Category Archives: Intelligence-Led Policing

Harm-focused policing

On 28th January, 2015 I gave the Police Foundation‘s Ideas in American Policing lecture on the topic of harm-focused policing. This brief blog provides some background details to the talk. Please note that for a number of reasons (including photograph copyright) I am not distributing copies of the PowerPoint slides.

Harm-focused policing weighs the social harms of criminality and disorder with data from beyond crime and antisocial behavior, in order to focus police priorities and resources in furtherance of both crime and harm reduction.

Example information and data sources could include drug overdose information that could help triage drug markets for interdiction, traffic fatality data to guide police patrol responses, and community impact assessments to prioritize violent street gangs. For a summary of the core of the presentation and a grey-scale version of some of the graphics, please see:

Ratcliffe, J. H. (2015). Towards an index for harm-focused policing. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, 9(2), 164-182.

You can visit the journal site and access the paper here (or here) and watch my annotated video of the lecture below (you might want to make it full screen so you can read the slides).

During the presentation, I had a couple of quotes. Here are the quotes and their sources.

“to establish priorities for strategic criminal intelligence gathering and subsequent analysis based on notions of the social harm caused by different sorts of criminal activity”. The source for this is page 262 of Ratcliffe, J. H. & Sheptycki, J. (2009) Setting the strategic agenda. In J. H. Ratcliffe (ed.) Strategic Thinking in Criminal Intelligence (2nd edition) Sydney: Federation Press.

“Weighting crimes on the basis of sentencing guidelines can be justified on good democratic grounds as reflecting the will of the people. …… it remains far closer to the will of the people than any theoretical or even empirical system of weighting that academics might develop.” The source for this is Sherman, L. W. (2013). Targeting, testing and tracking police services: The rise of evidence-based policing, 1975-2025. In M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and Justice in America, 1975-2025. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Page 47.


Why we shouldn’t fixate on homicide numbers

There are some certainties in life. Death, taxes, the Eagles snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And the annual January media fixation with homicide rates as the barometer of everything from a city’s moral compass to the effectiveness of the police chief.

I spent a couple of days speaking to various reporters about the homicide numbers in Philadelphia, and how they were significantly down on a few years ago, but had remained largely unchanged since last year. ‘What could we gather from this?’ ‘What were the implications?’ ‘Were police department strategies starting to falter?’ ‘What does it mean for the mayor and police commissioner?’

Taking more time than I really had, given I am trying to update ‘Intelligence-Led Policing’ for a second edition, I tried to explain that the homicide figures are a really bad choice of metric. For just about anything. For example, a not insubstantial number of homicides occur between people who know each other, and often take place indoors. How are the police department supposed to anticipate and prevent those homicides? Even if they develop a ‘Minority Report’ predictive capacity, we have a reactive legal and criminal justice system: it isn’t keen on letting the police just wander into your house and lock you up for pondering murder. And for the homicides that take place on the street? Sitting in on numerous Philadelphia Police Department crime briefings and listening to the homicide reports, it is clear that many are the result of minor disputes that flared up with little-to-no warning or are the result of disputes between participants in gangs or drug organizations who conceal their business and would never seek the intervention of the police.

The difference between a homicide and an aggravated assault is also largely outside of police control. Could be the shooter has lousy aim or is firing gangster style, there is a delay in getting the victim to the hospital, or simply medical mismanagement. Once a person decides to shoot someone else, they are easily able to in the US because we allow them the opportunities to do so. Our legislators seem unwilling to help the police with this, so again, little chance for police influence here.

I examined a summary of every incident recorded by the Philadelphia Police for the last available full year (2013) to estimate how much police patrol energy is expended on responding to homicide incidents. In Philadelphia, the city receives millions of calls for service, and from these – as well as police-generated activity – an INCT database is created. This database contains every incident where a police officer was required to act, and ranges from dog bites and graffiti to shootings and homicides, and from assistance to city agencies and delivering messages, to removing debris from the interstate or arresting a drunk driver. In 2013 there were in excess of 1.65 million incidents. What percentage of these related to homicide? 0.021%. Less than one quarter of one tenth of one percent.

I explained to the reporters that aggravated assaults and robberies were also down, and due to their greater number generally, this was a much better way to indicate the crime health of the city. They said they got it, but their hands were tied: “the public interest is in homicides”.  So we still got story after story about the homicide rate. Not a major grumble: reporters have to make a call and write what they think is the story. But I wonder if the fascination with homicides is really driven by public demand, or by the media? I can’t believe there was massive public outcry that drove the claim that “Philly’s Murder Rate Is Skyrocketing Again in 2014”… especially only two weeks into the year (you had to go back and checked the post date didn’t you?).

Traditionally, homicides have been used because they are easily comparable between cities, because police departments have recorded other incidents in different ways, or because in the past (sometimes not so distant) the police have distorted the crime figures. But homicides comprise so little of the work of a police agency, and the chances of most people being a victim of homicide are so low, that they tell us little about the experienced crime rate or the quality of life for city residents.

We need to start moving to more holistic measures if oversight and strategy are to be more data driven and evidence based. Harm-focused policing that examines and weighs all incidents, and includes other harms to communities, such as traffic accidents or the potentially deleterious impact of unrestrained pedestrian investigations, is increasingly possible with the big data sets that public agencies generate. We need to evolve beyond our fixation with homicide if we are to move the discussion about safety and harm forward.

But in the meantime, Philadelphia, be glad that shootings and robberies are also down.

(This post was updated shortly after posting to correct the homicide incident rate)

Schrödinger’s crime hotspot

Attendance at the recent 2014 American Society of Criminology conference brought a chance to catch up with friends and observe a couple of splendid presentations (and quite a few awful ones). A couple of sessions in particular reaffirmed to me the gulf between some academic criminology and public policy. I watched as speakers attempted to parse in ever-increasing detail the boundaries of crime hotspots. Discussions continued around the efficacy of street blocks as potentially more accurate units of analysis compared to census block groups, and I could see the accuracy issue being a hot topic in predictive policing workshops. Hotspot boundary definition appeared to be the end in itself.

As my colleague Ralph B. Taylor has argued, “hot spots exist in the data world but not the real world” (Taylor, 2009) ¹. In this they are unlike land use parcels, behavior settings or street blocks – places that exist in the data and real worlds. He goes on to contend that “hot spots are amalgams of different types of locations” and we therefore have a construct validity problem. Simply because we see a cluster of events, does not mean we have a new entity (a crime hotspot) but rather a collection of events that exist as a cohesive entity only in the abstract world. To think otherwise is to commit a reification fallacy (Gould, 1981). When we move to the real world, and think about operationalizing a strategy to address our hotspots, things can unravel as it becomes clear that this collection of points exists for different reasons, each of which need addressing.

I thought of Ralph Taylor’s comments as I sat in the audience, and pondered the analogy between crime hotspots and Schrödinger’s cat. Erwin Schrödinger’s feline thought experiment was designed to explain why the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum superposition was flawed, because the cat exists in a paradoxical state of being neither alive nor dead. The hypothetical animal is placed in a steel box with a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, a hammer, and a small amount of radioactive substance, small enough to have only a 50/50 chance of being detected over the course of an hour. If the radioactive substance decay is detected by the counter, the hammer is triggered to smash the vial, release the poison and kill the cat. Only by looking in the box can the observer determine whether the cat is alive or dead. Prior to opening the box, the cat’s health is unknown and could be considered simultaneously alive and dead. The observer opens the box with the express intent of confirming the wellbeing of the cat. Before opening the box, the cat’s condition is unresolved and abstract. In the same way, crime hotspots are in a largely abstract state until we look at them from a particular viewpoint.

This brings me to two points that appeared rather lost on some of the conference speakers. First, crime mapping and the application of GIS to crime problems is not the end of the analysis – it is the start of it. Digital cartography is a necessary abstraction of the real world, and to think otherwise is to be oblivious to the classification, simplification and symbolization that takes place. It is through these processes that unrelated events can often be made apparently similar. The nighttime beating and robbery of a drug dealer will often be classified in the same manner as the punch a school child receives as they are relieved of their smart phone by a classmate. In a map of crime for the year, these events will likely be cartographically identical, but unlikely to be prevented in the future with the same response. Just because two crimes share geographic proximity, doesn’t mean they necessarily share a common cause (a point I’ve made elsewhere).

This brings me to a related second point. Crime hotspots (in the abstract world) are only made real when they are mapped for a purpose. When a police captain asks for a map of robbery hotspots, the captain is bringing a purpose to the analysis. He or she wants to deploy a surveillance team, task a crime prevention officer, or know where to assign more foot patrol officers. An academic, meanwhile, might want to seek underlying causal factors and understand why crime concentrates in certain areas. With the knowledge of the eventual purpose, a proficient analyst can create tailored hotspots that map to the parameters of the user’s needs. The maps would be different, but no less useful. Our captain brings a lens through which he or she interrogates the hotspot, and by looking at a map of crime hotspots they are made real and are understood. It is the captain, not the analyst, who opens the box.²

Both the captain and the academic bring to the analysis a predetermined purpose, and although different, the crime hotspots that each uncovers are equally valid. In opening the box, and staring at the map through the lens of a proposed application, crime hotspots are made real and understood. At this point, they can serve a purpose. But until then, they remain in an abstract state and their accuracy, or even their state as being alive or dead as viable entities, remains unknown. Like Schrödinger’s cat.

Works cited

Taylor, R. B. (2009). Hot spots do not exist, and other fundamental concerns about hot spots policing. In N. Frost, J. Freilich & T. Clear (Eds.) Contemporary Issues in Criminal Justice Policy: Policy Proposals from the American Society of Criminology Conference (pp. 271-278). Belmont, CA: Cengage/Wadsworth.

Gould, S. J. (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.


¹ And continues to discuss in greater detail in his forthcoming book, Taylor, R. B. (2015) Community Criminology. New York: New York University Press.

² In discussing this with John Eck he added the suggestion of a Schrödinger’s policy, where two policies sit in a box and are both in a state of existence, until someone looks at the data. Then only one policy becomes viable and exists.