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Focused Deterrence of High-Risk Individuals

Response Guide No. 13 (2017)

by Michael S. Scott

This project was supported by Grant No. 2013-DP-BX-K006 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a component of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. References to specific agencies, companies, products, or services should not be considered an endorsement of the product by the author(s) or the U.S. Department of Justice. Rather, the references are illustrations to supplement discussion of the issues.

The Internet references cited in this publication were valid as of the date of this publication. Given that URLs and websites are in constant flux, neither the author(s) nor the Bureau of Justice Assistance can vouch for their current validity.

© 2017 CNA Corporation and the Arizona Board of Regents. The U.S. Department of Justice reserves a royalty-free, nonexclusive, and irrevocable license to reproduce, publish, or otherwise use, and authorize others to use, this publication for Federal Government purposes. This publication may be freely distributed and used for noncommercial and educational purposes.


About This Guide

About the Smart Policing Initiative Problem-Oriented Policing Guides

In 2013 the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) funded CNA to work with the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing to develop a series of Smart Policing Initiative (SPI) Problem-Oriented Guides for Police. The purpose of these guides is to provide the law enforcement community with useful guidance, knowledge, and best practices related to key problem-oriented policing and Smart Policing principles and practices. These guides add to the existing collection of Problem-Oriented Guides for Police.

SPI is a BJA-sponsored initiative that supports police agencies by helping them develop and implement practices that are informed by research conducted in partnership with external researchers. Smart Policing is a strategic approach that brings more science into police operations by leveraging innovative applications of analysis, technology, and evidence-based practices. The goal of SPI is to improve policing performance and effectiveness while containing costs, an important consideration in today’s fiscal environment.

SPI is a collaborative effort between BJA, CNA (SPI training and technical assistance provider), and local law enforcement agencies that are testing innovative and evidence-based solutions to serious crime problems.

For more information about the Smart Policing Initiative, visit www.smartpolicinginitiative.com.

About the Response Guides Series

About The Response Guides

The Response Guides are one of three series of the Problem- Oriented Guides for Police. The other two are the Problem- Specific Guides and the Problem-Solving Tools Guides.

The Problem-Oriented Guides for Police summarize knowledge about how police can reduce the harm caused by specific crime and disorder problems. They are guides to preventing problems and improving overall incident response, not to investigating offenses or handling specific incidents. Neither do they cover all of the technical details about how to implement specific responses. The guides are written for police—of whatever rank or assignment—who must address the specific problems the guides cover. The guides will be most useful to officers who:

The Response Guides are intended to be used differently from the Problem-Specific Guides. Ideally, police should begin all strategic decision-making by first analyzing the specific crime and disorder problems they are confronting and then use the analysis results to devise particular responses. But certain responses are so commonly considered and have such potential to help address a range of specific crime and disorder problems that it makes sense for police to learn more about what results they might expect from them.

Readers are cautioned that the Response Guides are designed to supplement problem analysis, not to replace it. Police should analyze all crime and disorder problems in their local context before implementing responses. Even if research knowledge suggests that a particular response has proved effective elsewhere, that does not mean the response will be effective everywhere. Local factors matter a lot in choosing which responses to use.

Research and practice have further demonstrated that, in most cases, the most effective overall approach to a problem is one that incorporates several different responses. So a single response guide is unlikely to provide you with sufficient information on which to base a coherent plan for addressing crime and disorder problems. Some combinations of responses work better than others. Thus, how effective a particular response is depends partly on what other responses police use to address the problem.

These guides emphasize effectiveness and fairness as the main considerations police should take into account in choosing responses, but recognize that they are not the only considerations. Police use particular responses for reasons other than, or in addition to, whether or not they will work, and whether or not they are deemed fair. Community attitudes and values, and the personalities of key decision-makers, sometimes mandate different approaches to addressing crime and disorder problems. Some communities and individuals prefer enforcement-oriented responses, whereas others prefer collaborative, community-oriented, or harm-reduction approaches. These guides will not necessarily alter those preferences, but are intended to better inform them.

These guides have drawn on research findings and police practices in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Even though laws, customs, and police practices vary from country to country, police everywhere experience common problems. In an increasingly interconnected world, it is important that police be aware of research and successful practices beyond the borders of their own countries.

Each guide is informed by a thorough review of the research literature and reported police practice, and each guide is anonymously peer-reviewed by a line police officer, a police executive, and a researcher prior to publication. CNA, which solicits the reviews, independently manages the process.

For more information about problem-oriented policing, visit the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing online at www.popcenter.org. This website offers free online access to:


The Problem-Oriented Guides for Police are produced by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, whose officers are Michael S. Scott (Director), Ronald V. Clarke (Associate Director), and Graeme R. Newman (Associate Director). While each guide has a primary author, other project team members, CNA and BJA staff, and anonymous peer reviewers contributed to each guide by proposing text, recommending research, and offering suggestions on matters of format and style.

The project team that developed the guide series comprised Herman Goldstein, Ronald V. Clarke, John E. Eck, Michael S. Scott, Rana Sampson, and Deborah Lamm Weisel.

Members of the San Diego; National City, California; and Savannah, Georgia police departments provided feedback on the guides’ format and style in the early stages of the project.

Vivian Elliott oversaw the project for CNA. Phyllis Schultze conducted research for the guide at Rutgers University’s Criminal Justice Library. Andrea Wiltse and Bettina Kimpton at CNA edited this guide. Liz Summers designed this guide.

Representatives from the Kansas City, Missouri; Chula Vista, California; and Cambridge, Massachusetts Smart Policing Initiative sites and subject matter experts Joseph McHale and Julie Wartell contributed to the case studies.

The Logic and Rationale of Focused Deterrence


About The Response Guides

Focused deterrence is a crime reduction strategy in which carefully selected high-risk offenders (prolific or particularly violent criminal offenders) receive concentrated law enforcement attention and, simultaneously, offers of concentrated social services through direct, persuasive communication and rigorous follow-up of these commitments.1 Focused-deterrence initiatives (FDIs) commonly include such aspects as identification of prolific offenders, scripted offender notification meetings, coordinated and strategic prosecution, provision of social services to individuals willing to accept them, and careful monitoring of individuals’ actions. They are not merely enforcement crackdowns or a method of making life difficult for selected individuals.

Indeed, when carefully and properly implemented, FDIs have great potential to enhance the perceived legitimacy of the police and the public’s trust in them in communities where these have often been lacking.

Focused-Deterrence Thoery

The focused-deterrence—or “pulling-levers”—strategy originated in a problem-oriented policing initiative to address youth-gang gun violence in Boston in the late 1990s.2 Since then, dozens of jurisdictions in the United States have adopted and adapted the model.a

he focused-deterrence approach stems from the deterrence theory of crime, which asserts simply that people are discouraged from committing crimes if they believe they are likely to be caught and punished certainly, severely, and swiftly. These three punishment elements theoretically work best in concert: if any one of the elements is weak, the threat of punishment is diminished and the person is less deterred from committing the crime. Specific deterrence refers to instances when the individual punished is discouraged from offending again. General deterrence is when other people become aware of an individual’s punishment and are discouraged from committing similar offenses. FDIs aim primarily to deter high-risk offenders from re-offending, but if properly publicized to offenders’ associates and to the wider public, general deterrence can occur as well.

The police role in deterring crime lies principally with the first element—certainty. By law, police are not intended to have much influence on the severity of punishment, at least not official punishment meted out under the criminal law: for the most part, that is left to legislatures, prosecutors, and judges to decide. Nor do police have much say in the swiftness of punishment: that lies largely in the hands of the courts. Much of traditional police work is designed to increase the likelihood that those engaged in criminal activities are caught and brought to court. Police patrols, rapid response to crimes in progress, and criminal investigations all are intended to boost the chances that criminals will be detected.

Theory Versus Practice

Criminal deterrence theory is sound, with the evidence most strongly supporting the certainty of punishment rather than the severity or swiftness of it.4 Several factors work against the effectiveness of deterrence-based strategies.

For example, not all offenses are reported to police, police do not detect or apprehend many offenders, prosecutors are not able to bring formal charges against all arrestees, judges and juries do not convict all those who are tried for crimes, punishments meted out (usually fines, jail time, community service, or some form of conditional release) are not always perceived as sufficiently harsh, and the imposition of punishment sometimes occurs long after a crime has been committed. Sometimes, even when people will be punished harshly and quickly, they do not believe ahead of time that they will be. Ultimately, punishment deters only to the extent that people believe that they will be caught and that the punishment will be certain, severe, and swift. Finally, it only deters if people do not want to be caught and punished (which, odd as it sounds, is not always the case).

“The broad concept [of focused deterrence]… is to move law enforcement forces away from random non-strategic—at times outright haphazard—strikes based merely on random intelligence flows, or from blanket ‘zero-tolerance’ approaches against lowest-level offenders, and toward strategic selectivity and to give each counter-crime operation enhanced impact.”
—Felbab-Brown (2013)

“The revised focused deterrence model offers some progress in that the improved integration of criminal justice and social services potentially broadens the legitimate opportunities available to at-risk individuals. In addition, the model aims to improve the legitimacy of law enforcement by making police action commensurate with criminal behavior and consistent across cases, bringing together the community and the police as a united front against violence, and communicating sanction risk to offenders in a stern, yet respectful, tone.”
—Skubak Tillyer, Engel, and Lovins (2012)

It is easy to assume that everyone understands the risks of being caught and punished if they commit crimes, and to assume that they fear consequences. The reality in most communities, however, is that relatively few people are caught for each crime they commit and, even when people are caught, the punishments they endure are often far less severe or swiftly administered than might be expected.3 This means that the general threat of punishment from routine policing and prosecution is relatively weak, and more prolific offenders who have cycled through the justice system many times—know this better than most people. Thus, although prolific offenders know that their odds of getting caught and punished over time are nearly certain, their odds for any particular crime they commit are rather low.5

Focused deterrence aims to address some of the weaknesses in the application of deterrence theory. As its name implies, it focuses official and community attention and resources on the relatively few individuals who commit a disproportionate number of crimes, typically violent crimes, and removes any sense of anonymity they might believe they enjoy. It builds on known information about prolific repeat offenders.b Incidentally, prolific violent offenders are also frequently victims of violent crime resulting from victim/victim associate retaliation.6 In addition, because prolific gun offenders, as well as their shooting victims, usually have extensive histories of involvement in the justice system, they are often on some form of conditional release (bail, probation, parole), which gives criminal justice officials legal leverage over them (hence lever-pulling).7

Focused-deterrence initiatives can also work through situational crime prevention mechanisms. Situational crime preventionc aims to reduce crime opportunities by making it harder for people to commit crimes, increasing the risk of getting caught, making crime less rewarding, and removing the provocations and excuses that encourage them to commit crimes. Focused deterrence can actually help in most of these regards.8 For instance, it can increase people’s perceived risks of getting caught or deny them others’ assistance (because they too are deterred by the prospect of being carefully monitored, making it more difficult for the high-risk offender to commit crimes).

Focused deterrence can further weaken people’s motivation to continue offending by providing them with the assistance necessary to start a non-criminal lifestyle. If, for example, high-risk offenders succeed in getting a job or assistance for their family—which they value—they have something meaningful to lose by returning to offending. On a related note, most FDIs explicitly incorporate restorative justice principles in making high-risk offenders more acutely aware of how their offending has harmed individual victims, the community at large, their own families, and themselves.

Depending on how an FDI is designed, its effects may be operating not only through deterrence theory and situational crime prevention, but also through such other theories as Broken Windows, collective efficacy, informal social control, and procedural justice. Focused deterrence is a shorthand description for a multi-faceted strategy that has many important features working simultaneously to change people’s attitudes and behaviors in a variety of ways.9

a Many programs funded through the U.S. Department of Justice replicated Boston’s initiative, including the Strategic Approaches to Community Safety Initiative, Project Safe Neighborhoods, the Comprehensive Anti-Gang Initiative, and the Smart Policing Initiative. The National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College maintains a listing of jurisdictions that have implemented or are implementing some form of focused-deterrence strategy, which can be viewed online at http://nnscommunities.org/impact/cities.

b In conjunction with this guide, read Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 11, Analyzing and Responding to Repeat Offending, by Nick Tilley.

c For a brief explanation of situational crime prevention, see the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing webpage at http://www.popcenter.org/about/?p=situational.

The Role of Analysis in Focused-Deterrence Initiatives

It’s tempting for busy police departments to try to implement an FDI “off the shelf”—that is, to merely replicate the approach taken by another police agency. This will likely prove to be a big mistake. Central to the logic of both problem-oriented policing and Smart Policing is that all policing problems have important local dimensions that must be understood in order to develop responses that work in that community for that particular problem. Understanding the general principles of focused deterrence and how other jurisdictions have adopted (and adapted) it is important but not sufficient.

Every community’s problems are distinctive in some respects, even if they are similar in most respects to those types of problems in other communities. Often the key to success is in discovering the distinctive features of the local problem that suggest specific interventions tailored to those features.10 Perhaps one community’s problem is less about highly organized adult gangs and more about loose confederations of youths with overlapping group loyalties. Or in one community, violence is confined to small geographic areas, whereas it is dispersed over large areas in another. Perhaps the cultural norms of crime groups vary by location, or the weapons or drugs of choice differ. Any of these and a number of other factors, once understood, could point an FDI in a somewhat different direction than others. Local analysis of a problem will inform decision-makers as to which way to turn.d

The following conditions can vary across jurisdictions in ways that will be important to the development and implementation of a local FDI:

Nearly all FDIs have been guided by careful data analysis for at least the following purposes:

The following illustrate the types of analyses that might be beneficial in an FDI:

Types of Analyses Conducted for FDIs

Often overlooked is the need to collect and analyze data during FDI implementation. This ongoing assessment of what components are actually being implemented—both on the enforcement side and on the service-provision side—is vital to making mid-course corrections and to building a detailed record of implementation that will aid subsequent assessments of the initiative’s impact on the targeted problems.11

In most early FDIs, external researchers from local universities led or assisted in data analysis. Police analysts, if available, should likewise be involved. So, too, should the police detectives, patrol officers, gang- and drug-squad officers, prosecutors, and others who work directly with known offenders or who work the areas or cases associated with the problem, so that the data-driven aspects of an FDI can be validated with the experiences of police officers working on the problems on a day-to-day basis.12 Data analysts and line-level law enforcement officials bring different sets of knowledge and expertise to the analysis, both of which are critically important.

Keep in mind that FDIs are a still relatively new innovation and, as such, not all of the important issues concerning them have been thoroughly examined through careful research. Accordingly, some of the recommendations in this guide are based on a limited set of practitioner experiences rather than on firm research findings. There is much yet to be learned about FDIs through both practitioner experience and research.

d For further information, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 11, Analyzing and Responding to Repeat Offending, by Nick Tilley. See the Rochester, NY, reports (Klofas, Delaney, and Smith, 2005) for excellent examples of local problem analyses.

e For further information, see Intelligence Analysis for Problem Solvers, by John E. Eck and Ronald V. Clarke, available at: http://www.popcenter.org/library/reading/pdfs/Intell-Analysis-for-ProbSolvers.pdf.

f For further information, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 3, Using Offender Interviews to Inform Police Problem Solving, by Scott Decker.

The Phases and Core Elements of Focused Deterrence

There are five general phases in most FDIs: 1. Program Planning and Implementation; 2. High-Risk Offender Selection; 3. High-Risk Offender Notification; 4. Enforcement/Service Delivery; and 5. Follow-Up Communication.13 The National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College has produced a series of practice briefs and implementation guides providing detailed recommendations for the various aspects of planning and executing an FDI. See http://nnscommunities.org/our-work/all-guides for access to the briefs and guides. An additional phase—6. Assessment—is also strongly recommended to gauge the initiative’s fairness and effectiveness and to adapt the initiative accordingly. Figure 1 summarizes objectives for each phase, followed by descriptions of each phase’s core elements.

Figure 1. Phases and Core Elements of a Focused-Deterrence Initiative



Planning and Implimentation

  • Engage the community
  • Engage police personnel
  • Engage external partners to secure support and resource commitments
  • Establish clear program goals and objectives
  • Establish administrative infrastructure


High-Risk Individual Selection

  • Develop and test a high-risk offender-selection methodology
  • Identify high-risk offender candidates
  • Select high-risk offenders


High-Risk Individual Notification

  • Build rapport with high-risk individuals’ families, friends, and supporters
  • Invite high-risk offenders to the notification
  • Conduct the notification meeting


Enforcement/Service Delivery

  • Carry out enforcement and prosecution for high-risk offenders who refuse to desist from offending
  • Provide services to high-risk offenders who desist from offending and request assistance


Follow-Up Communication

  • Inform high-risk offenders and their criminal associates of consequences (positive or negative) that follow from compliance or noncompliance and why
  • Keep FDI partners informed about actions taken to penalize or assist high-risk offenders
  • Inform the general public about FDI principles and major actions and outcomes



  • Determine whether the FDI is being implemented as designed or intended
  • Determine whether the FDI is having the desired impact of reducing targeted crimes
  • Determine whether the FDI is perceived as fair

PHASE 1: Program Planning and Implimentation

Focused-deterrence initiatives require a great deal of coordination and collaboration among government and non-government organizations, as well as community groups. Accordingly, careful program planning and implementation are critical to an initiative’s success. At minimum, if you are tasked with organizing an FDI, you must line up and coordinate the agencies and organizations needed to impose sanctions on and provide services to high-risk individuals. Below are examples of key law enforcement, social service, and community partners in FDIs:

Law Enforcement Partners

Social Services Partners

Kansas City, Misouri, SPI Case Study: Implementation

In the spring of 2012 the Jackson County prosecutor, mayor of Kansas City, and Kansas City police chief were all new to their offices and shared a vision to implement focused deterrence. They formed the Kansas City No Violence Alliance (KC NoVA), which became the first collaborative effort ever attempted to reduce Kansas City’s homicide rate.

As law enforcement and prosecutorial players were mandated to come to the table, the challenge KC NoVA faced was to use community strength to augment their efforts. KC NoVA made it a priority to identify prospective partners early in the implementation process and facilitated informational sessions about focused deterrence to civic and community groups. The informal networking that occurred after these sessions helped KC NoVA find organizations willing to contribute. After one of the informational sessions, KC NoVA discovered a group of mothers who had all lost their children to homicide; this group called themselves “Mothers in Charge.” The mothers would become the most prominent supporters and by far the most impactful of speakers at the call-in sessions.

Proper implementation will require agencies to conduct significant internal training in focused deterrence. The Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) integrated a focused-deterrence educational module into the mandatory annual training all employees received. KCPD also focused on the realignment of investigative and uniformed personnel to accomplish the enforcement needs of focused deterrence. Crime analysts, gang detectives, uniformed street impact officers, and other officers who investigated weapons violations were co-located and placed under one chain of command.

The process of implementing focused deterrence requires agencies to be more surgical in their crime prevention efforts and facilitates positive police and community engagement. By fostering a culture of prevention and outreach instead of arrest and prosecution, the KCPD has seen significant support for its efforts to enhance police legitimacy.

Community Partners

Non-government and non-social service community members play key roles in FDIs, particularly in expressing community values, desires, and commitments to high-risk offenders, as well as monitoring individuals’ behavior and reporting transgressions to police. Ex-offenders who have successfully turned away from criminal lifestyles and become responsible community members are particularly valuable in this regard. In some FDIs, a reformed offender speaks to the group to encourage the high-risk offenders to change their lifestyles and to testify as to how they did so.14 Community members can also provide law enforcement and social service providers with valuable information about community dynamics and issues that help them better understand how a particular community functions.15 Lay community members are not likely to be as productive serving on project steering committees because most will lack the necessary expertise and authority—as well as the time and other resources—required for effective participation.

Kansas City No Violence Alliance Planning Meeting

Kansas City No Violence Alliance Planning Meeting

One of the main lessons learned from early FDIs is that the partnerships and collaborations necessary to make them effective take serious effort to establish and maintain, particularly in jurisdictions that lack a positive history of such multi-partner collaborations. When relations between police/prosecutors and communities (especially minority communities) are strained, perhaps owing to policing and prosecution practices that are perceived to unfairly discriminate against minority-group members, FDIs may be impractical until at least a basic level of community trust in police and prosecutors is restored.h

Each of the key partners listed above has unique perspectives on crime control and on different groups’ respective roles in it. It is not always easy, for example, for police and clergy, or for prosecutors and social workers, to understand and respect one another’s perspectives on crime control, let alone try to integrate them.

If strong, trusting relationships among these various partners do not exist in a community prior to establishing an FDI, stakeholders must be prepared to invest time in building them before officially launching the FDI. Someone with a thorough understanding of focused deterrence should carefully explain its principles to others not familiar with them and listen to others’ concerns and viewpoints in crafting the local collaboration.i In several jurisdictions, a year or more was spent building the coalition before the actual work was undertaken.16


h See Braga and Winship (2006) and Kennedy and Wong (2009) for descriptions of the work done to restore minority communities’ trust in the police before implementing their FDIs in Boston and High Point, North Carolina, respectively.

i Kristen Maziarka (2014), a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, conducted an interesting analysis of the competing rhetoric surrounding the Kansas City FDI, with some rhetoric emphasizing the tough law enforcement dimensions of the initiative, and some rhetoric emphasizing its supportive social-service dimensions.

PHASE 2: High-Risk Individual Selection

After establishing the basic structure of an FDI and securing the necessary commitments from key partners, you should consider how and on what basis an FDI intervention would target high-risk offenders.

The process adopted to select high-risk offenders for inclusion in the FDI must be objectively fair, and the high-risk offenders must not believe they were targeted arbitrarily or randomly but rather because of the frequency and/or severity of their criminal behavior.17 High-risk offenders must believe that they can cease being law enforcement targets by changing their own behavior, that they can control what happens to them, and that they bear responsibility for being a targeted person. It is equally important that judges, defense counsel, probation and parole officers, offenders’ families, and the general public believe that the criteria for targeting high-risk offenders are fair and lawful.

Initially, you must decide what type of high-risk offenders to focus on. Most early FDIs have chosen to focus on violent gang-affiliated or drug-market offenders. Alternatively, the initiative could focus on chronic nuisance offenders or on domestic violence offenders. Some police agencies have considered testing the approach on chronic drunk drivers; to date, this has not been done.

Second, you must decide, within the general type of offending being targeted, what threshold of frequency or severity of offending will qualify an individual for becoming a target. Will the most prolific offenders be targeted? The most dangerous? Or some blend of the two?

Third, you must decide whom to target among those who meet the objective criteria listed above. In some early FDIs, decision makers preferred targeting individuals who were believed to have special influence within criminal networks (i.e., so-called “shot-callers,” “impact players,” or carriers of criminal ideas and motives).18 The logic is that by changing the attitudes and behavior of these individuals, there is greater likelihood of indirectly changing the attitudes and behaviors of others whom they influence. Though social influence is more subjective than other factors, such as the number of prior offenses, you should make an effort to base the selection criteria on reliable evidence, not on hunches, speculation, or dislike of an individual.

Selecting the right individuals to target requires a blend of documented evidence of prior offenses, law enforcement practitioners’ understanding of offenders’ motives and social influence, and a deliberate process for choosing from among target candidates. You should strive to reach consensus among partner agencies and organizations as to the specific criteria. Among critical criteria that argue in favor of targeting a particular individual are the following:

You and others selecting individuals for FDI attention should also consider the criteria for formally removing an individual from focused-deterrence attention. Obviously, if an individual is reincarcerated or dies, they would be removed from FDI attention, but because FDI attention entails both heightened risk of punishment as well as heightened social services, formally removing individuals from FDI attention is not always going to be in individuals’ best interests.

“…from my experience, many offenders in [focused-deterrence initiatives] do not know or understand why they have been singled out. As hard as it is to believe, offenders often do not comprehend the extent of their criminal histories, and they end up expressing feelings of being unfairly singled out. So, part of a good FDI is to educate the offenders on why they are part of it.”
—Lieutenant (Ret.) Tom Woodmansee, Madison (Wisconsin) Police Department (Woodmansee 2015)

Cambridge/Somerville/Everett, Massachusetts, SPI Case Study: Offender Selection

The Cambridge/Somerville/Everett (Massachusetts) FDI was nontraditional in several ways. A key difference from most FDIs was in Phase 2: Offender Selection. Not only did the pool of potential offenders come from three separate jurisdictions that were combined into one database, but much wider criteria were also used for the selection decision. Whereas most FDIs focus on either violent offenders or one specific type of offender (i.e., drugs or domestic violence), the Cambridge Police Department-led effort created a “social harm index” to select the offenders on whom to focus. They believed that many of the most prolific people were not only committing crimes, but also involved in social harm in other ways that affect the public and police.

This data-driven approach included several steps. All people (not just offenders) who were in the three participating police departments’ records were combined into a custom-designed database. Every offense was given a weight based on comprehensive empirical guidelines established by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission. This offense score, along with the person’s role and how recent the incident was, were inputs to an algorithm created to calculate a total score based on every contact for every person in the database (see the graphic below for a screen shot of the system). The ability to filter and search by age, crime type, and category was also provided. This allowed specialized units to create custom lists to prioritize their work (e.g., homeless, juvenile, mentally ill). One type of analysis that was done to confirm the importance of this selection focus was comparing the percentage of offenders responsible for the percentage of crime versus social harm. They found that 10 percent of the offenders were responsible for 26 percent of the crime, but that 10 percent of the offenders were responsible for 70 percent of social harm.

Repeat Offender Prioritization and Tracking


PHASE 3: Notification

Because FDI success depends heavily upon high-risk offenders comprehending the consequences of their actions—whether to persist or desist in offending—you need to carefully consider the content and delivery of core messages to them. In essence, the message to targeted high-risk offenders in FDIs is that:

Your persistent and serious offending has called you to special attention. The government and the community insist that you stop your offending because it is hurting people and the community. If you are willing to stop, you will be provided with all the necessary assistance to create a successful, law-abiding lifestyle for yourself and your family. If you are not willing to stop, you and your criminal associates will be subjected to all available enforcement means to compel you to stop.19

Ideally, communicating with the high-risk offenders occurs individually and in a group setting. In most early FDIs, the twin promises of intensive enforcement and social assistance are delivered directly to high-risk offenders in meetings called offender-notification meetings, call-ins, or forums. But first, high-risk offenders must be compelled to show up to a meeting. This can be done by sending them a carefully worded official letter, perhaps from the police chief, making a persuasive invitation to the meeting. That can be reinforced by persuading individuals’ family members to encourage the high-risk offenders to attend. And, of course, if the high-risk offenders are on conditional release, their probation or parole officer can insist they attend. All efforts must be made to get the individual to the meeting on the date and time set, which is often a difficult task. Assuring them that they will not be arrested at the meeting certainly helps in this regard.

Most often, high-risk offenders are mandated to attend by their probation or parole officers, inevitably creating a coercive aspect to the proceedings. Preferably, these meetings are held in somewhat neutral public facilities, such as courthouses, schools, or community centers, rather than in police facilities, to reinforce the idea that the approach is not solely about using coercive authority. Delivering the message in such an open fashion—in front of so many officials, community members, friends, families, other high-risk offenders, and perhaps even the press—helps remove any sense high-risk offenders might have that they and their crimes are well hidden or that no one cares.

Key components of the intensive enforcement message include the following:

Kansas City No Violence Alliance Call-in Meeting
Kansas City No Violence Alliance Call-in Meeting

It is imperative that all speakers at notification meetings adhere consistently to this multi-faceted message. If speakers go offscript and convey inconsistent messages, it undermines the impact of the notification.21

Having a notification meeting coordinator can help ensure that the meeting goes as planned. A coordinator can keep to a tight agenda, ensure that speakers stick to the scripted messages, communicate the meeting’s ground rules (e.g., high-risk offenders may not leave and may not ask questions or negotiate during the main part of the meeting), ensure that there is adequate security at the meeting, and ensure that everyone is seated in an appropriate place.

The core message should be reiterated, whether on the street or in follow-up meetings with offenders, by whatever means available (e.g., verbally or through printed flyers, signs, or letters).

Chula Vista, California SPI Case Study: Notification

Warning for Domestic Violence Offendors

Focused deterrence is a central part of the Chula Vista (California) SPI project to reduce repeat domestic abuse. Modeled after domestic violence (DV) reduction efforts in High Point (North Carolina), West Yorkshire (United Kingdom), and Fremont (California), the Chula Vista effort focuses on both ‘verbal-only’ calls and DV crimes because in more than half of DV calls in Chula Vista no crime has been committed. Offenders are considered “Level 1” upon an initial verbal-only call, “Level 2” after a second verbal-only call, and “Level 3” when a crime has been committed. Level 3 offenders are asked to sign a written warning that includes seven key points that the responding officer reads to them (see reference graphic, also provided in Spanish).

If Level 3 offenders ignore the warning and re-offend, they are elevated to Level 4. Level 4 offenders receive a personalized “call-in” notification by the DV project coordinator (a Chula Vista police officer). The DV coordinator goes unannounced to the offender’s home to make this contact. If the offender is not home, the officer will leave a card to let the suspect know she has stopped by and attempt to contact the offender by telephone or at another location, such as place of employment.

As part of the notification, the DV coordinator also talks to any family members present at the home. For example, the DV coordinator spoke with the mother of an offender (who was babysitting at the time of the home visit), a sister (who was allowing the suspect to live with her), and a brother who worked with the suspect. Most family members have been supportive of the DV program and appreciative of the contact.

PHASE 4: Enforcement/Service Delivery

As vital as it is to deliver core messages effectively to high-risk offenders, following up on the commitments made, whether through enforcement or through assistance, is equally vital. In this phase, you need to work out precise protocols for each enforcement action and assistance service that you have built into your program plan.

Concentrating Law Enforcement Sanctions on a Few High-Risk Individuals

Police, prosecution, and corrections officials collectively can bring a variety of strong sanctions to bear on high-risk offenders, including the following:

A key policy decision is whether to build prosecutable criminal cases against high-risk offenders before notifying them that they are targets and offering them the choice of law enforcement or ceasing offending. In High Point, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee, for example, police and prosecutors built strong, prosecutable cases prior to the notification meetings, essentially offering the high-risk offenders the choice of ceasing their offending or being arrested on the spot.22 In other FDIs, prosecutable cases are not built ahead of time, but only if and when high-risk offenders continue their offending. Holding prosecution in abeyance is obviously more feasible with nonviolent crimes than with those in which the individual has used violence.

Many FDIs have found it important that both local and federal prosecutors be integral partners to ensure that effective prosecutions are mounted, when necessary, and that decisions about prosecuting individuals are made strategically, and not on an ad hoc basis.

Concentrating Social Services on the Same Few High-Risk Individuals

Two of the distinctive features of focused deterrence are that (1) the special assistance offered to high-risk offenders is contingent on their ceasing their prolific offending and (2) the services offered to each individual meet that person’s particular needs, interests, desires, and commitment.

Individualized needs assessments should occur rather than offering all offenders a standard array of services, a practice that is generally regarded as more effective in the correctional rehabilitation field.23,k Focused deterrence is greatly strengthened if the assistance and services offered have been researched and deemed effective. Well-intentioned but untested assistance will not suffice. Obviously, providing social services in this manner is resource-intensive, so the number of individuals targeted at any time cannot be too large or the effort’s effectiveness will be diluted. Having a dedicated case manager to coordinate the different social services provided to offenders is highly recommended.

Among the social services most likely to be important to highrisk offenders are the following:

In some communities, all of these services are already available; their provision merely needs to be linked to the FDI. In other communities, the FDI will need to develop these services anew.

Cambridge/Somerville/Everett, Massachusetts, SPI Case Study: Enforcement/Service Delivery

As mentioned in the Phase 2 case study, the Cambridge/Somerville/Everett (Massachusetts) SPI project was a nontraditional focused-deterrence effort. The notification phase (3) involved a call-in, except that offenders attended voluntarily. Community members also played a key support role in letting the offenders know that the police and community together wanted to help them stop engaging in harmful behavior but would also together hold them accountable should they re-offend. The importance of the community presence at the notification was also related to a unique enforcement and service delivery strategy. The police departments used a case management team that consisted of a police officer (detective or sergeant), a licensed social worker (hired by the police department specifically for the project), a coordinating service provider, and a community outreach worker for an integrated enforcement and service delivery approach. The police social worker played a critical role in this comprehensive and unusual collaboration across criminal justice and social service agencies to create a broad network to share offender information, quickly identify those who weren’t following through with programs, and ensure a coordinated continuum of treatment.

Offenders enrolled in this program and worked with the case management team to develop an individualized plan to move toward a healthy, crime-free lifestyle. Participants met with the case manager in person at least once per month with phone calls in between. Case managers were extremely proactive in coordinating meetings, ensuring that offenders attended court hearings and program services, and engaging other criminal justice and community partners.

Instead of the traditional call-in at which offenders are offered services and warned about re-offending at the one meeting, the Cambridge/Somerville/Everett effort focused on providing resources and coordinated follow-up with the goal of support and prevention. If the offenders chose to re-offend, they were still held accountable by the police for these actions. The police officers went beyond their typical enforcement-only role to a more holistic, collaborative, problem-solving approach for each habitual offender.

Mobilizing Informal Social Control

In many respects, FDIs aim to change community norms regarding drug dealing, violent crime, the police, and criminal justice and then mobilize forces of informal social control to reinforce those new norms among individuals within that community.24

Police, prosecutors, courts, and corrections agencies represent formal social control. Family, friends, and non-government social groups and individuals represent informal social control. Both types are important in influencing individuals’ behavior, but prolific offenders often receive quite different messages. The government might tell them unequivocally to stop offending, but their families and friends do not tell them the same thing, excuse their offending, or encourage them to continue offending. To the degree that police and other criminal justice officials can bring influential people into high-risk offenders’ lives to reinforce the message that their offending—particularly their violent offending—must stop, the overall message is greatly strengthened.

The key to getting this to happen is for police and their colleagues to give the informal social controllers a good reason to side with the government in persuading offenders to change their lives. In many FDIs, people such as clergy from the highrisk offenders’ communities have been enlisted as important allies in delivering messages of non-violence to high-risk offenders—sometimes directly to the high-risk offenders when the clergy hold sway with them, but more often indirectly by encouraging high-risk offenders’ family members to deliver the message.

Extending Sanctions to Other Members of the High-Risk Offender’s Criminal Group

For crime problems in which individuals operate as part of a criminal group, including gangs, it follows that individual members influence one another’s actions. This means that for focused deterrence to maximize its impact, the threat of enforcement sanctions should be extended beyond one highrisk offender to encompass others in the group. This is like the football coach making the whole team run extra laps if one player makes a particular kind of mistake. If one crime group member fails to heed the official warning—for example, not to use lethal violence—then all group members are subjected to enhanced enforcement. This is a classic example of using formal social control as leverage for getting informal social control to operate in the same direction: ideally, each group member discourages other group members from engaging in prohibited behavior because no individual wants to suffer the consequences, and each group member is discouraged from prohibited behavior because s/he doesn’t want to be responsible for bringing about consequences against the rest of the group. As an illustration, in the Lowell, Massachusetts, FDI, any act of prohibited violence also resulted in intensive enforcement against the group’s illegal gambling activities, thereby causing all group members to suffer consequences because of one member’s actions.25

Following Up On Promises

After the initial message of focused enforcement is delivered to a group of high-risk offenders, the credibility of that message is reinforced when a high-profile offender or group of offenders who subsequently engage in illegal activities experiences harsh and swift punishment. In 2003-2004, the Rochester, New York, FDI lost some of its effectiveness by a failure to carry out enforcement in the wake of continued violence.26 The swiftness and certainty of the consequences matter more than their severity, although severe consequences carry added weight to the deterrence message


j See Response Guide No. 7, Asset Forfeiture, by John Worrall.

k There are diagnostic tools that researchers have specially validated as effective for violent offenders (Skubak Tillyer, Engel, and Lovins, 2012).

PHASE 5: Follow-Up Communication

To reinforce the initial core messages delivered to high-risk offenders, it is important to have follow-up communication with them—and with their offending associates—about what actions (positive and negative) were imposed and why.

Once certain, severe, and swift punishment is meted out to high-risk offenders who failed to heed the warnings and who continued their violent behavior, it becomes critical to communicate to others—both within and outside the high-risk offender’s crime group—that this punishment was delivered and why.27 It is equally important that when high-risk offenders accept offers of assistance in turning away from violent crime, the actual delivery of those services, as well as the benefits to those receiving them, be communicated to others.

Another purpose of spreading the word about enforcement action taken against a high-risk offender is that it lets others know that if they persist in their own offending, they will likely find themselves in the next group of high-risk offenders. Therefore, it is critical that these communications focus on individuals who, while not immediate high-risk targets, are among the next-most likely to be targeted. Social network analysis28 can help decision-makers determine whom high-risk offenders are linked to (either as allies or rivals) so that FDI partners can then inform those allies and rivals as to what happened to the high-risk offenders.29

It is also important to keep community members informed of both successes (i.e., high-risk offenders who are doing well) and failures (i.e., high-risk offenders who returned to crime and were punished accordingly) to keep them engaged in the effort.30 Because high-crime neighborhoods commonly have high turnover among residents, FDI partners should occasionally try to inform new residents about the initiative and the new community norms. However, delivering these enforcement and assistance promises to too wide of an audience can weaken the credibility of the message.31

Kansas City, Missouri, SPI Case Study: Follow-Up Communication and Social Network Analysis

The use of social network analysis (SNA) will allow focused-deterrence strategies to be surgical and effective. In Kansas City, Missouri, SNA revealed that violence was concentrated in a social structure of fewer than 900 persons in approximately 60 groups or gangs. The homicide rate in this socially connected group was calculated to be more than 100 times the national average.

“Probation and parole partnerships can be utilized to mandate attendance at call-ins. This sociogram from a gang in east Kansas City shows that persons on probation and parole (highlighted in red) often hold strategic positions of centrality in social networks.”

Implementing SNA is possible for almost any focused-deterrence effort. Most law enforcement agencies already collect a large amount of relational data through field interview forms, arrest reports, and offense reports. Structuring the data and training a crime analyst are the first steps in using SNA to address a problem. In Kansas City, there were no technological costs associated with conducting SNA other than the time commitment of the crime analyst and research partner, who used free software tools such as Excel and Pajek. As of 2016, there were at least five crime analysts in Kansas City who conducted SNA for focused deterrence or other crime strategies.

Criminal networks were reviewed for all stages of focused deterrence in Kansas City. For example, the social service committee used SNA to identify at-risk youth with direct relational ties to adults engaged in criminal behavior. This gave the Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) the ability to conduct focused deterrence without ignoring the juveniles. The messaging committee utilized SNA to pick individuals with positions of “centrality” to attend the call-in sessions. The enforcement committee also relied on SNA to identify the various levers to pull within group enforcement operations. Analysts at KCPD layered in additional information to highlight the different group affiliations, probation and parole status, current wanted status, and many other factors to drive strategic decisions.

PHASE 6: Assessment

After the initial group of high-risk offenders has been notified and some time has passed in which they have either persisted in or desisted from their offending, you should assess how well the initiative is working. Properly assessing an FDI should include both a process evaluation and an impact evaluation. A process evaluation should assess how and whether the action plan was implemented. An impact evaluation should assess the impact the initiative had on the targeted problems. This should include assessing whether it is effective, fair, and efficient.l

Determining Whether Focused Deterrence is Effective

Possible indicators of an FDI’s effectiveness include the following:

Although research evidence is not sufficient to declare focused deterrence unequivocally effective in reducing violence, evaluations conducted to date demonstrate mostly positive impacts on the targeted crime problems.32 A review of 10 reasonably rigorous evaluations of FDIs concluded that they are “associated with an overall statistically significant, mediumsized crime reduction effect.”33,m Among jurisdictions that have implemented the strategy’s essential elements, most have realized significant short-term reductions in the types of violence the initiative was designed to address.n A major open question is whether focused deterrence can be effective over the long term within any jurisdiction.34

More is known from research evaluations about the net impact of FDIs on targeted crimes and on crime groups’ behavior than is known about how the intervention changes individuals’ behavior.35 This needs more careful study. Nonetheless, we know from FDI assessments that some high-risk offenders, even if only a relatively few, make remarkable lifestyle changes. Some do not succeed in turning their lives completely around. Some continue criminal offending, although usually committing less serious offenses. Some try to get jobs and live a non-criminal lifestyle but don’t succeed. Focused deterrence appears to be more effective at reducing crime and improving conditions in the areas affected by it than at completely rehabilitating habitual offenders.36

The strategy is admittedly hard to evaluate because it encompasses a combination of specific interventions, not just one.37 This means that although some evaluations may conclude that the strategy effectively reduced violence, they may not be able to identify the components that made it work and why.38 As a prime illustration, even in the highly acclaimed Boston initiative of the 1990s, it is difficult to specify what contribution each of the various interventions—including public health measures, police-probation partnerships in monitoring offenders, police-clergy partnerships, and enhanced federal gang prosecutions—made to the initiative’s overall success.39 Although it’s likely that each of these interventions were integral to the multi-faceted strategy, observers and other jurisdictions seeking to replicate Boston’s success often focus on one intervention to the exclusion of others. Because the primary objective of FDIs is to improve safety in the community, rather than to isolate causes, some uncertainty about multi-faceted interventions is probably inevitable.o

How quickly an FDI can be expected to generate positive results can vary depending on the nature of the targeted problem. When prolific violent offenders are targeted, results have often been dramatic and almost immediate. When nonviolent offenders are targeted, the impact may take longer to materialize.40

Properly assessing FDIs requires considerable expertise in social science research methods and statistics, ideally doctoral-level expertise. If an agency does not have this expertise in-house, it is highly recommended that FDI partners engage an external research partner—perhaps at a local university—who possesses both the technical expertise and the knowledge and experience of working with criminal justice practitioners in an action-research model. Such expertise is not always easy to find. If an agency lacks the resources to pay for an external evaluator, internal personnel should nonetheless document how the FDI operates and capture and analyze as much data as possible.

Determining Whether Focused Deterrence is Fair

Possible indicators of an FDI’s fairness include the following:

Historically, police efforts that target specific individuals for enforcement are subject to criticism as being fundamentally unfair because of the perception that individuals are being targeted for who they are rather than for what they have done. Properly administered, FDIs can not only escape charges of unfairness but also be perceived as extraordinarily fair, even to the individuals being targeted for attention. When this occurs, overall police-community relations and the public’s belief in the legitimacy of the police stand to improve. This is so for several reasons:

FDIs are likely to be perceived as fairer than some alternative approaches to reducing gang violence, such as the use of civil gang injunctions, which have been challenged on both ethical and legal grounds as being unfair because they punish all gang members irrespective of their individual behavior and because they prohibit even what is seen as otherwise lawful and harmless activity.41

Some objection to FDIs should be expected, not because it is unfair to high-risk offenders, but because it provides high-risk offenders with prioritized social services, arguably at the expense of other people in need of such services.42

Determining Whether Focused Deterrence is an Efficient Use of Resources

There is not much reported information about the costs of running an FDI, and costs are likely to vary widely across jurisdictions depending on specific activities undertaken, size of the initiative, how costs are accounted for, which costs are tallied, and other factors. One study of two FDIs revealed that the actual costs for police personnel to work directly on focuseddeterrence activities—including community mobilization, communicating with high-risk offenders’ families, crime analysis, incident and case file reviews, and undercover investigations—for one year ranged from $90,000 to $150,000 (in 2011 dollars), the rough equivalent of 1½ to 2½ full-time police officers.43 The study wasn’t able to account for a number of important cost variables, such as costs that the police would have spent anyway addressing the same problems using some strategy other than focused deterrence, costs associated with non-police personnel, and cost savings from reduced criminal behavior, or determine whether focused deterrence is cost-effective in achieving its goals. However, considering the rather significant crime reductions realized in several FDIs that have been carefully evaluated, and considering the high monetary and non-monetary costs of violent crime to a community, the direct police costs reported in this study are likely to strike many as well spent (in addition to improved rates of conviction, higher case clearance, and fewer parole violations).


l See Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 1, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem Solvers, by John Eck, for a better understanding of assessment in the context of policing, as well as Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 11, Analyzing and Responding to Repeat Offending, by Nick Tilley, for more specific guidance on evaluating repeat-offender initiatives.

m Arguably, randomized controlled experiments would be ideal in determining whether FDIs are effective in achieving their objectives. To date, none have been conducted. Independently conducted evaluations with some control groups (e.g., quasi-experimental designs) and reliable statistical data analysis are the next most reliable.

n See Appendix for a summary of FDI evaluations conducted to date.

o Determining whether a focused-deterrence strategy is effective and what precisely causes the effect would require a rigorous evaluation design—one that would involve randomly assigning high-risk offenders to either a focused-deterrence response strategy or some other strategy (including perhaps no special intervention at all). To date, no study has used a randomized controlled experimental design, which is often the strongest design for determining causation.

Administering and Leading a Focused-Deterrence Initiative

As one would expect, FDIs are particularly challenging to organize, lead, and administer because they involve multiple partner organizations, each with its own mission, culture, rules, management structure, and resource base. Moreover, at least at the outset, each organization is being asked to think anew about its work and its relationship to partnering organizations.44

Multi-agency collaborations, which are essential to FDIs, are notoriously difficult to sustain for the long term.45 It can prove difficult to keep all the law enforcement, social service, and community partners engaged in and committed to the collaboration and to the core principles of focused deterrence. This proved to be the case in several of the early FDIs.p Boston’s successful efforts of the late 1990s appear to have fallen apart by about 2000; when gun violence rates again rose substantially, the Boston initiative was revitalized, beginning around 2007.46

It is challenging to sustain effective collaborations over time. No one institution by itself can mount a meaningful response to complex youth violence problems. Institutions need to coordinate and combine their efforts in ways that could magnify their separate effects. (Braga, Hureau, and Winship, 2008)

FDIs can alter conventional information flows and decisionmaking protocols both within and among the participating organizations, and such disruptions have to be carefully managed.47 Heeding the recommendations below regarding program administration and leadership can help sustain FDIs over the longer term.


Ideally, the core partners should write and formally agree to a protocol for the FDI, which can be modified over time as necessary. At a minimum, the protocol should identify:

Given that FDIs, by design, are multi-partner collaborations involving criminal justice, social service, and community organizations, such an initiative requires some organizational structure to support its management. Generally, multilevel steering groups are required to manage FDIs.48 They should include the following:

There is no one sure formula, but some division of responsibility between policy and operations will almost assuredly be necessary. A degree of flexibility is required to adjust how the initiative is managed on the basis of local conditions.49

At some point, FDI partners will need to decide whether the initiative is intended to be short term only or more permanent. If the goal is to make it permanent, then it will be necessary to shift from the usual sort of task force management structure to something more institutionalized. For example, the Cincinnati FDI considered institutionalization, and it created a formal management structure and adopted corporate management practices that would not depend on particular individuals to sustain it. Even so, this new formalized structure endured a good deal of trial-and-error turmoil before it normalized.50 The High Point, North Carolina, FDI institutionalized the focused-deterrence approach to the point that subsequent extensions of the approach to other policing problems required far less explanation to or persuasion of key stakeholders.51

Various police organizational structures have been tried in implementing focused-deterrence strategies. Basically, there are two types: a specialist approach and a generalist approach, with some agencies opting for a blend of the two. In a specialist approach, a small group of officers and detectives has direct contact with the high-risk offenders, manages their cases, and directs enforcement actions against them. In a generalist approach, information about high-risk offenders is shared widely with officers throughout the police agency, and all are encouraged to take stricter enforcement action against them. The specialist approach is preferred for customizing interventions to each high-risk offender, but the generalist approach might be the only viable approach for police agencies with limited personnel resources.


FDIs also require strong leadership. Often police officials emerge as the natural leaders, partly because they squarely bear responsibility for addressing crime problems and partly because they are used to being in charge. However, too heavy a hand by police officials can compromise collaboration and run the risk that other partners will come to see the collaboration as primarily a police initiative. A sense of joint ownership of the initiative appears to be vital to its continued success. There is merit in having joint leadership, with at least one leader coming from the criminal justice partners and one from social service/community partners. Whoever exerts coordination and leadership needs to work hard to establish and maintain this sense of joint ownership.

Special care must also be given to leadership transition. It is often the case that highly competent people take the lead in launching FDIs, and eventually they get promoted in rank or transferred to other desirable positions. Their replacements must be similarly competent, credible, and committed. Changes in agency-level or unit-level leadership can bring about abrupt changes in support for focused-deterrence efforts, for better or for worse.

Leaders of FDIs, as well as line personnel who will work directly with high-risk offenders, must understand and support the principles underpinning FDIs. Because some principles run counter to the norms of criminal justice officials (as noted earlier) on the one hand, and of social service providers on the other, you should take great care to select personnel who will work directly with high-risk offenders. In addition to ensuring that they are properly skilled and experienced, these individuals must be properly educated about focused-deterrence principles.

It is also important that police personnel who are not directly participating in the FDI be educated about the focused-deterrence approach so that if and when their assistance is needed, they are more likely to give it enthusiastically.52 In several police departments, widespread support from officers was gained in large measure by having an officer with a solid reputation and credibility among other officers openly support the initiative.

A group of police officers


p See Tita et al. (2003), reporting on the difficulties in delivering promised social services in the East Los Angeles FDI; Braga (2008), reporting that studies of the Stockton, Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis initiatives all reported difficulties sustaining the original collaboration beyond a few years; and Kennedy (2006), citing examples of FDIs in Boston, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Baltimore.

q See Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 7, Implementing Responses to Problems, by Michael Scott, for further discussion of managing the implementation of police problemsolving projects.

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:

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.


A focused-deterrence approach to dealing with high-risk offenders is, relatively speaking, in the early phases of application and testing across the police profession, but the evidence of its effectiveness and fairness to date is promising. It builds on prior knowledge about responding effectively to repeat offenders, but it goes well beyond that knowledge mainly by harnessing the power of intensive support offered to individuals willing to stop their offending and accept the assistance and the power of deterrence through certain, severe, and swift punishment. Moreover, focused-deterrence harnesses state and community authority in persuading high-risk offenders that everyone’s lives, their own included, are better out of a life of crime than in it.

Two of the more unexpected aspects of focused deterrence, at least to its skeptics, are that (1) police and prosecutors are sometimes willing to forgo enforcement and assist known persistent offenders, and (2) persistent offenders can heed official warnings or willingly stop offending. Early FDIs have demonstrated that police and prosecutors have been willing to sacrifice an arrest or a conviction in exchange for a cessation of further offending. In addition, at least some repeat offenders have grown weary of the criminal lifestyle with its constant risks of incarceration, injury, or death and are willing to stop offending if given the right mix of incentives.

Focused deterrence challenges deeply held beliefs of police and prosecutors that persistent offenders are incapable of giving up a life of crime, and of persistent offenders that police and prosecutors desire only to make their lives miserable. Adopting a focused-deterrence approach requires a leap of faith on the part of all involved. But, as demonstrated by the several dozen jurisdictions across the country that have implemented FDIs, with proper attention to the important details of developing, implementing, and monitoring an FDI, such a leap can be well rewarded by less crime; fewer crime victims; safer communities; rehabilitated, socially productive ex-offenders; and enhanced perceived police legitimacy.


[1] Kennedy (1997, 2006); Braga (2008).

[2] Kennedy (1997); Boston Police Department (1998); Braga et al. (2001); Braga, McDevitt, and Pierce (2006); McGarrell et al. (2006); Braga (2008).

[3] Felson and Boba (2010).

[4] Nagin (2013).

[5] Kennedy (2009a).

[6] Braga, McDevitt, and Pierce (2006).

[7] McGarrell et al. (2006); Braga, McDevitt, and Pierce (2006).

[8] Skubak Tillyer, Engel, and Lovins (2012); Skubak Tillyer and Kennedy (2008); Klofas, Delaney, and Smith (2005); Braga and Kennedy (2012).

[9] Braga and Weisburd (2012); Papachristos, Meares, and Fagan (2007).

[10] Dalton (2003).

[11] Skubak Tillyer, Engel, and Lovins (2012).

[12] Heinrich and Braga (2010).

[13] Frabutt et al. (2009).

[14] Papachristos, Meares & Fagan (2007).

[15] Frabutt et al. (2009).

[16] Dalton (2003); Frabutt et al. (2009); Braga, Hureau, and Winship (2008).

[17] Braga (2008).

[18] Braga, McDevitt, and Pierce (2006).

[19] Kennedy (2006).

[20] Kennedy (2006).

[21] Picard-Fritsche, Swaner, and Lambson (2014).

[22] Frabutt et al. (2009); Corsaro and McGarrell (2009b).

[23] Skubak Tillyer, Engel, and Lovins (2012).

[24] Kennedy (2009a).

[25] Braga, McDevitt, and Pierce (2006).

[26] Delaney (2006).

[27] Braga (2008); Braga, McDevitt, and Pierce (2006).

[28] Scott (1988); Papachristos (2009); Papachristos, Braga, and Hureau (2012).

[29] Braga, Hureau, and Papachristos (2014).

[30] Frabutt et al. (2009).

[31] Delaney (2006).

[32] Braga and Weisburd (2012); Kennedy (2006); Braga (2008); Wong et al. (2011).

[33] Braga and Weisburd (2012).

[34] Skubak Tillyer, Engel, and Lovins (2012).

[35] Braga, Hureau, and Papachristos (2014).

[36] Kennedy and Wong (2009).

[37] Kennedy (2006); Corsaro, Brunson, and McGarrell (2009).

[38] Braga (2008), citing Wellford et al. (2005) and Ludwig (2005).

[39] Braga and Winship (2006).

[40] Corsaro, Brunson, and McGarrell (2009).

[41] Melde (2013).

[42] Melde (2013).

[43] Burgdorf and Kilmer (2014).

[44] Heinrich and Braga (2010).

[45] Corsaro and Engel (2015).

[46] Braga, Hureau, and Winship (2008).

[47] Maziarka (2014).

[48] Dalton (2003); Skubak Tillyer, Engel, and Lovins (2012).

[49] Klofas, Delaney, and Smith (2005).

[50] Skubak Tillyer, Engel, and Lovins (2012).

[51] Sechrist et al. (2012).

[52] Frabutt et al. (2009).

[53] Braga, McDevitt, and Pierce (2006).

[54] Kennedy and Wong (2009).

[55] Kennedy and Wong (2009); Corsaro, Brunson, and McGarrell (2009); Corsaro and McGarrell (2009b).

[56] Kennedy (2009b); Kennedy and Wong (2009).

[57] Sechrist et al. (2012).

[58] Sechrist et al. (2012).

[59] Felbab-Brown (2013).


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