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Practice Profile

Disorder Policing

Evidence Ratings for Outcomes:

Effective - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Violent offenses
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Property offenses
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Drug and alcohol offenses

Practice Description

Practice Goals
Disorder policing is a crime-control strategy that represents a shift away from the standard model of policing to a focus on signs of physical and social disorder in neighborhoods. Concentrating on disorderly conditions, such as graffiti or loitering, is thought to send a signal to prospective offenders that illicit behavior will not be tolerated. Disorder policing does not rely on a single set of tactics, but a diversity of approaches and levels of focus (Weisburd and Eck 2004). Some approaches involve the use of community-based or problem-oriented policing strategies. Others involve the use of more aggressive order-maintenance or zero-tolerance policing strategies. However, the characteristic that unites these approaches is their focus on reducing neighborhood disorder as a mechanism for preventing or reducing crime. Thus, disorder policing can involve a wide variety of tactics, including arrests for misdemeanors (e.g., disorderly conduct, loitering) and citations or other code-enforcement measures for signs of physical disorder such as dilapidated buildings, abandoned cars, and graffiti (Worrall 2002). More community-oriented approaches may include neighborhood cleanup activities such as trash removal or graffiti abatement. There is no set standard for implementing disorder policing, as the application of this method can vary within and across police departments.

Target Areas/Populations
The unit of analysis can include small places (e.g., crime hot spots, problem buildings), smaller police-defined areas (e.g., beats), neighborhoods and selected stretches of roads or highways, and larger police-defined areas (e.g., precincts). Strategies may include engaging residents, local business owners, and other public or private agencies to help identify local problems or develop and implement appropriate responses. Some strategies may focus on specific local problems and thus target specific types of populations. However, the disorder policing approach focuses less on target populations and more on the areas or locations within which disorder policing is implemented.
Practice Theory

Broken-windows theory posits that minor forms of physical and social disorder, if left unattended, lead to a downward spiral of neighborhood decline and serious crime (Wilson and Kelling 1982). It suggests that visual signs of disorder (such as graffiti, aggressive panhandling, prostitution, public urination, public intoxication, garbage, and abandoned cars) signal to residents that social control in the community has broken down, which starts a chain of events that eventually leads to increased levels of crime (Hinkle and Weisburd 2008). The assumption is that the law-abiding citizen and the criminal are aware of visual cues of disorder. Such signs cause law-abiding citizens to fear crime and withdraw from public spaces into the safety of their homes. Criminals perceive decreased levels of informal social control, in that such cues signal that residents do not care about what goes on in the neighborhood; this then opens the streets to increases in the frequency and severity of criminal activity (Gau and Pratt 2008). This theory identifies a relationship between fear and disorder and suggests that police officers can play a substantial role in reducing crime and neighborhood decline, if they focus on controlling disorder and minor crime. However, scholars debate the validity of broken-windows theory vigorously.
Two related, theoretical perspectives that influence the study of disorder policing include deterrence theory and opportunity theories. Deterrence theory posits that crime can be prevented if individuals believe the costs of committing a crime outweigh the benefits (Zimring and Hawkins 1973). Opportunity theories, such as rational choice theory, suggest that individuals weigh the costs and benefits of crime and choose targets that offer maximum reward with minimal effort (Cornish and Clarke, 1987). Such theories are often used to guide some of the approaches to disorder policing, such as problem-oriented policing (Braga and Weisburd 2010).

Practice Activities
Although there is no single specific strategy for implementing disorder policing, a series of methods have been identified that focus on reducing neighborhood disorder. Many of these fall into the following two categories:

  • More aggressive, enforcement-based measures such as order-maintenance policing or zero-tolerance policing. Using these approaches, police attempt to impose order though strict enforcement of all laws or ordinance violations (Cordner 1998; Eck and Maguire 2000).
  • Less aggressive, community or problem-oriented policing measures. Using these approaches, police attempt to reduce disorder and crime through partnerships with the community and by addressing specific recurring neighborhood problems (Eck and Maguire 2006; Skogan 2006).
Thus, disorder-policing strategies measure success based on the effectiveness of these practices in reducing crime, disorder, or fear and its overall impact on public safety rather than on rapid responses to calls for service or on how police services are allocated (Goldstein 1979; Weisburd and Eck 2004).

Meta-Analysis Outcomes

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Effective - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types
Overall, aggregating the results of 30 independent tests of disorder-policing practices, Braga, Welsh, and Schnell (2015) found that disorder-policing strategies were associated with modest reductions in crime and delinquency. The overall weighted mean effect size of 0.21 was statistically significant, which suggests that implementing such policing practices can result in declines in multiple types of crime and delinquency. Note that in this context, a positive effect size indicates that the reduction in crime was greater in the treatment areas (locations that implemented disorder policing), compared with control areas (locations that did not implement disorder policing).
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Violent offenses
Aggregating the results of 15 independent tests of disorder-policing practices, Braga, Welsh, and Schnell (2015) found that disorder-policing strategies were associated with modest reductions in violent crime in treatment areas, relative to the control areas. The overall weighted mean effect size of 0.227 was statistically significant, which suggests that implementing such policing practices can result in declines in violent crimes.
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Property offenses
Aggregating the results of 16 independent tests of disorder-policing practices, Braga, Welsh, and Schnell (2015) also found that disorder-policing strategies were associated with modest reductions in property crimes, compared with control areas. The overall weighted mean effect size of 0.187 was statistically significant, which suggests that implementing such policing practices can result in declines in property crimes.
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Drug and alcohol offenses
Aggregating the results of nine independent tests of disorder-policing practices, Braga, Welsh, and Schnell (2015) also found that disorder-policing strategies were associated with modest reductions in drug and alcohol crimes, compared with control areas. The overall weighted mean effect size of 0.266 was statistically significant, which suggests that implementing such policing practices can result in declines in drug and alcohol crimes.
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Meta-Analysis Methodology

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Meta-Analysis Snapshot
 Literature Coverage DatesNumber of StudiesNumber of Study Participants
Meta-Analysis 11985 - 2011280

Meta-Analysis 1
Braga, Welsh, and Schnell (2015) conducted a systematic review to examine the effectiveness of disorder-policing practices. The comprehensive search strategy for studies of disorder policing included a keyword search of online abstract and literature databases, a review of bibliographies of literature reviews and systematic reviews completed by the Campbell Collaboration, and additional searches for disorder-policing studies conducted in the field. An information retrieval specialist and 147 criminology and criminal justice scholars specializing in focused-deterrence strategies reviewed the search list to help identify unpublished studies that did not appear in the original search.

Literature included in the meta-analysis was current through December 2012. Only the studies that met the following criteria were included: 1) used comparison group designs with before and after measures; 2) used a randomized controlled trial or a quasi-experimental evaluation with comparison groups; 3) used limited units of analysis to within-city areas that ranged from small places (e.g., hot spots) to police-defined areas (e.g., precincts, beats) to larger neighborhood units (e.g., census tracts); and 4) measured the effects of the policing intervention on officially recorded levels of crime at within-city areas. Appropriate crime measures included crime incident reports, citizen emergency calls for service, and arrest.
Twenty-eight studies, containing 30 independent evaluations of disorder-policing interventions, were identified and included in the analysis. Seventeen of the eligible evaluations were published in peer-reviewed journals; four in chapters in edited books; one was a published report; and eight were considered unpublished reports, including doctoral dissertations and masters’ theses. Of the 30 evaluations, 93.3 percent were conducted in the United States, with the remaining conducted in the United Kingdom. Forty percent were completed in large cities (over 500,000 residents), 30 percent in medium-size cities (between 200,000 and 500,000 residents), and 30 percent in smaller cities with fewer than 200,000 residents.
Twenty-one evaluations used quasi-experimental designs, and nine used randomized controlled trials. The two main types of programs were generally categorized as order-maintenance (10 evaluations) or community-oriented policing (20 evaluations). Fifteen studies were used to assess the violent crime outcome, 16 were included for property crime, and the remaining nine were assessed for drug and alcohol crimes.
Program effect sizes were weighted based on the variance of the effect size and the study sample size. The standard mean difference effect size was calculated for each program. The authors used a random-effects model to estimate the overall mean effect size. Using a 95 percent confidence interval, mean effect sizes were calculated for all 30 eligible studies. 
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There is no cost information available for this practice.
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Other Information

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Braga, Welsh, and Schnell (2015) conducted additional tests in the meta-analysis (called moderator analyses) to see whether the program type and research design of studies included in the analysis impacted the mean effect sizes and thereby improved the outcomes. Using a random-effects model, they examined the mean effect sizes for two different types of programs: community- and problem-oriented programs and order-maintenance programs. Analysis suggested a statistically significant difference between program types. The community- and problem-oriented programs produced a mean effect size that was much larger than the mean effect size of more aggressive, enforcement-oriented, order-maintenance programs. This finding indicates that community- and problem-oriented approaches to disorder policing are more effective for reducing crime than order-maintenance approaches that rely primarily on aggressive enforcement of minor offenses. The authors also examined research design as a moderator variable and found that the research design had an impact on effect sizes. Analysis revealed that studies with stronger designs (randomized controlled experiments) found that disorder policing had less robust effects than studies with weaker designs (quasi-experiments). It is important to note that this meta-analysis was not designed to test the key theoretical propositions of disorder policing or broken-windows theory, but rather to assess the impact of police action on public safety.
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Evidence-Base (Meta-Analyses Reviewed)

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These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Meta-Analysis 1
Braga, Anthony A., Brandon C. Welsh, and Cory Schnell. 2015. “Can Policing Disorder Reduce Crime? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 52(4):567–88.
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Additional References

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These sources were used in the development of the practice profile:

Braga, Anthony A., and David Weisburd. 2010. Policing Problem Places: Crime Hot Spots and Effective Prevention. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cordner, Gary. 1998. “Problem-Oriented Policing vs. Zero Tolerance.”  In Tara O’Connor Shelley and Anne E. Grant (eds.). Problem-Oriented Policing: Crime-Specific Problems, Critical Issues, and Making POP Work. Washington, D.C.: Police Executive Research Forum, 303–314.

Cornish, D., and R. V. Clarke. 1987. “Understanding Crime Displacement: An Application of Rational Choice Theory.” Criminology 25: 933–47.

Eck, John E., and Edward R. Maguire. 2006. “Have Changes in Policing Reduced Violent Crime? An Assessment of the Evidence.” In Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman (eds.). The Crime Drop in America, Second Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 207–65. 

Gau, Jacinta M., and Travis C. Pratt. 2008. “Broken Windows or Window Dressing? Citizens’(In) Ability to Tell the Difference between Disorder and Crime.” Criminology & Public Policy 7(2):163–94.

Goldstein, Herman. 1979. “Improving Policing: A Problem-Oriented Approach.” National Probation and Parole Association Journal 25(2): 236–58.

Hinkle, Joshua C., and David Weisburd. 2008. “The Irony of Broken Windows Policing: A Micro-Place Study of the Relationship between Disorder, Focused Police Crackdowns and Fear of Crime.” Journal of Criminal Justice 36(6): 503–12.

Kelling, George L., and William H. Sousa. 2001. Do Police Matter? An Analysis of the Impact of New York City's Police Reforms. New York: Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute.

Skogan, Wesley G. 2006. Police and Community in Chicago: A Tale of Three Cities. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weisburd, David, and John E. Eck. 2004. “What Can Police Do to Reduce Crime, Disorder, and Fear?” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 593: 42–65.

Wilson, James Q., and George L. Kelling. 1982. "Broken Windows." Atlantic Monthly 249(3): 29–38.

Worrall, John L. 2002. Does "Broken Windows" Law Enforcement Reduce Serious Crime? Sacramento, Calif.: California Institute for County Government.

Zimring, Frank, and Gordon Hawkins. 1973. Deterrence: The Legal Threat in Crime Control. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
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Related Programs

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Following are programs that are related to this practice:

Specialized Multi Agency Response Team (SMART) Effective - One study
A drug-control program designed to reduce drug-related problems and improve habitation conditions at targeted sites. The program is rated Effective. Half the treatment sites experienced improvements in field contacts or arrests. There were reductions in the number of individuals contacted or arrested at the same SMART site; in the number of persons displaced to a catchment area address; and in the number of new individuals attracted to a site (suggesting a small net diffusion of benefits).

Hot Spots Policing (Lowell, Mass.) Effective - One study
A crime-reduction policing strategy that uses a disorder policing approach to concentrate on improving physical and social order in high-crime locations in Lowell, Mass. The program is rated Effective. There was a statistically significant reduction of the total number of calls for service in the treatment areas relative to the control. Observed disorder was alleviated and calls for service were not significantly displaced into surrounding treatment areas.

Hot Spots Policing (Jacksonville, FL) No Effects - One study
A geographically focused policing strategy intended to reduce violent crime in high-crime areas using problem-oriented policing and directed patrol techniques. The program is rated No Effects. There was a significant reduction in nondomestic violent crime (i.e., street violence) in hot spots that were assigned to the problem-oriented policing condition, but no significant reductions in violent crime, property crime, and calls for service.

Drug Market Analysis Program (Jersey City, NJ) Promising - One study
A "hot spots" policing program targeting identified drug activity locations to reduce public disorder by engaging local residents and business owners and applying pressure via crackdowns. The program is rated Promising. There was no significant difference between the experimental and control locations on violence and property offenses; but, there were reductions in disorder and narcotics offenses and fewer calls for service for some measures in the treatment catchment areas.

Problem-Oriented Policing in Violent Crime Places (Jersey City, NJ) Promising - One study
The program is a focused policing strategy intended to reduce violent crime in high-crime locations through the modification of specific characteristics and situations that promote violence. The program is rated Promising. The citizen calls for service were significantly reduced at three of the five treatment locations. Reported criminal incidents were significantly reduced at two of the treatment places. Social and physical disorder were alleviated 91 percent.

Safe Street Teams (Boston, MA) Promising - One study
A place-based, problem-oriented policing strategy implemented by the Boston (Massachusetts) Police Department in response to a sudden increase in violent crimes. The program is rated Promising. The results showed that the intervention had significant reductions in total violent index crimes, robberies, and aggravated assaults over the 10-year study period; however, there were no significant reductions in homicides and sexual assaults.

Broken Windows/Public Order Policing in High Crime Areas (CA) No Effects - One study
The program was implemented in three midsized cities near the Los Angeles, California area, with the goal of examining effects on residents’ fear of crime, perceptions of collective efficacy and police legitimacy, and actual and perceived levels of crime and disorder. The program is rated No Effects. Findings revealed no significant impacts on any of the dependent variables, suggesting no indication of either beneficial effects or “backfire” effects in targeted areas.
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Practice Snapshot

Settings: High Crime Neighborhoods/Hot Spots, Other Community Setting

Practice Type: Community and Problem Oriented Policing, General deterrence, Hot Spots Policing, Situational Crime Prevention, Specific deterrence, Violence Prevention

Unit of Analysis: Places