Hot-spot policing emphasizes the specific places which become hotter because of crimes getting concentrated and repeated there. It begins with an assumption that a particular place offers the criminals an opportunity to commit crimes and escape easily without being caught. “Hot spots policing strategies focus on small geographic areas or places, usually in urban settings, where crime is concentrated” (Braga et al. 2012).
In this sense, many crime scientists believe, place-based policing is theoretically based on routine activities theory (Cohen and Felson, 1979), which identifies crime as a matter of the convergence of suitable victims present at certain places from where criminals can anticipate little chances of facing the consequences of his or her commission of criminal act or he or she foresees minimum risk and an absence of capable guardians or police. Of course, all these elements must occur within the context of a place or situation. Accordingly, place-based policing recognizes that something about specific places leads to the convergence of these elements.
When I was doing as SSP/DPO district East Karachi in 2015, I came to know that certain crimes were taking place at particular places. As for example, the areas which were identified for daily mobile and other valuable snatchings included Tipu Sultan Crossing, Jauhar Mor, Old Sabzi Mandi, Stadium Road, Dalmia, Disco Bakery in Gulshan, Tariq Road and its suburbs particularly PECHS block two and civic centre. In order to control the street crime, I raised deployment of anti-street squads with motorcycles raised for this purpose at the identified spots. Crime reduced for some days at these hot spots but it was displaced to other areas as university road, Millennium Mall and such other places.
We observed that the street criminals are smart enough to track police activity and plan crime according to their calculation of perceived risks, anticipated rewards and ease of exit without being caught. Keeping in view the smartness of the criminals, I, after analysing crime trends and patterns through available data of previous years, placed armed police officers as under covers in civvies at the places which we thought could be next likely targets and where our uniformed personnel were not visible or present. In this way within a weak our undercover personnel had more than ten encounters killing and injuring entire operatives of the gangs active in street snatchings. This state of unpredictability served as a strong deterrent to street crimes and it fell almost to 70%. Thus, the strategies of place-based policing can be as simple as bringing extra patrols and intensive deployments to repeat crime places.
Hot spot policing is no substitute to problem-oriented and community policing models because in its very nature this approach can’t be sustained for pretty good time and it displaces crime rather than eliminating it. Other police practices are focused primarily on people. Those practices often begin with people who call the police and are focused on identifying offenders who commit crimes. They end with the arrest of those offenders and their processing through the criminal justice system. Catching criminals on a case-by-case basis and processing them through the criminal justice system remains the predominant police crime prevention strategy.
However many crime prevention researchers suggest that police should put places, rather than people, at the centre of their practices. Their point is not simply that places should be considered in policing, but that they should be a key component of the databases that police use, of the geographic organization of police activities, and of the strategic approaches that police use to combat crime and disorder. It goes without saying that for crime data analysis place where the crime takes place repeatedly offers easy statistics for mapping crime and make the strategy to deal with accordingly but the problem of crime remains to be solved.
There is perhaps a no better-established fact in criminology than the variability and instability of offending across the life course. It is well-established that a primary factor in this variability is the fact that most offenders age out of crime often at a relatively young age. But there is also evidence of strong instability in criminal behaviour for most offenders, even when short periods are observed. This may be contrasted with developmental patterns of crime at the place, which suggests much stability in crime incidents over time.
However, you would be rolling your eyes in disbelief that the average age of a street criminal is around 16 years and going for zero tolerance policing would certainly cause the public to get disgruntled over striker actions against teenagers. In one incident a purse of the school teacher was snatched while she was on her way to shop from Chase-up Grocery shop on Shaheed-e-Millet Road in the jurisdiction Police Station Firozabad. Our undercover officials with the help of some active citizens present on the spot arrested all two motorcyclist teenagers red-handed with the pistol loaded and recovered the snatched purse. The lady teacher whose purse they snatched got offended not with snatchers but the people who caught them and handed them over to local police. She came all the way to police station, contacted me and strongly fought for their release only on the basis that they were teenagers and need restoration more than punishment. I was amazed at the positivity and optimism of that lady who was hell-bent on getting them out of the bars and refused to get her case registered. After getting fingerprints and photos I handed over both teens to that madam; she gave them two thousand and her cell number to contact her for any work they wanted to do if they were not doing it due to any reason of poverty or unavailability of opportunity. We got suspicious and confirmed the credentials of that lady and found that she was running a charitable institution and her family was into the business of construction. She knew how to rehabilitate the teens.
From this incident of the positive engagement of that lady teacher, we as police officers had some takeaways. First, the punitive approach is not always effective and it varies from criminal to criminal and crime to crime. Secondly, there is the sense in trying for restorative strategies especially where underage teens or women are involved in crime. Thirdly, we should not at all ignore as to what conditions and circumstances of life and livelihood produce such criminals in their early age; there is need to get this right at the root. This is called root-cause approach in crime science.
However, this approach of looking into the distant causes of crime costs police too much and is not true in case of hardened criminals who run the organised gangs. Lawrence Sherman, Lorraine Green and Weisberg were among the first researchers to show that hot spots policing could be effective in doing something about crime. At a time of scepticism regarding the effectiveness of police practices, they found that concentrating patrols on crime hot spots could benefit crime prevention. One long-standing objection to focusing crime prevention geographically is that it will simply shift or displace crime to other places not receiving the same level of police attention that crime will simply “move around the corner.” This is what I observed while increasing patrols around the hot spots. What really worked was undercover officials but the fact remains that they too were placed at spotted areas of crime clusters.
Our experience of mapping crime in terms of places in our metropolis Karachi district East 2015 provided us with the advantage of qualitative data collection to understand why place-based policing does not simply push crime around the corner. We found that offenders did not perceive all places as having the same opportunities for crime. For example, easy access for clients was a critical criterion for drug dealers in PIB colony Karachi, as was relatively few residents who might call the police about prostitutes in Clifton. The need for special characteristics of places to carry out criminal activity meant that crime could not simply displace to every place in the Metropolis. Indeed, the number of places evidencing such characteristics might be relatively small. In turn, spatial movement of offenders from crime sites often involved substantial effort and risk by offenders.
“Policing places puts emphasis on reducing opportunities for crime at places, not on waiting for crimes to occur and then arresting offenders. Successful crime prevention programs at places need not lead to high numbers of arrests, especially if methods are developed that discourage offenders” (Weisberg: 2006).
Many Policing experts argue that “it is time for police to shift from person-based policing to place-based policing”. However, It holds true even today that the primary function of police even in the twenty-first century remains to be catching criminals to be processed through a well drawn criminal justice system. It is worldview of policing which many want and argue to replace with ameliorating crime on the spot. I am of the firm opinion that 21st century policing in post 9/11 world has witnessed greater innovations in policing strategies whose focus range from offender, place of offence, victim, opportunity minimization, and incapacitating criminals both through punitive and well as restorative methodologies to intelligence-led, predictive, and problem-solving approaches to deal with crime control.
All these approaches have both the advantages as well as disadvantages; the seasoned police officers go for the most suitable strategy that suits their area to achieve the goals of reducing crime both through detection as well as prevention. Without denying the scientific analysis potential of Hotspot policing, I always prefer to take the best from all police innovations of modern times and make the most suitable mix in what is called “the strategic policing based on networked approaches”. For me this has always worked very well.
The Writer is a Blogger, educator, Novelist and senior Police Officer at police service of Pakistan.