Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

How Crackdowns Work to Reduce Crime and Disorder

Crackdowns can reduce crime and disorder in two ways: by increasing the certainty that offenders will be caught and punished more severely than usual, or by increasing offenders' perceptions that they are more likely to get caught and punished. Some people are deterred by crackdowns only when they get caught and punished; they are then less likely to repeat the offense. Others don't need to get caught; just hearing about a crackdown deters them. To some extent, the perception of risk is more important than the actual risk.

Probably to a lesser degree, crackdowns can also be effective by taking high-rate offenders out of circulation. Crackdowns are designed to apprehend many offenders, some of whom will be serious and/or high-rate. Increasing the likelihood that they are caught and jailed will help reduce the crime rate. But this is more incidental to crackdowns than it is purposeful: most crackdowns target all offenders, not just high-rate ones. It is possible, though, to focus crackdown efforts on high-rate offenders (or high-risk places).8 Police may do so by identifying high-rate offenders and/or high-risk places before the crackdown and then concentrating efforts on them, or by giving special attention to high-rate offenders they encounter during the crackdown.

Ideally, crackdowns, especially on certain kinds of drug markets, will have a snowball effect. As initial enforcement reduces the number of offenders in circulation, the remaining offenders are at even greater risk because police can focus their resources on them. Eventually, the drug market will collapse for lack of buyers and sellers. 9 Thus, a constant level of police resources dedicated to a crackdown will prove increasingly effective. Clearly, this snowball effect will not apply to every problem against which crackdowns are directed.

Crackdowns might also be effective by reducing the numbers of potential offenders and victims coming into contact with one another. 10 For example, if a drug enforcement crackdown clears many people out of a previously busy drug market, there are likely to be fewer opportunities for such crimes as drug-related robberies and assaults.

Drug enforcement crackdowns that reduce overall drug use will also reduce the need for cash to buy drugs, and thereby provide the added benefit of reducing some of the need to commit crimes to get cash. 11

Benefits of Crackdowns

Crackdowns hold substantial appeal for the public, police, and government officials. They offer the promise of firm, immediate action and quick, decisive results. They appeal to demands that order be restored when crime and disorder seem out of control

Research and practice have demonstrated that crackdowns can be effective–at least in the short term–at reducing crime and disorder in targeted areas, and can do so without necessarily displacing the problem.12, Furthermore, the positive effects of crackdowns sometimes continue after the crackdowns end (these ongoing effects are sometimes referred to as residual deterrence effects ).13 In addition, crackdowns can reduce crime and disorder outside the target area or reduce offenses not targeted in the crackdowns, a phenomenon criminologists commonly refer to as a diffusion of benefits .14

Displacement occurs when crime patterns (methods, places, or times) change as a result of a crime prevention effort . R esearch on displacement has found that it is not an inevitable result of crime prevention, and that even when it does happen, it is less than 100%.

Crackdowns appear to be most effective when used with other responses that address the underlying conditions that contribute to the particular problem.15, The sequence in which police implement the various responses can sometimes be important. Often, crackdowns help reduce problems to more manageable levels, which gives longer-term responses a better chance to take hold.

† Multiple responses tend to be more effective than sole responses, but it is more difficult to determine after the fact which particular responses or tactics were most effective. Since the primary police objectives are to reduce crime and disorder, and the fear they generate, the effectiveness issue is more important than the measurement issue.