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

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Potential Criticisms and Negative Consequences of Crackdowns

Even when a crackdown would likely be effective, it might not necessarily be the best approach to use. There are a number of possible pitfalls to crackdowns, as discussed below. As Lawrence Sherman noted in his review of crackdowns, “[I]t is possible for well-intentioned efforts to make things worse.”16

Short-term impact. Most crackdown studies have found that any positive impact they have in reducing crime and disorder tends to disappear (or decay) rather quickly, and occasionally even before the crackdown ends.17> The effect can wear off for various reasons, including the tendency for police implementation to become less rigorous over time and for offenders to adapt to the crackdown.18

Whatever short-term reductions in crime and disorder they might provide, crackdowns do not address any of the physical or social conditions that often contribute to crime and disorder, either in general or at particular locations.19 Broader situational crime prevention and problem-solving approaches are better suited to address these underlying conditions.20

This tendency for short-term impact does not necessarily make crackdowns inadvisable: for some problems and some areas, even short-term relief can justify the effort, particularly if that relief creates new opportunities to implement longer-term responses.

Displacement. While crackdowns do not inevitably lead to displacement of crime and disorder, it does occur in some cases. The same rationality that police count on to deter some offenders causes others to adapt to police tactics and continue offending at the same rate.21 Depending on the extent and direction of displacement, police risk criticism for creating problems in areas previously unaffected. Once again, the potential for criticism does not necessarily make crackdowns inadvisable; sometimes, displacing a problem from an area that has suffered disproportionately, to other areas that haven't, can be justified as a more equitable distribution of suffering. Displacement, where and when it does occur, seldom occurs at 100 percent. That is, the problem usually decreases in some way, even as it shifts. The key is to be aware of the various possibilities for displacement, develop intelligence systems that inform you how the problem is shifting, and counteract it if possible.

Impact on police-community relations. Improperly conducted, crackdowns can worsen police-community relations and thereby undermine police legitimacy.22 Indeed, many of the urban riots in U.S. cities in the 1960s were at least partly due to widespread crackdowns in minority neighborhoods.23 Particularly when crackdowns are aimed at street activity, they can be criticized for their disparate impact on the poor, who typically spend more time on the street than do the affluent. Moreover, when police use highly aggressive tactics in crackdowns–such as using military strategies, weapons, and attire for relatively routine enforcement and patrol activities–they risk heightening fear among offenders and casual observers.24

Combat soldiers riding on the back of a pickup truck

Soldiers patroling with dog

Combat uniforms and military-style gear and weaponry, designed to better protect officers as well as convey an image of seriousness, can also heighten fear among casual observers.

Said police scholar Herman Goldstein:

It's one thing to realize a quick dramatic decrease in some types of offenses, but if that's at the cost of creating great antagonism toward the police on the part of youth and future generations, then police departments are going to have to deal with the consequences of that hostility.25

But loss of public support is not inevitable. Several studies have shown that when police explain the purpose and scope of crackdowns to the public ahead of time, as well as to the people they stop during crackdowns, they can gain public support, support that continues while the crackdown is in effect. 26

Potential for abuse. Without proper planning and supervision, crackdowns hold the potential for abuse of police authority. If officers are excessively pressured to make arrests and seize contraband, some might be tempted to take shortcuts that can compromise due process. Overzealous and poorly managed crackdowns can violate citizens' rights.27 Where officers receive overtime pay for crackdowns, they risk being accused–however fairly or unfairly–of conducting them primarily to earn that pay. When officers conduct a crackdown in a target area they are not normally assigned to, there is a heightened risk that they will not be able to distinguish the truly suspicious from the ordinary as effectively as locally assigned officers.28

Expense. Crackdowns are usually expensive.29 Many crackdowns require overtime funds to provide the necessary staffing. In addition to officer wages, crackdowns generate higher costs for booking prisoners, processing arrest files, and processing cases through the legal system, and may incur new equipment and training costs. Substantial increases in police presence in an area are usually hard to sustain for long periods due to the costs.30 Whether or not crackdown-related expenses are justified depends on how sure you are that the crackdown prevented crime and disorder. A cost-effectiveness analysis is recommended.31

Impact on the rest of the criminal justice system. In addition to the financial costs crackdowns create for prosecutors, courts, and jails, they create pressure on those operations to adapt to the new workload by forcing other cases and prisoners out of the system.32 Often, that means that offenders are offered lenient sentences in exchange for guilty pleas, which undercuts, to some extent, the crackdown's intended benefits. Or worse, prosecutors may choose not to prosecute the cases at all. At a minimum, police should coordinate crackdowns with other agencies the increased workload will affect.

Opportunity costs. Obviously, for police to devote a larger share of resources to one particular area or problem, they must divert resources from other areas and problems.33 Thus, there is not only the cost of conducting the crackdown, but there is also the cost of not doing something else with the resources. You should not spread resources too widely just to avoid this criticism, lest you undermine the crackdown's potential to have a significant impact.