Why Don't the Police Stop Crime?

Article excerpt

Several answers to the question 'Why don't the police stop crime?' are considered. Police do stop some crime, although increasingly they will rely on nonpolice personnel for assistance in doing so. The proportion of crime they stop is not fixed: learning the right lessons from the experience of New York City will help them to increase it. Nonetheless, police need to be alert to the dangers of concentrating single-mindedly on crime reduction. Doing so not only has inherent dangers, but it can also divert attention from other tasks and objectives of policing. Understanding the police role in crime control and reduction is hampered by populist insistence that simple answers are enough. Equally, the academic promise of new 'sciences' of crime and policing is overstated. The article argues for a more inclusive and sophisticated approach to answering the question in its title.


Recently, there have been several burglaries in our area. I was talking about them with a neighbour, who asked 'Why don't the police do something about it?' I tried to give him a potted version of my lecture to undergraduates on the limits of police effectiveness, but he was not impressed: 'If they can't catch crooks, what good are they?' As if on cue, around the corner came the first police officer to be seen in our street for months. He was pushing crime prevention leaflets into mailboxes, advising people to lock the back door and to cancel the newspaper when they go on holiday. My neighbour's disgust was complete: 'So we have to do your job for you now, do we?'

This article's title is deliberately ambiguous, as well as provocative. I intend to consider various ways of answering the question 'Why don't the police stop crime?', and also to suggest some answers, some of which are in the form of questions in riposte. While the article primarily has a policy orientation, it is appropriate to go beyond this to talk a little about the nature of inquiry into these matters, and their relationship to our broader intellectual culture.

Answer I: They Do

The first, and most straightforward, answer is that the police do stop crime, or at least some crime. A hackneyed example from historical experience is that when police go on strike, some forms of crime increase (Sherman & Eck, 2002, pp. 302-3): there is no doubt that the presence of police does contain crime to some extent. The police affect the occurrence of crime both by catching some criminals (possibly leading to incapacitation and individual deterrence) and by presenting a risk of detection and punishment (contributing to general deterrence). This is a modest claim, not an expression of what Reiner calls '"police fetishism"', the ideological assumption that the police are a functional prerequisite of social order so that without a police force chaos would ensue' (2000, p. 1). If it is accepted that the police have some impact on crime, there is no reason to believe that this impact is constant: presumably, it can be increased (or reduced) if the police operate differently. This suggests that the key issues are specifying the type of crime being considered, assessing the extent to which police can stop crime, and identifying the most effective strategies and tactics for crime control.

Answer 2: What Kind of Crime Are You Talking About?

The concept of crime as a category unified by anything more than legal prohibition should have been abandoned in our criminological cradles. In order to understand the field, the focus must be much tighter than simply being on 'crime'. Corporate fraud, child sexual assault, drunken driving, and offensive language have nothing in common beyond their legal status as offences. Putting more police on the beat is not going to affect white-collar crime. Developing forensic skills is irrelevant to the policing of disorderly conduct in the street. We need, therefore, to acknowledge factors such as variations in the reporting and detectability of types of crime, the likelihood of one detection leading to other crimes being cleared up (as offences 'taken into consideration' or 'written off'), the influence of relationships between suspect and victim, and between police and public, and so on (Bottomley & Coleman, 1980, 1981; Coleman & Moynihan, 1996). …