2017 POP Conference
Oct 2-4, 2017 Houston, TX

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Applying Focused Deterrence to Specific Crime Problems

Because FDIs are essentially aimed at reducing or eliminating criminal offending by prolific offenders, and because prolific offenders tend to commit lots of different kinds of crimes rather than specializing in one or a few, FDIs hold potential to reduce a range of crime types in addition to the one that the initiative is primarily intended to address. For example, an FDI that targets violent gang members who run illegal drug markets might, in addition to reducing drug dealing and drug-related violence, reduce such crime types as thefts of and from vehicles, street robbery (including drug rip-offs), burglary, street prostitution, domestic violence, and a number of nuisance offenses.r

Some FDIs concentrate on offenders living and operating in defined neighborhoods and areas, usually running organized drug markets. In essence, these initiatives combine a focus on high-risk offenders with a focus on high-risk places and thereby employ a combination of individual-based responses, such as focused deterrence, and place-based responses, including hot spot policing—particularly to drug markets. These blended initiatives may complicate efforts to disentangle the effects of focused deterrence from the effects of place-based responses, but the blended response might make the most sense, given the nature of the local problem. Other FDIs are less tied to particular places; they target high-risk offenders from across an entire jurisdiction and are not necessarily linked to a particular class of violent offending, such as that associated with illegal drug markets.

It is also possible to design FDIs that more precisely address specific problems and that might not have a general crimereduction effect. For example, an FDI that targets street prostitutes, sex predators, drunk drivers, or chronic nuisance offenders is less likely to reduce general crime because prolific offenders of those types are less likely to be crime generalists.

It is not yet reliably known whether the concept will work in the same way for offending that is largely individualistic or that involves just one repeat offender and one repeat victim as it does for offending that involves larger groups of individuals who influence one another’s behavior greatly, such as gang-related offending.

Gang Violence

Most of the FDIs to date have been directed at youth-gang violence, broadly defined. This includes small groups that self-identify as gangs up through large, highly organized, and structured gangs. It includes gun violence that is intricately tied to a gang’s activities (e.g., establishing and defending turf, settling business disputes, and retaliating for offenses committed against the gang), as well as violence that is loosely tied to gang membership (e.g., a gang member settling a personal dispute).53

When addressing gang-related problems, you should read the following other Problem-Oriented Policing Guides:

Drug Markets

FDIs are particularly worth considering in addressing retail drug markets, as extensive research and experience have demonstrated that traditional, high-volume drug enforcement approaches have largely failed to eradicate the markets and, in many respects, have only made the problems—and the communities in which they operate—worse.54

In Lansing, Michigan; High Point and Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; and Rockford, Illinois, the FDIs all focused on open-air drug markets and the offenders committing crimes around them.55 Particularly with drug market problems, it is vital that those running the FDI develop a firm understanding of the social networks that make up the drug market. This includes understanding who works for whom, who makes what kinds of decisions, how discipline is maintained within the criminal network, and how violent incidents are or are not connected to drug-market operations.

One of the most distinctive features of the Boston and High Point FDIs, as well as others that have involved illegal drug markets and predominantly African-American offenders, is that gaining community cooperation in police-led efforts to curtail criminal activity required some critical self-examination by police and prosecutors about their traditional approaches to drug control.

Traditional police approaches to illegal drug markets have emphasized high-volume stop-and-frisk tactics, jump-outs, buy-bust operations, and service of drug search warrants. Many teenaged and young adult African-American males have come to feel that they are treated poorly by police and that police tactics sweep into their net as many wholly innocent people as they do those actually engaged in illegal activity. These experiences of young African-American males are shared with and felt by their families as well, leading to a collective mistrust and resentment of police and, by extension, the rest of the criminal justice system.

In many African-American communities beset by drug trafficking and its attendant violence, one of the effects of this traditional drug-control approach is to leave many community members—including those not involved in illegal activity— ambivalent about illegal drug markets. On the one hand, they suffer greatly from the ills of illegal drug dealing and therefore have reasons to want it stopped, but on the other, they so resent police treatment of their community that they do not exercise their moral authority by decreeing drug dealing as unacceptable behavior in that community. And some police and prosecutors form perceptions that nearly everyone in African-American neighborhoods where illegal drug markets operate is somehow complicit in the illegal activity.

Neither the community perspective nor the criminal justice perspective is entirely accurate, but neither are they entirely inaccurate. This dynamic often leads to a silent standoff between the community and the police. More recently, some police and prosecutors have been willing to openly acknowledge the damage some drug-control strategies and tactics have had on African-American communities, and such acknowledgment can help secure community cooperation in focused-deterrence efforts. Reportedly, in Boston, High Point, and elsewhere, when such open acknowledgment occurred, progress was made in police-community cooperation on controlling illegal drug markets and the individuals who ran them.56

For addressing drug-related problems, you should read the following other Problem-Oriented Policing Guides:

Domestic Violence

The High Point, North Carolina, police have applied the focused-deterrence approach to domestic violence.57,s They developed the following tiered approach for dealing with domestic violence offenders:

  • The most serious offenders were targeted for immediate criminal prosecution.
  • The next-most serious offenders were brought in for in-person group notification meetings (including promises of certain, severe, and swift consequences, coupled with promises of assistance).
  • The next-most serious offenders received personalized one-on-one meetings with detectives soon after their first domestic violence arrest, informing them of possible future consequences if their offending persisted.
  • The next-most serious offenders or those who were not arrested in a domestic disturbance were informed at the scene by patrol officers of possible future consequences if their offending persisted.

An early assessment showed impressively low rates of re-offense across all four groups, with no reported worse consequences for victims whose batterers were targeted for this special intervention.58

When addressing domestic violence problems, you should read Domestic Violence (Problem-Specific Guide No. 45) in conjunction with this guide.

Organized Crime

Focused-deterrence approaches have been used and could be further used to respond to organized crime, such as national or international drug trafficking or terrorism groups. To date, there do not appear to be any clear successful examples.59


r The initial Boston FDI expanded after several years to address other crime problems, such as offender re-entry to the community and crime-prone families. However, because the resources available to deal with these problems were diluted, the expansion did not appear to have a positive impact (Braga and Winship, 2006).

s See Sechrist et al. (2012) for more implementation details on High Point’s Offender-Focused Domestic Violence Initiative.