. Whatever the question, the answer is more muscular policing. 

Evidence for policing is more widely available, but it is also imperfect. Studies showing positive effects of policing on crime often treat law enforcement as a commodity, with little effort to disentangle various elements. These studies suggest that policing is either present or it is not. Each unit is indistinguishable from another. When a study finds a positive association between the presence of police and a decline in crime or violence, officials see it as a rationale for more police, disregarding the opportunity costs and collateral consequences of policing and prisons.


The political storms of 2020 and 2021 have altered the landscape of public safety policy. For too long, the public debate about crime has defaulted to a binary choice—either more policing and punishment or more community services and prevention. Thankfully, many reformers are now calling for an end to “either/or” narratives (police or community) in favor of “both/and” strategies (police reform and community violence interventions). This new consensus is inherently sensible and should serve as the foundation for future policy. It is, however, vulnerable if high-quality studies of prevention strategies continue to be scarce. Public officials, community leaders and researchers must collaborate to measure the crime-reduction effects of community-centered prevention, but they must do so using professional evaluation methods to create a more balanced evidence base. The effort begins by understanding that securing coercive compliance through deterrence is not prevention. ◘

Further Reading

Travis Hirschi, Causes of Delinquency, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969.

Patrick Sharkey, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, New York: W.W. Norton, 2018. 

Franklin Zimring, The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.