Scott Olson / Getty Images

Cops Are Crucial

Anthony A. Braga and Philip J. Cook

September 27, 2023

What police can do differently to save lives

What police can do differently to save lives

In many U.S. cities, gun violence is the most urgent crime problem. High rates of deadly violence make a city less livable, not only in a literal sense, but also by degrading the quality of life, blocking economic development and lowering property values. The police are the primary agency tasked with controlling gun violence, yet too often the advocates for gun violence prevention either ignore the police or only reference them as a part of the problem. In our view, more effective policing is a key to the success of any comprehensive effort to reduce community gun violence.

The stakes are high and growing higher. In 2020, with the onset of the pandemic and widespread vilification of the police following George Floyd’s murder, gun murders increased 34% nationwide and were up again the following year. Police officers resigned and retired in droves, and recruiting replacements has proven difficult. While the “Defund” movement never got much traction, in fact, police departments everywhere have shrunk due to vacancies. The national homicide clearance rate sunk to a new low of less than 50%. While the preliminary data suggest that the homicide rate in cities has dropped in the first half of 2023, it remains higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Now as then, gun violence is concentrated in low-income Black and Hispanic communities. These communities bear the brunt of the associated economic, social and psychological burdens. Any successful strategy must overcome the current impasse where the residents of high-violence neighborhoods do not trust the police, having experienced both abuse and neglect in their dealings with officers. Among the questions that motivate us: How can police departments find the right balance between over- and under-policing of high-violence areas? What are the best practices for police to preempt and deter gun violence? What can be done to engender support and cooperation from the public?

We offer a modestly optimistic perspective. Increasing the effectiveness of the police in gun violence prevention is both essential and possible. It is essential because there is no good alternative to police authority for reining in gang violence, interrupting cycles of retaliation, deterring gun carrying by youths and active criminals and providing justice to victims and survivors. Indeed, increasing the number of police has repeatedly been shown to reduce the amount of violent crime, typically without increasing the number of arrests. In that sense, the police are effective and could become still more so. Increasing police effectiveness is possible due to considerable advances in the understanding of what works (and what doesn’t) in the strategic use of police resources. Innovations such as focused deterrence, hot-spot policing, procedural justice (that is, treating citizens with respect and dignity) and enhanced shooting investigations have been widely studied and offer real promise if implemented correctly.

Cities can diminish their overall gun violence problems by reducing violent victimization in these very high-risk groups through the strategic application of ‘carrots and sticks.’

A comprehensive strategy for policing gun violence requires community engagement and a commitment to curbing police misbehavior. We believe that strategic reforms and investments in the police are vital for our quality of life as well as a matter of social justice.

In our book, “Policing Gun Violence,” we discuss four promising areas for reform:

1. Focus patrol on gun violence hot spots

Gun violence is not evenly spread throughout cities. Some locations are “hot spots,” which is to say, persistently dangerous. Police can control recurring gun violence by concentrating patrol activities in such places. One approach is to curtail illicit gun-carrying by conducting stops and frisks in these locations.

These kinds of enforcement strategies need to be very carefully implemented, as they risk undermining police legitimacy in the communities they serve if stops are excessive and heavy-handed. Police stops need to be lawful, conducted in a procedurally just manner and highly focused on risky people and high-risk places, in the spirit of “precision policing.” In addition to proactive patrol, the police can take the lead in identifying the underlying problems in these hot spots and help design and implement longer-term solutions. Among the possibilities: remediating vacant lots and buildings and other places that are conducive to drug dealing and other dangerous activity; regulating commercial places, such as clubs and bars, that have a high incidence of violence; and improving lighting.

2. Identify the most dangerous gangs and street crews and use focused deterrence interventions to reduce their gun involvement

Shootings are highly concentrated among groups of criminally active individuals who use guns to settle disputes emanating from personal clashes, drug market business, ongoing gang rivalries and other conflicts. Cities can diminish their overall gun violence problems by reducing violent victimization in these very high-risk groups through the strategic application of “carrots and sticks” or, more formally, incentives and disincentives. This model, sometimes known as “focused deterrence,” was first developed and implemented in Boston in the 1990s, with considerable success in getting youth gangs to stop shooting.

Similar programs have been implemented in other cities since then, all designed to reduce gun violence through a credible threat of arrest and prosecution to chronic perpetrators. These programs gain community legitimacy if coupled with social services and opportunities for targeted offenders, and can help improve police-community relationships in disadvantaged communities. These multifaceted programs can be difficult to implement and sustain over extended periods. Jurisdictions must develop a strong network of willing partners, adopt accountability structures and sustainability plans and conduct upfront and ongoing analyses of gun violence problems to customize the program to local conditions.

Several jurisdictions, most notably Denver, have recognized the importance of solving nonfatal shootings and have allocated more resources to those investigations.

3. Strengthen shooting investigations to hold violent gun offenders accountable

Low clearance rates for fatal and nonfatal shootings pose a deadly problem in U.S. cities. In Chicago and many other cities, the likelihood that a shooting will result in an arrest and prosecution is less than 15%. That is true despite the fact that investigations of shootings now benefit from routine use of video and other digital evidence, DNA matching, ballistics analysis and other technological advances. Despite these advantages, detectives still must persuade key witnesses to cooperate, starting (in the case of nonfatal shootings) with the victim. In practice, victims and other witnesses are often reluctant to cooperate. Among the reasons are fear of retaliation, dislike and distrust of the police, or a belief that the police are unlikely to succeed in locking up the perpetrator. The failure to arrest and convict undermines the preventive effects of law enforcement. Unsolved shootings also contribute to cycles of urban gun violence, deprive victims and their families of justice and erode trust in the police, which further undermines witness cooperation with investigations.

One answer on how to improve clearance rates is to give shooting investigations higher priority. Currently, nonfatal investigations typically receive much lower priority and hence investigative effort than fatal shootings. From a prevention perspective, that doesn’t make sense — the goal is to prevent shootings. Whether the victim lives or dies is largely a matter of chance, so that fatal and nonfatal cases are very similar in all relevant respects. Several jurisdictions, most notably Denver, have recognized the importance of solving nonfatal shootings, and have allocated more resources to those investigations.

Much of the problem of excess violence can be dealt with through internal policies governing hiring, training, use of force and accountability practices.

4. Reduce shootings by police by improving engagement protocols, organizational culture and training

Police officers in the line of duty killed nearly 1,200 people in 2022. A handful of such killings in recent years have been video recorded and sparked mass demonstrations, including household names such as George Floyd, Laquan McDonald, Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor. Needless to say, these events have stoked the narrative of police indifference to Black lives and impair police-community relations. These high-profile killings of Black victims are in our view part of a larger problem of excess use of force in fraught encounters by the police. (Only 1 in 4 civilians killed by the law enforcement are Black — a disproportionate number relative to population, but still a minority.)

While most police killings seem to be legally justifiable given that officers often encounter armed adversaries who are perceived to pose an imminent threat of attack, they are still problematic and preventable. Much of the problem of excess violence can be dealt with through internal policies governing hiring, training, use of force and accountability practices. It is noteworthy, for example, that while Phoenix and Dallas are very similar cities in a number of respects, the Phoenix Police Department is persistently involved in three times as many killings as the Dallas Police Department.

Decades ago, when we started our research program in gun violence prevention, much of the focus was on how best to regulate gun design, commerce, possession and carrying. Politics and the courts have made this avenue for prevention increasingly limited. The current interpretation of the Second Amendment, as articulated in the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision in 2022, may ultimately have the effect of sweeping away most regulations that we consider effective. As it is, half the states have stopped regulating gun-carrying in public, and more are poised to do so. The dwindling role of regulation has made it all the more important that the police step up. Too many people are dying, and too many neighborhoods and cities are becoming unlivable, due to gun violence.