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More Cops On The Street Leads To Less Crime—And Fewer Arrests—In The U.K.

Police officers can prevent crimes just by being a presence—and they don't even need to send anyone to jail.

More Cops On The Street Leads To Less Crime--And Fewer Arrests--In The U.K.

Photo: Claudio Stocco via Shutterstock

Police departments around the world are often asking for money to hire more officers. A new study shows they are worth it.

Putting more cops on the streets more than pays for itself, say researchers from the University of Cambridge.

The year-long experiment was conducted in Peterborough in the U.K. and explored "soft policing" in 71 known crime hotspots. Uniformed civilian police staff were sent into the field "with few arrest powers and no weapons." If that last part sounds crazy, remember that British police don’t carry guns on regular duty. These Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) wore GPS trackers and their time on the street was tracked. Regular police constables were also used, as a control group and for comparison, although the researchers weren’t allowed access to their GPS data.

Flickr user Lisa Risager

The idea of the experiment was to assess whether crime reduction was due to the threat of immediate arrest from regular police officers, or if these PCSOs would be enough. Further, the study set out to determine whether the number of visits to a hotspot was more or less important than the total time spent there.

The result? "Even small differences in foot patrols showing the ‘soft power’ of unarmed paraprofessionals," says the study, "were causally linked to both lower counts of crimes and a substantially lower crime harm index score." The study also found that the patrols didn’t just push the trouble into other areas, but reduced the overall crime levels.

In terms of hard numbers, the researchers calculated that two full-time PCSOs "would prevent 86 assaults a year" and that the avoided crimes would save the cost of eight years worth of imprisonment time. The study says that spending $15 on targeted foot patrols would save $82 in prison costs.

This study could be used as a benchmark for improving the cost-effectiveness of policing. "Any other investment in policing can now be challenged to match the benefits of foot patrols in preventing the equivalent of either 86 assaults, or six burglaries, or six sexual crimes," said study co-author Lawrence Sherman, in a press release.

"Contemporary policing is characterized by a ‘reactive, fire-brigade’ style of policing in automobiles," says the study. Cops arrive after a crime is committed, instead of preventing it. But this study found that pro-active visits work to stop the crimes occurring in the first place. The authors have an interesting take on this approach. "While the proactive visits may often surprise (and chasten) those considering the commission of a crime, the reactive visits may advertise the success of the last person who got away with a crime, thus encouraging more crime."

The trick, then, is regular visits from foot patrols. And it’s the number of visits that is important. The time spent per visit seemed to have little effect on the results.

Perhaps the most important part of this, for practical purposes, is that it is so cheap, and the savings more than pay for the extra civilian officers needed. There were also 20% fewer emergency calls to the police.

In the case of policing, then, the old ways do seem to be better. Well, maybe not all of them.

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