Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

The Benefits and Consequences of Police Crackdowns

Response Guide No. 1 (2004)

by Michael S. Scott

Defining Crackdowns

This guide deals with crackdowns, a response police commonly use to address crime and disorder problems. The term crackdown is widely used in reference to policing and law enforcement, although it is often used rather loosely. Journalists, for example, commonly refer to almost any new police initiative as a crackdown. For the purposes of this guide, a crackdown is generally defined as follows:

Sudden and dramatic increases in police officer presence, sanctions, and threats of apprehension either for specific offenses or for all offenses in specific places. 1

Crackdowns usually, but not necessarily, involve high police visibility and numerous arrests. They may use undercover or plainclothes officers working with uniformed police, and may involve other official actions in addition to arrests.

Several other terms are commonly used in connection with crackdowns, but their use is also often imprecise. Among them are zero tolerance and sweeps . Zero tolerance, often associated with the broken windows thesis,2 implies that police suspend the level of discretion they would ordinarily use in their enforcement decisions in favor of strictly enforcing the law for all or selected offenses. Sweeps typically refer to coordinated police actions in which they seek out and arrest large numbers of offenders. Many reports relating to crackdowns refer to aggressive police methods–aggressive patrol, aggressive enforcement, and so forth. By aggressive it is meant that police make extra efforts to take official action, not that they are hostile or rude to people they contact.

The crackdowns this guide covers are larger-scale special operations authorized at a policy-making level; they are not crackdowns undertaken by a single, beat-level officer.

Related Responses

Police often use crackdowns in combination with other responses. Responses not directly addressed in this guide include

  • targeting repeat offenders,
  • conducting sting operations,
  • educating and warning citizens, and
  • improving place management.

Types of Crackdowns

Crackdowns, generally defined, take many different forms. They range from highly planned, well-coordinated, intensely focused operations in which officers know the operational objectives and perform their duties precisely, to loosely planned initiatives in which officers are given only vague guidance about objectives and tasks, sometimes being told little more than to “get out there and make your presence felt.” From a problem-oriented perspective, there is a world of difference among these various crackdowns. Most of the crackdowns reported in the research literature are reasonably well-planned, coordinated, and focused: they must be to justify the research. However, in practice, police agencies conduct many operations that can be defined as crackdowns, but which are not as well-planned, coordinated, and focused. Researchers are less interested in studying these initiatives precisely because they don't believe they will be able to systematically learn from them. Consequently, we know less about the effects of the less well-planned, coordinated, and focused crackdowns.

Crackdowns can be classified along a few important dimensions. Among them are

  • police visibility/enforcement action,
  • type of action expected,
  • geographic target, and
  • types of offenses targeted.

Police Visibility/Enforcement Action

Some crackdowns emphasize police visibility only, whereas others emphasize enforcement action. Both types are intended to make potential offenders think they are more likely than usual to get caught. When a crackdown emphasizes enforcement, it obviously relies on actual sanctions being applied to offenders to enhance the deterrent effect. When a crackdown emphasizes police visibility only, additional enforcement and sanctions may or may not result; the enhanced visibility alone is intended to produce the deterrent effect. The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment is a well-known example of a crackdown that emphasized police visibility only.†† Such crackdowns are often referred to as saturation patrol, tactical patrol, directed patrol, or high-visibility patrol . Most research suggests that simply adding more officers to an area without necessarily increasing levels of official action is unlikely to significantly reduce crime and disorder.3Intensive patrol around identified hot spots of crime and disorder, however, has been demonstrated to reduce crime and disorder at those hot spots.4

† Most crackdowns include high police visibility, but some do not, notably those in which undercover or plainclothes police are involved.

†† In this experiment, the levels of uniformed patrols were varied to test their relative effect on reported crime and citizen perceptions, but patrol officers were not instructed to take any special enforcement actions (Kelling, et al. 1974).

Type of Action Expected

Some crackdowns require that officers suspend the usual discretion they apply to situations in favor of certain prescribed enforcement actions. For example, they might make custodial arrests where once they might have issued a citation and released the offender; they might issue a citation where once they might have released the offender with a warning; they might actively look for offenders with outstanding warrants where once they might have served warrants only when encountering offenders in the routine course of their duties; and so forth

Other crackdowns encourage officers to use a broader range of tactics to address targeted problems, exercising full discretion and initiative. In addition to taking more enforcement actions, officers might also be encouraged to apply the principles of problem-oriented policing or situational crime prevention as circumstances warrant.5

Specific actions officers might take as part of a crackdown include

  • arresting offenders;
  • issuing citations;
  • conducting field interviews;
  • issuing written or verbal warnings;
  • taking juvenile offenders into custody for status offenses (for example, for truancy or curfew violations);
  • conducting highly visible patrols;
  • conducting traffic stops;
  • serving search warrants;
  • serving arrest warrants;
  • inspecting licenses (liquor, business, driver's);
  • inspecting property for code violations, and enforcing them;
  • establishing mobile police command posts/booking stations/neighborhood offices;
  • conducting “knock and talk” operations (to gain information from citizens who are hesitant to contact the police directly, let the community know what the police hope to achieve, locate offenders, conduct voluntary searches of private premises, look for evidence in plain view, etc.);
  • searching vehicles and interviewing drivers at roadblocks or checkpoints; and
  • seeking enhanced penalties (for example, by filing cases typically prosecuted under state laws under federal laws).

Geographic Target

Some crackdowns are concentrated in small geographic areas–perhaps a couple of square blocks or a housing complex. Others extend to larger areas–whole neighborhoods or police districts. Others cover an entire jurisdiction–a city, a county, even a state.

Types of Offenses Targeted

Some crackdowns focus on particular illegal conduct–robbery, burglary, drunken driving, speeding, drug dealing, gun-related crimes, etc. Others are more broadly aimed at deterring a range of illegal and problematic behavior–all crimes, all serious crimes, all calls for police service, etc.