The Criminal Justice Department is working with Philadelphia police in the Smart Policing Initiative.
Earning a doctorate degree requires years of studying, working hard and attending classes, but for second-year graduate students Cory Haberman and Evan Sorg, it also requires wearing a bulletproof vest.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever be wearing a bulletproof vest in my lifetime,” Haberman said.
Haberman and Sorg work as assistants to criminal justice professors Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe and Dr. Elizabeth Groff in the Smart Policing Initiative, an experiment by the university’s criminal justice department and the Philadelphia Police Department to find new methods to reduce the city’s violent crime.
“This was a ground-breaking study that we did in collaboration with the Philadelphia Police Department, and we discovered that very focused patrols in violent crime hotspots actually did have a crime-reduction benefit,” Ratcliffe said. “This was huge for police to understand across the United States – it changes 20 to 30 years of thinking.”
The program targets 80 areas throughout the city, each one no bigger than a few blocks. The average number of violent crimes was 41. To be selected, areas had to have at least 10 potentially lethal violent crimes – usually involving a firearm – in 2009, as well as 15 or more total violent crimes.
The police department’s crime records provided the data. The department did not respond to requests to speak to police officials.
Using the data provided by police, faculty and students compiled surveys for the affected areas’ residents to find their perception of crime, the image of police and suggestions for combating crime in the areas. A combination of three methods is applied to each area.
The first method involves foot patrols, where paired officers walk the streets to learn about the community and maintain a presence.
“The way that we set it up was that the whole city couldn’t get foot patrols, but the worst areas of the city could get very concise areas,” Ratcliffe said. “And we used mapping systems and geographic information systems to locate the best areas to put these patrols in, and they would only have a mile of streets, and they would be walking past every 15 to 20 minutes.
“For the people who live there, it’s very reassuring, but also a crime-reduction method,” he added.
The second is an offender-based approach, where police identify individuals responsible for the most crimes in an area and let those individuals know the police are aware of their activities. Examples of those individuals include gang leaders and drug kingpins, Haberman said.
The third is a problem-solving method: Officers find an underlying issue in the community and try to fix it. For example, if patrons at a local bar were regularly starting fights, police would respond by establishing an increased area presence or working with the bar’s management to find a solution.
Because the methods are applied based on each area’s analysis, no one method is deemed better than another.
“Probably in the long run, we’ll find that all three of them have an effect, and you might need all three of them implemented at the same time,” Haberman said. “You might see something where you start out with foot patrols with people in the area, and they get to learn the people and the area, and you might bring in the offender-focused approach to round up the guys who are making the area bad.”
Haberman and Sorg work mostly behind-the-scenes to map out crime data, compile survey data and sit in on meetings with the police department and community members. They also go on patrol with officers to observe the effectiveness of their methods firsthand.
“We can map violent crime in the city, but it’s just a dot on a map. You really go out and see where the data comes from. You have to go out and see the reality of what’s happening,” Ratcliffe said. “It helps you understand the data, and it helps you understand the problem.”
While the graduate students patrol in more dangerous parts of the city and must wear a bulletproof vest, this is nothing new for Sorg, who spent two years as a New York City police officer before he came to the university.
“I loved the job, and it was a great experience. I just kind of got into the whole analytical side of things,” Sorg said. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to get involved in any of that stuff without my degree, so I needed to go back to school, and I couldn’t do that as a police officer with that schedule.”
The experience has provided new insight into what police officers see as they patrol.
“You have an idea of what policing does in textbooks, but when you get on the streets, you realize how difficult the situations they have to deal with on a daily basis [are],” Haberman said. “They go to work to deal with other people’s problems and sometimes get into dangerous situations.”
“For all the bad things you hear about them, they really want to do good and help, but with this economy and the resources that are out there, they get criticized a lot,” Sorg added. “They really work hard and the leadership of [Philadelphia Police] Commissioner [Charles] Ramsey is probably the best in the business, so being involved with such a forward-thinking department is a great experience.”
The experiment is set to end in four months. Then, Ratcliffe and his fellow faculty will put together an evaluation using the crime data compiled during the experiment, survey results from residents taken before and after the experiment and information from focus groups of participating officers.
The experiment has shown some positive results so far, but in the field of criminal justice, crime never completely goes away.
“What we generally find is that if police work in an area, there’s actually a diffusion of benefits to surrounding streets, even streets that were surrounding the area that aren’t part of the operation see a crime-reduction benefit,” Ratcliffe said, “so we can test and examine all of that, but we need graduate students and faculty to sit in on meetings with senior police and sit in police cars and spend time on the streets with patrol officers.”
“The overall goal is to learn what works and what doesn’t, knowing what doesn’t work is just as valuable as knowing what does work,” Haberman added. “If the project prevents one person from being beaten or robbed or shot, then it’s a success, but I don’t think there is necessarily a certain number that we’re shooting for. If there’s any reduction, we’ll be proud of it.”
Brian Dzenis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.