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Proactive Policing: Definition & Strategies

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Swan

Robert has taught college-level criminal justice courses and has a Masters degree in Criminology and a Doctorate in Public Policy.

In this lesson we will consider and evaluate the concept of 'proactive policing' and then examine current policing strategies. Following the lesson, a brief quiz will allow you to test what you have learned.

Proactive Law Enforcement & Public Safety

As you leave your house for work one morning, you realize that you may be late to an important test. You know you can make it to the test on time if you go faster than the posted speed limit, so you do. Unfortunately, you've decided to break the law on a day that police are cracking down on speeders. You get pulled over and are ticketed. The officer tells you that they are ticketing speeders because the number of traffic incidents has increased significantly in your area. The crackdown is designed to raise awareness about the high number of traffic accidents and to slow down morning commuters, thereby reducing the number of accidents. Do you think this is reasonable police behavior? Why? Do you think you will speed on this section of road again?

This is an example of proactive policing. Proactive policing can be defined simply as police work initiated by law enforcement agencies or officers that is intended to deter crime, reduce disorder, reduce citizens' fear of crime, or remedy other specific concerns in a given area.

Proactive policing can be contrasted with reactive policing, or police work in which police officers are simply responding to citizens' calls for service. Police responses to 911 calls or calls about loose animals in the neighborhood are a few examples of reactive police work. Simply put, proactive policing is police action that occurs before a crime is committed; reactive policing is activity that occurs after a crime has occurred.

In this lesson you will gain a deeper understanding of proactive police work by exploring its underlying assumptions and contrasting those assumptions with examples of current, proactive policing practices.

Proactive Policing: Assumptions

Proactive policing assumes a number of important things about the best way to reduce crime. These assumptions represent a significant change in the way we have traditionally understood the role of law enforcement in our communities. The key assumptions driving proactive policing hold that:

  1. Maintaining a visible and proactive police presence in neighborhoods will deter crime and criminal behavior, as well as reduce the public's fear of crime. Both goals are equally important and contribute to enhancing trust between citizens and police.
  2. Police officers must actively enforce laws even for low-level crimes and violations, before there is a call for service. This will prevent more serious crimes in the future.
  3. Law enforcement must shift away from using only reactive policing tactics, such as simply responding to calls after a crime has occurred. This is important if police are going to meaningfully contribute to reducing crime and the public's fear of crime.
  4. To reduce crime and fear of crime, officers and agencies need to communicate effectively with the communities they serve and increase levels of trust between citizens and officers in these areas.
  5. By developing effective strategies, law enforcement can help communities project the idea that crime will not be tolerated.

Foundations of Modern Proactive Policing

Typically, law enforcement agencies use data to tell them which types of behavior are creating problems in the community. For example, in the hypothetical case illustrated in the opening section of this lesson, police officers and their agencies used accident report data to tell them that there was a problem with speeding in your section of the highway. However, other, more complex proactive policing strategies rely on both data and theory. The 'Broken Windows' concept is one such strategy.

The Broken Windows theory was first articulated in a 1982 article by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. This theory holds that in order to have an impact on crime and the fear of crime, officers must get out of their police car and engage the community more directly, on foot. Wilson and Kelling hypothesized that officers on foot patrol will pay more attention to crime and disorder issues than officers assigned to motor patrol. As a result, community members will work with and trust local law enforcement much more than they would if officers were exclusively working from the isolation of their police vehicles.

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