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Examining the Role That Place Plays in Crime

March 22, 2011


By Jim Greif

David Weisburd

Traditional criminology has focused on understanding the characteristics and careers of criminals, but Mason criminologist David Weisburd has been an international leader in exploring the implications of where crime occurs and the history of high-crime places.

Weisburd’s research shows that simply steering clear of the bad side of town may not help citizens avoid crime. He also found that by focusing on where crime is concentrated, police and communities are able to target their efforts more effectively.

“Research has shown that in what are generally seen as good parts of town, there are often streets with strong-crime concentrations, and in what are often defined as bad neighborhoods, many places are relatively free of crime,” says Weisburd, who leads the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at Mason.

While police have generally organized their patrols by neighborhoods or precincts that span a large number of city blocks, a “hot spot,” a small area of concentrated crime, can be a single street segment, a cluster of addresses, or even a single building. For example, in a study conducted in 2004, Weisburd and his colleagues found that 86 out of 29,849 street segments accounted for one-third of juvenile crime incidents in Seattle, Washington.

Looking at “crime at place” is a relatively new focus for criminologists, and while targeting crime at the places where it occurs seems like a simple shift in strategy, this shift requires major changes in data gathering and the overall philosophy and actions of the police.

The strategies of place-based policing can be as simple as patrolling hot spots, but they could also include changes in laws and techniques. For example, local policymakers might use nuisance laws to encourage landlords and property owners to aid the police in dealing with crime that occurs in or around their buildings.

“Hot spots provide a stable target for police interventions, unlike the constantly moving targets of criminal offenders,” says Weisburd, who holds a joint appointment as the Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law and Criminal Justice and director of the Institute of Criminology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel.

If police intervene at a hot spot, many citizens and even some police officers believe that the criminal activity will simply move around the corner. Weisburd’s research suggests the opposite is true. In another study, Weisburd and his colleagues found that areas close to the hot spots receiving intervention actually showed a reduction in crime despite the fact that these areas were not the focus.

Weisburd is well-respected by police chiefs and high-ranking law enforcement officials around the world who have implemented his forward-thinking strategies toward policing. He also is a member of the Committee on Crime, Law, and Justice of the National Research Council (NRC) and has served on the NRC working group on evaluating anticrime programs and its panel on police practices and policies. He also was appointed to the new Office of Justice Programs Science Advisory Board by the U.S. attorney general.

In June 2010, Weisburd was honored with the Stockholm Prize in Criminology for his work. The Stockholm Prize, widely considered the most prestigious in the field of criminology, is awarded for outstanding achievement in criminological research or for the application of research results to reduce crime and advance human rights. This was the first time the international committee bestowed the award on a single individual.

“While it is wonderful on a personal level receiving the prize, I see the award as reflecting the growing recognition of scholars, practitioners, and policymakers in the importance of place in crime,” he says. “The work that my colleagues and I have done in this area has begun to take center stage, both in the study of crime and in crime prevention.”

Over the course of his career, Weisburd has received more than $12 million in private and public research funds from organizations such as the National Institute for Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He is also the founding editor of the Journal of Experimental Criminology and serves on a number of journal editorial boards in the criminology field.

Over the past two years, his center, housed within the Department of Criminology, Law and Society, has hosted congressional briefings and research symposiums on the role that location plays in crime and on counterterrorism research. Professors affiliated with the center recently presented at a symposium on drug trafficking, policy, and sentencing, which was organized by U.S. Senator Jim Webb.

In summer 2010, the center hosted the second annual Evidence-Based Crime Policy Symposium, which brought in academics and law-enforcement and policy officials from around the world for a series of workshops, panel discussions, and special lectures that covered topics such as the use of geographic information systems in crime policy and translating research into practice.

Current research topics at the center include the geography of crime and criminal justice, security at airports, evidence-based policing, and technology and policing. The center’s website includes such tools as the evidence-based policing matrix, which allows researchers and practitioners to identify policing programs that work, and a meta-analysis tool to assist in statistical analysis in systematic reviews of crime programs. In addition, the center’s Crime and Place Working Group has created a comprehensive bibliography of crime at place literature and research.


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