Police are fighting crime by looking at buildings, not criminals

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View of the Kansas City, Missouri, skyline.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (NewsNation) — Is one way to reduce crime to focus on places rather than people?

That’s a bet the Kansas City Police Department placed in 2019 when it ramped up an approach known as risk-based policing.

Instead of relying only on arrests and enforcement to lower crime, police identify the places that attract crime: from boarded-up buildings to broken street lamps. Then, they work with community groups to fix them up.

For example, in Kansas City a bus stop at a particular intersection was attracting drug sales and loitering. So the police called the local transportation authority and had the bus stop moved.

“I think within a week, maybe not even that, that immediately cut down on the loitering and foot traffic,” Capt. Jonas Baughman told the local press.

Local business leaders were impressed by the improvements they began to see in the community. The Kansas City Chamber of Commerce sits close to one area where the police were implementing risk-based policing.

“Sitting up on our front offices with the big windows that watch the avenue, we see different things today,” the organization’s president Bobbi Baker-Hughes said in 2020, after the program had been in place a year.

The city had been testing this approach since 2010. But it decided to expand risk-based policing following frustration with its chronic crime problem, Baughman said in an interview.

He said then-Police Chief Rick Smith told him: “Hey, we need to do something different.”

The results exceeded expectations.

A study that analyzed the results of Kansas City’s program between March 2019 and March 2020 found that violent crimes were reduced on average around 22 percent in the areas where it was active. Not only did violent crime go down, but so did routine stops, including citing drivers for running four-way stops and pulling over people who look suspicious.

Overall, proactive enforcement activity — where police were affirmatively going out and making these stops and similar interventions — dropped by around 60 percent in these areas.

“We were hoping to see some decreases, but that was staggering,” Baughman said.

Mapping out risk AND THEN ADDRESSING IT

Traditional policing involves reacting to incidents of crime or where it occurs. Risk-based policing, on the other hand, seeks to anticipate crime before it happens.

Police look at places that have the potential to attract crime — convenience stores or bus stops, for instance — and see which ones match up with actual crime data. This helps them figure out what a community’s risk factors are. They then map out those risk factors. Wherever they’re most concentrated, that’s where police know they have to focus on bettering the community.

The mapping approach, called risk-terrain modeling, was pioneered by Rutgers University criminologist and former police officer Joel Caplan. He has worked with numerous police departments across the country, including the Kansas City police.

Caplan said this approach changes the conversation “from where the problem is and who’s doing it to what is it about these places that can be made safer?”

In Kansas City, that meant looking at places like abandoned buildings, liquor stores or pawn shops, Baughman said.

“Things of that sort, but really anything that you think could have a nexus to crime,” Baughman said. “As long as you can put it on a map, we can analyze it.”

Police then worked to make those places safer by working with community groups and other departments in addressing the conditions that invite crime.

Baughman offered the example of a vacant building that has been identified as a risk factor. Police could then call the local neighborhood preservation office and have the building boarded up.

“We’re just kind of being the eyes and ears for other responsible parties,” he said.

Examples of how police may respond to risk factors in the real world. From the “Risk-Based Policing in Kansas City” presentation provided courtesy of Capt. Jonas Baughman/KCPD.

Other possible responses might include making sure functional street lights are installed in a risky area or security cameras are present. What’s key is getting buy-in from community partners who end up doing much of the work when it comes to ameliorating environmental risks.

“Police cannot shoulder the entire burden of public safety, nor should they, in my opinion. … You have to have everyone on board,” Baughman noted.

He conceded that risk-based policing isn’t a silver bullet and can’t replace every other criminal justice strategy, including reactive ones based on arresting and rehabilitating offenders.

“You can’t put all your eggs in just place-based approaches. … It takes a person to commit crime,” Baughman said.

Kansas City put its risk-based policing program on pause following the onset of the pandemic and the protests and riots following the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. They began ramping the program back up in 2021 but haven’t released any detailed information about whether it has been able to replicate the success it found between 2019 and 2020.

For Caplan, the academic whose work has inspired municipalities from Colorado Springs to Atlantic City to experiment with risk-based policing, the most important thing is being open to trying a new approach.

“Right now we often say, what are the trends, what are the numbers, and where is it happening?” he said. “And then we pounce on those places and then we … do what we’re most trained to do, or what we’re comfortable or used to doing, and that is assuming everyone located there is part of the problem. And that’s not an effective approach.”

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