Kelley McCall / Associated Press

Hot-Spot Policing After Memphis: Six Questions for David Weisburd

Greg Berman

February 08, 2023

The winner of the Stockholm Prize for Criminology talks about the enforcement tactic in the wake of the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis.

The winner of the Stockholm Prize for Criminology talks about the enforcement tactic in the wake of the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis.

Over the past week or two, we’ve learned a lot about the Memphis police officers that were charged in the death of Tyre Nichols. In particular, we’ve learned that they were part of a special unit (dubbed “Scorpion”) that was dispatched to high-crime areas and that developed a reputation for aggressive tactics targeting young Black men.

Because of this, a number of commentators have begun asking pointed questions about “hot-spot policing,” an enforcement approach that uses data to concentrate police resources in the places where crime happens most frequently.  The Wall Street Journal: “Tyre Nichols Case Prompts Questions About Police Tactics in Crime Hot Spots.” The Atlantic: “How Memphis’ Policing Strategy Went So Wrong.” The American Prospect: “‘Hot Spot’ Cops Killed Tyre Nichols in Memphis. Hochul Wants More in New York.” In this last piece, Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at American University, issued a dismissive verdict: “It’s not like hot-spot policing has actually succeeded in any long-term crime turn around.”

To get a better sense of hot-spot policing — what it is, what it isn’t and what the research says — I reached out to David Weisburd, one of the editors of “Proactive Policing: Effects on Crime and Communities,” a comprehensive look at the field published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  

Weisburd is a Distinguished Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University, and the Walter E. Meyer Professor Emeritus of Law and Criminal Justice at the Hebrew University.  The winner of the 2010 Stockholm Prize (often called the Nobel Prize of criminology), Weisburd is the author of more than two dozen books and hundreds of scholarly articles, most of them focused on crime, place and policing. He is not just an academic researcher; over the years, Weisburd has been a vocal advocate of evidence-based policymaking, including serving as the chief science advisor to the National Policing Institute (formerly the National Police Foundation), and helping to create the Campbell Collaboration Crime and Justice Group, a research collaborative devoted to disseminating high-quality research findings. 

I posed six questions to Weisburd via email. Here are the responses, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Greg Berman: One of the things you are known for is articulating the law of crime concentration, which states that in any given city, a large amount of criminal behavior tends to occur in the same few locations year after year, and that we can identify the precise street corners and alleyways where crime clusters. Is hot-spot policing based on the law of crime concentration? What is the relationship between the two?

David Weisburd: Hot-spot policing is based on a strong body of basic research that shows that crime in cities is highly concentrated.  In most large cities, 50% of crime is found on about 5% of streets and 25% of crime on about 1% of streets. Most streets in a city have no recorded crime in a single year. 

Hot-spot policing has been found to be an effective crime prevention approach in a large number of rigorous evaluations of policing interventions.

What this means is that the police have an opportunity to be more efficient and effective by concentrating resources on crime hot spots. At the same time, by concentrating resources on crime hot spots, the police can reduce their presence at places that have little crime. In this sense, the law of crime concentration provides a logic for increasing effectiveness while decreasing the intrusiveness of policing on the majority of streets in a city. And this is not just theory: Hot-spot policing has been found to be an effective crime prevention approach in a large number of rigorous evaluations of policing interventions.

Hot-spot policing is not responsible for the tragic and brutal killing of Tyre Nichols — bad policing is responsible for that.

GB: Some of the press coverage of the killing of Tyre Nichols explicitly blamed hot-spot policing for his death.  I'm wondering what you make of this argument.

DW: This is just a wrongheaded conclusion! Hot-spot policing is about the allocation of resources. It is about where the police should concentrate their efforts, not about what the police do at those places. Hot-spot policing has spanned a large number of strategies from simply increasing police patrol to policing units that use problem-oriented policing to address high volume crime hot spots. In this sense, hot-spot policing can include a myriad of strategies, some very aggressive, and some that look to increase community collaboration. 

Hot-spot policing is not responsible for the tragic and brutal killing by police of Tyre Nichols — bad policing is responsible for that. And bad policing is not necessarily always a crime. Some legal policing can be bad policing, for example when police treat citizens with disrespect. Chief Barney Melekian of Santa Barbara, Calif., once told me that his job is not only to stop policing that is illegal, but also to stop "awful but lawful" policing.

Police in democratic societies must treat citizens with dignity and respect and follow the laws on stops and the use of force.

It is important to remember that crime hot spots are places where citizens need the police. Some hot spots may have scores or even hundreds of crimes in a single year. In a study with the National Policing Institute in Phoenix, we found that people who live on such streets want more police attention, not less police attention.  

The lesson I draw from Memphis is not that the police should stop addressing crime at crime hot spots, but that when sending police to these places, they have to give them more than a simple message that they need to reduce crime. Police in democratic societies must treat citizens with dignity and respect and follow the laws on stops and use of force. 

GB: We have, sadly, seen incidents like this before. Whenever something like this happens, we hear calls for more police training. For a lot of people, this sounds like window dressing, not real change. Is better training really a solution to the problem of excessive use of force? If so, what kind of training?

DW: The truth is that we have relatively little rigorous evidence about the impact of police training on police in the field. But my colleagues and I have recently completed a randomized field trial published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that suggests that training in the principles of procedural justice is likely to have a strong positive impact on policing crime hot spots. [Ed.: Procedural justice theory argues that when interacting with authority figures, how people are treated is as important as the substance of what actually happens. In policing, this translates into a particular focus on encouraging officers to treat people with dignity and respect and to take pains to promote perceptions of neutrality and transparency.]

In that three-city study (Tucson, Houston and Cambridge, Mass.), 40 violent/drug crime hot spots were identified in each city which were randomly allocated to a procedural justice condition, and a standard policing condition. Eight to 12 officers in each city were randomly assigned to each condition. 

In the procedural justice condition, the officers received a five-day training focusing on procedural justice and were told to reduce crime in their hot spots while treating people they interacted with in procedurally just ways.  The control condition received a half-day training focusing on crime hot spots and were told to reduce crime. The police were advised to use the standard strategies for crime reduction for special units in their department.

The results were extremely encouraging. We spent hundreds of hours observing both units, and found that the procedural justice condition officers were much more likely to give citizens voice, show neutrality and treat citizens with respect. Importantly, they were also significantly less likely to treat citizens with disrespect. We conducted surveys at the hot spots, and residents of the procedural justice hot spots were found to see policing on their streets as significantly less harassing and that police were significantly less likely to use unnecessary force. 

Some might argue that this "softer" policing of the procedural justice group would lead to less deterrence and more crime. But we also found a relatively significant 14% decline in crime at the procedural justice hot spots.

This randomized field trial shows that training can help to develop more respectful policing and that this will improve citizen evaluations of police on key outcomes, and potentially reduce crime.

After the study was published, a number of policing experts and police managers said to me that the intervention was unrealistic. Given budget constraints and declines in staffing, they could not afford to take officers off the street for five days of training. Given events like those in Memphis, it seems to me that police agencies cannot afford not to invest in such training.

GB: Another argument that has been advanced in the wake of Memphis is that police departments should raise educational standards, requiring recruits to have bachelor's degrees. Do you think this would make a significant difference?

DW: The evidence suggests that college educations are helpful for developing better policing. Traditionally, unions have been opposed to such standards. I think this is a major mistake. Whether it would prevent the extreme type of behavior observed in Memphis is hard to know. We need more research on such issues. But what is clear is that police agencies in a rush to increase the number of recruits should not lower standards.

GB: What does hot-spot policing look like when it is done well?

DW: Good data and crime analysis are necessary to correctly identify hot spots, and also to identify when they are hot. Good management structures are necessarily to implement programs so that the hot spots are actually patrolled or receive interventions.  

Research suggests that community-engaged, problem-oriented hot-spot policing is likely to have the strongest impact on crime problems. The procedural justice hot-spot policing study points to the importance of embedding respectful policing, both in terms of improving police interactions with the public and improving crime prevention outcomes. Those who argue that policing has to be "tougher" and more "disrespectful" to be effective are in my view just wrong!

GB: Some activists have argued that policing does not make us safer.  What does the research say about the effectiveness of hot-spot policing?

DW: This answer is easy. There are now a large number of experimental and quasi-experimental studies that show that hot-spot policing reduces crime, without significant evidence of displacement. Indeed, there is evidence from the studies of a diffusion of benefits to areas nearby. This was the conclusion of a Campbell Collaboration review done by Anthony Braga and colleagues as well as the National Academies of Sciences’ review of proactive policing. Importantly, the National Academies of Sciences panel also concluded that the evidence to date does not show significant negative community impacts from hot-spot policing.  At the same time, we need more studies of how police actually police crime hot spots to ensure that we are gaining the maximum safety for the public with the minimum negative impact on communities.