Article  |  Law Enforcement

Focused Deterrence: A Policing Strategy to Combat Gun Violence

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Introduction

Homicide rates dropped both nationally and in Illinois from 2000 to 2014. However, since then the nation has seen a recent uptick in homicide, with rates increasing from 4.4 per 100,000 residents in 2014 to 5.3 per 100,000 residents in 2016.[1] In Illinois, the homicide rate increased from 5.3 per 100,000 residents in 2014 to 8.2 per 100,000 residents in 2016.[2] Homicides involving a firearm in Cook County appear to be a major contribution to this trend. In 2016, Chicago had 688 firearm-related homicides compared to 76 that were unrelated to firearms, representing an increase of 61-percent and 31-percent from the year before, respectively.[3] The cause of the sharp increase in Chicago gun violence is still unclear.[4] Removing Cook County, Illinois had a small 9-percent decrease in firearm-related homicides from 2015 to 2016, though the proportion of all assault-related deaths that involved a firearm was substantial at 64 percent.[5] This article provides an overview of one strategy to reduce such gun violence—focused deterrence.

Focused Deterrence Interventions

Focused deterrence strategies attempt to maximize law enforcement efforts by strategically and directly applying interventions and social service resources to individuals at high risk for recidivism.[6] Focused deterrence offers these targeted individuals two choices: (1) continue to engage in the problematic behavior and risk enhanced prosecution or other available legal options, also referred to as “lever pulling,” or (2) disengage from problematic behavior and receive connection and increased access to any needed social services, such as employment or mental health services, and other resources. By responding with the most severe penalties, these interventions deter potential offenders from committing the same crimes and interrupting the cycle of retaliation commonly seen in gang crime.[7]

Focused deterrence interventions incorporate six steps:

  1. The most problematic criminal behavior is identified for intervention (e.g. gun violence).[8]
  2. An interagency enforcement group that includes police, prosecution, and probation/parole offers various points of view on the intervention and is responsible for implementation.
  3. Information gathered from law enforcement officers in the field and other sources is used to identify the individuals and groups at high risk of engaging in the targeted behavior. These individuals and groups are then the focus of the intervention.
  4. The interagency enforcement group notifies individuals or groups during notification meetings or “call-ins” that they are under police scrutiny for problematic behavior and that further criminal activity will receive urgent legal attention.
  5. A special enforcement operation is designed to specifically target high-risk individuals or groups, particularly those who continue engaging in the targeted behavior or crime.
  6. The interagency enforcement group involves service providers and relevant community voices.[9]

Focused deterrence operations place importance on face-to-face contact between law enforcement and the individuals who are targets of the intervention. Face-to-face contact occurs during call-ins.[10] Call-ins consist of law enforcement, the targeted group of individuals, community members, faith-based leaders, community-based service providers, and other providers and influential community members.[11] Notifications for call-ins are sent to individuals on probation or parole who have been identified as high-risk for engaging in gun violence.

One message conveyed to the targeted individuals during the call-ins is that the next person or persons within their group to commit the targeted crime will bring about the full impact of the legal system to the individual and/or members of that individual’s existing group structure, often a gang.

The other message conveyed to the targeted individuals during call-ins is availability of help to those looking to opt out of their current lifestyles through increased access to social services and other prosocial opportunities. Community members—such as faith leaders, influential community members, and people affected by crime within those communities— also are brought in to convey a unified moral voice against the targeted behavior (e.g. violence). If any participant or members of their group are engaged in the targeted crime after the call-in, law enforcement agents conduct enforcement actions that use all legal means available to quickly respond to the behavior.[12] Figure 1 provides an overview of focused deterrence strategies.


FIGURE 1

OVERVIEW OF POLICE FOCUSED DETERRENCE STRATEGIES

”figure1”

Theoretical Framework

Focused deterrence is informed by multiple criminological theories of crime control that operate at the individual, group/peer, and community-levels. The premise of focused deterrence is based on the notion that most of serious violence is committed by a small group of repeat offenders that are socially connected to some degree.[13]

Deterrence

The approach is most influenced by deterrence theory, which suggests that decisions to engage in criminal activities are a function of one’s beliefs and experiences related to the swiftness, certainty, and severity of punishment.[14] Ultimately, deterrence theory posits that crime rates will be low in places that elicit the most “costs” to those committing crimes, and highest in places where offending invokes the most benefits; that offenders weigh these costs (e.g. swiftness, certainty, and severity of punishment) and benefits when deciding to commit a crime.[15] To deter an offender from committing a crime, the offender must believe:

  1. There is a high probability of being apprehended and punished (certainty).
  2. The punishment will occur immediately (swiftness).
  3. The costs of committing the crime offset the benefits (severity).

Certainty is the extent to which individuals believe their behaviors will result in consequences. Perceptions of certainty are impacted both by observing and experiencing sanctions for criminal behavior, with greater certainty of punishment associated with less willingness to engage in deviant conduct.

Swiftness refers to the speed to which individuals experience negative stimuli, or punishment, in response to criminal behaviors. As time elapses, the connection between criminal behavior and punishment is weakened, making sanctioning less effective and, from the perspective of the offender, more arbitrary.

Severity refers to the gravity of the punishment received.[16] Although often severity is identified as an important feature of U.S. criminal justice policy and practice, research indicates that certainty of apprehension produces greater deterrence effects than the punishment itself,[17] and more recently, researchers have begun to isolate the effects of swift, certain, and severe punishments as tools to deter criminal behavior. The findings indicate that severity may be less about how much sanctioning is experienced and more about how swiftly and certainly punishment occurs and its perceived fairness.[18]

Deterrence can be both specific and general. Specific deterrence occurs when individuals experience punishment in response to their criminal conduct in hopes that it will discourage criminal activity in the future.[19] General deterrence occurs when individuals are discouraged from committing crime because they see others being punished for similar behaviors.[20]

Focused deterrence employs the three mechanisms of deterrence theory—swiftness, certainty, and severity—by creating interagency partnerships between criminal justice agencies, specifically police, prosecutors, and community corrections agencies, to ensure a swift, certain, and severe response to problematic behaviors.[21] The model creates specific deterrence by ensuring the behaviors of the individuals targeted are addressed through all legal sanctions available. It utilizes general deterrence by ensuring that law enforcement response and the resulting sanctions are made known to other potential criminals and group members. This increases the perceived risk of engaging in the targeted criminal conduct and removes excuses offenders might have as it relates to knowing that the behaviors they engage in can result in significant legal sanctions.[22]

While focused deterrence strategies are used to change offender perceptions of sanction risk via mechanisms of deterrence theory, other crime prevention mechanisms support the efficacy of crime control within these programs that are complementary to deterrence theory, including: informal social control, collective efficacy, situational crime prevention, and procedural justice (or police legitimacy).[23]

Social Control and Collective Efficacy

Focused deterrence also is informed by theories of informal social control that suggest family, peers, and communities play an important role in managing criminal behaviors. Peer groups have an important socialization role, particularly for adolescents, and research shows involvement with antisocial peers significantly increases one’s own risk for delinquency.[24] Peer group membership, however, also has a tempering effect on criminal behavior by encouraging and enforcing pro-social activities.[25] Focused deterrence strategies capitalize on this tool of informal social control by extending the reach of the call-in message.

Focused deterrence models that target criminal groups involve identifying the most active violent offenders as well as their associates. Those who are “called in” are given the message that violence will not be tolerated and that swift, certain, and severe consequences will occur in response to gun violence. These individuals are asked to convey the message to their peers that they will be held responsible for each other’s behaviors. This is intended to bring about a new standard of conduct that dissuades group members from engaging in gun violence to protect themselves and the group from being subjected to law enforcement actions. In addition, it encourages individuals who no longer want to be exposed to law enforcement actions to distance themselves from their offending peers.[26]

Focused deterrence also reinforces existing community-level informal social controls, otherwise known as “collective efficacy.” Communities where members are willing to intervene on the behalf of the greater good and where neighbors trust and respect each other are able to protect against crime and disorder even when other structural disadvantages exist.[27] Focused deterrence taps into collective efficacy through enhancing the community’s capacity to realize common values and goals in order to help regulate behavior within these trusting relationships among residents.[28] One way focused deterrence emphasizes collective efficacy is through encouraging police-citizen partnerships to address crime by creating a single united voice against violence. This communal voice expands the message of violence intolerance beyond the individuals and groups targeted to others in the community.[29] Community support also aids law enforcement in their duties and strengthens the pro-social norms at the community level that protect against criminal behavior. [30] Engaging and enlisting community-based partners and community members (e.g. family, friends, influential community members) can help boost collective efficacy within a community.[31]

Situational Crime Prevention

Situational crime prevention techniques used in focused deterrence are rooted in “pulling levers” mechanisms to deter crime. These mechanisms include:

  • Extending informal and/or formal guardianship (e.g. visibility of police, security, CCTV cameras, or other (informal) individuals present—staff and coworkers, neighbors).
  • Enhancing natural surveillance.
  • Strengthening formal surveillance.
  • Decreasing anonymity of offenders.
  • Using place managers to improve the types and quality of various enforcement and regulatory levers on offending groups and key actors.[32]

Situational crime prevention measures aim to manage or manipulate the immediate environment as a way to reduce the opportunities for offenders to engage in crime, while increasing access to more positive opportunity structures (redirection of offenders away from crime and towards array of social services and other opportunities).[33] The use of situational crime prevention measures predominately focuses on changed characteristics or behaviors of victims and places where there is opportunity for crime.[34] Within focused deterrence, examples of situational crime prevention mechanisms include:

  • Group-focused enforcement that makes it harder for individuals to enlist co-offenders.
  • Norms and values around violence are discouraged, weakened, or eliminated; members of the same group no longer support violence among its members.
  • Use of proactive intelligence gathering to decrease anonymous nature of criminal networks.
  • Leveraging informal sanctions through community members.[35]

Procedural Justice and Legitimacy

Focused deterrence incorporates elements of procedural justice by building trusting partnerships with citizens that begin with acknowledging the harms historically committed against communities by law enforcement and then providing residents with a voice in the process.[36] The original implementation of focused deterrence in Boston, for instance, involved persistent and intentional efforts to build community trust and mutual respect, including allowing community leaders to weigh in on law enforcement actions.[37] Focused deterrence also involves targeted enforcement actions only when necessary and against those individuals engaged in violent behaviors (who have been forewarned), thus limiting the harmful effects of more broad-based aggressive policing practices, such as community-wide crackdowns or other zero tolerance policing strategies, which can be too expansive and appear arbitrary.

Building strong and supportive community-police partnerships, however, has been historically challenging for law enforcement officials. Gun crime and gang membership are often concentrated in areas with high rates of socioeconomic disadvantage and minority residents,[38] places where citizen-police relations also are poor. An established body of research shows perceptions of fairness during police encounters impact how citizens view police regardless of the outcomes of those encounters.[39] Interactions that build trust, give voice, and maintain the dignity of persons are those that are perceived as fair, even when the resulting outcome is undesirable (e.g., arrest, ticketing). Moreover, this research highlights how procedurally just interactions with authorities can influence citizen perceptions of group belongingness[40] and perceived legitimacy of the law, which in turn can influence law-abiding behaviors even amongst criminal populations.[41] Therefore, police efforts that incorporate procedurally just actions can improve citizen opinions of law enforcement encounters[42] and erect greater civilian support for institutional crime-fighting goals[43] and law-abiding behavior.

Offender Redirection: Access to Rehabilitative and Social Services

In the redirection of offenders to more prosocial opportunity structures, focused deterrence incorporates the connection and increased access to appropriate resources and services necessary to produce long-term, sustained crime reductions in serious offenders. The model offers the potential to help rehabilitate and reintegrate these individuals into more productive members of society.[44] Focused deterrence strategies do so through removing barriers to accessing services by having lead social service agencies act as a single point of contact for individuals seeking assistance. These agencies either provide the needed services directly or they link individuals to other support services. It is best to incorporate social service agencies from the onset for outreach and assistance to those seeking it.

Impact of Focused Deterrence Strategies

Overall focused deterrence strategy research has found significant reductions in crime. Strategies in two sites—Boston and New Orleans—were rated effective by the National Institute of Justice; however, later evaluations found a lack of sustained violence reduction due to withering of key implementation components and fidelity to focused deterrence practices.[45]

In a systematic review and meta-analysis of focused deterrence strategies, Braga and Weisburd (2012) found that 10 of the 11 studies examined noted statistically significant reductions in crime and that the overall effect size on crime was moderate. [46] This indicates that focused deterrence strategies can produce notable reductions in crime. Operation Ceasefire in Newark, New Jersey, was the only intervention to show no statistically significant reduction in gunshot victims after the intervention had been implemented.[47]

In a 2018 update of the review and meta-analysis, Braga and Weisburd used 24 quasi-experimental design evaluations of focused deterrence programs. The update indicated similar findings, with moderately significant overall mean effect of focused deterrence strategies on crime and particularly strong reductions for strategies targeting gang/group violence compared to drug market intervention strategies.[48] Further, Braga and Weisburd found general diffusion of crime control into proximate areas and social networks that did not receive direct services, with no detection of crime displacement.[49] The overall effect size for Braga and Weisburd’s updated meta-analysis was between a weak and moderate effect size (.38).[50] The authors expressed concerns, however, about the lack of rigorous randomized control trials in focused deterrence evaluations.[51] Non-experimental designs can overstate outcomes compared with randomized experiments and lead to more positive outcomes.[52]

The most pressing issue regarding focused deterrence is the long-term implementation and sustainability, as similar failures in sustained crime reduction occurred in Boston, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. This includes discontinuation of full implementation strategies as part of a focused deterrence model.[53]

Violent Crime Reduction

Each evaluation of a different site’s use of focused deterrence examines slightly different outcome measures. Most commonly, researchers examined homicides (or specifically gun homicides), but other measures included violent crime, shootings (fatal and non-fatal), gun crimes (i.e., aggravated assault with a gun), and gang crimes. Each study had differing outcome findings, although overall, they were positive. Each evaluation ranges in follow-up time periods from six months post-intervention (Operation Ceasefire—Los Angeles) to a 65-month post-intervention follow-up (Operation Peacekeeper—Stockton, CA).

Reduction in Homicides

Overall, evaluations in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and others have found focused deterrence strategies have reduced homicides. An evaluation of Boston Gun Project’s Operation Ceasefire found a 63- percent decrease in monthly youth homicides. [54] A research study of Chicago’s Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) found more of a significant decline in homicides in the two PSN police districts than comparison districts or the city.[55] An evaluation of the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence noted a statistically significant reduction in the number of homicides in the intervention group (61-percent decline) compared to a nonintervention group.[56] The evaluation of New Orleans’ Group Violence Reduction Strategy revealed a statistically significant decrease in gang homicides of a 32-percent and a 17-percent decrease in overall homicides.[57] Researchers evaluating Indianapolis Violence Reduction Partnership found a statistically significant reduction in homicides in the city (34-percent decline) compared to six other Midwestern cities.[58] Research on a focused deterrence strategy in Stockton, California found a 42-percent decrease in the monthly number of gun homicide incidents, a statistically significant decrease.[59] While some of the eight comparison cities in the study experienced a reduction in crime, only Stockton experienced a significant reduction.[60] The Lowell, Mass. PSN evaluation found a statistically significant decrease in the number of gun homicides compared to similar Massachusetts cities.[61]

Reduction in Shootings

Limited evidence suggests focused deterrence may reduce shootings. In Boston, researchers found a 31-percent decrease relative to total shootings in the comparison group.[62] Researchers examined Project Longevity in New Haven, Conn., used a series of interrupted time series regression models to analyze crime trends and found a decline in non-fatal shootings, as well as homicides. However, in the 22 months prior to the project’s start, the city was experiencing a decline in total shootings.[63]

Drug Crime Reduction

Research on the use of focused deterrence strategies to combat drug crime reveals mixed findings. The High Point, N.C., Drug Market Intervention (DMI) evaluation of four intervention sites found a significant decline in violent crime in two sites, property crime in three sites, and drug offenses in two sites.[64] A study of Nashville’s DMI Pulling Levers Intervention found a statistically significant decrease in property crimes (28-percent decline) and drug offenses (56-percent decline) per month.[65] However, a similar decline was seen in adjacent areas, indicating benefits of DMI were diffused into the adjoining neighborhoods. [66] Two Illinois cities used a focused deterrence strategy to reduce gun crime with mixed results. An evaluation of the Peoria DMI found a statistically significant increase of violent crimes (71 percent) and no change in property crime in the intervention area.[67] The Rockford Pulling Levers Deterrence Program evaluation found a statistically significant reduction in nonviolent crime (24 percent). [68]

Reduced Domestic Violence Incidents

In 2011, the High Point Offender Focused Domestic Violence Initiative became the first and only site to use a focused deterrence policing approach to combat intimate partner domestic violence (IPDV). Researchers examined the program using a quasi-experimental design, where they noted a 20-percent reduction in IPDV-related calls, a 20-percent reduction in IPDV-related arrests, and reduced victim injuries.[69] The authors noted that they “have seen and expect future adaptations” of the focused deterrence model based on “research outcomes and individual replication site characteristics.”[70]

Displacement and Spillover Effects

Studies also have examined whether focused deterrence initiatives, which often involve targeting specific people within specific places, displace crime.[71] Studies examining displacement have not found crime shifted geospatially. Some evaluations have, however, documented “spillover effects,” where interventions not only reduced crimes with target groups, but also with non-target groups (allied and rival gangs).[72] Researchers theorize that information of increased risks and sanctions for specific behaviors is dispersed among the non-target audience as a deterrent.[73] Enforcement actions in the target area serve as a message to other groups that violence will not be tolerated.[74] The effects include a reduction in violent crime, gang crime, and crime control benefits. [75]

Discussion and Conclusion

As Lasker and Weiss (2003) noted,

[Violent crime] problems are complex and interrelated, defying easy answers. They affect diverse populations and occur in many kinds of local contexts. The local context, in turn, is dependent on decisions made at state, national, and international levels. Only by combining the knowledge, skills, and resources of a broad array of people and organizations can communities understand the underlying nature of these problems and develop effective and locally feasible solutions to address them (p.15).[76]

Due to the complexity of this issue, there is no single solution to reduce gun violence. Focused deterrence strategies have been shown to be effective in many jurisdictions. However, it is a specific suppression strategy and should be one of many strategies that also includes proactive policing strategies (e.g. enhancing community awareness, involvement, and mechanisms of informal social control) employed to reduce gun violence.[77] Also needed are prevention and intervention strategies.

According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence,

To truly save lives and bring safety to communities, our leaders must focus on both the supply side of America’s gun violence epidemic—easy access to guns—and the demand side—the series of risk factors that make a person more likely to pick up a gun to do harm. Any comprehensive response to gun violence must have at its core a sustained investment in evidence-based prevention and intervention programs that directly address the root causes of violence. When this commitment to reducing risk factors is combined with strong, well-implemented gun laws, rates of violence plummet.[78]

Considerations for Focused Deterrence Strategies

The following are some factors to consider when implementing or operating focused deterrence strategies.

Implementation and Adaptation

Focused deterrence and other promising models and practices should be implemented with fidelity, or in adherence to its core components, with ongoing training and plans to ensure sustainability.[79] Maintaining fidelity can help to achieve desired outcomes and gain support.

According to Gleicher (2017),

Implementation is a complex, continuous process; EBPs [evidence-based practices] should be continually monitored and evaluated for efficacy and fidelity as they relate to process and outcomes. Adopting a comprehensive, multifaceted program or practice within an organizational setting must be strategically translated into a complex, ever-changing system, interplaying between EBP characteristics, providers, and organizational and service delivery settings. Because criminal justice organizations are dynamic, influenced by internal and external political, social, moral, and economic pressures, it is important for organizations to build an internal capacity to deliver the program or practice and adapt or modify with the ebb and flow of the organization. This upfront planning can greatly improve not only the outcomes of the EBP, but also how staff receive these changes and ultimately use them in their day-to-day activities.[80]

Programs and strategies often get adapted to meet the needs of communities. Adaptation should be done in an objective manner, based on technical, theoretical, and rigorous evidence of such adaptations.[81] Focused deterrence strategies have been adapted from solely addressing gun violence to addressing drugs and more recently, domestic violence.

While there are many successes of focused deterrence across the U.S.—and internationally—many cities have been unable to sustain the results.[82] One issue noted is the lack of institutionalized roles and processes related to the focused deterrence strategy, resulting in short-term gains that are not sustained in the long-term.[83] This is not uncommon in criminal justice programs and practices, with many failed attempts at implementation attributed to a lack of planning, conflicting and ambiguous goals, insufficient resources, overburdened workers, high turnover, politics, lack of commitment, and a lack of success in addressing the underlying structural and social conditions of neighborhoods where these programs and practices are generally implemented.[84] Importantly, political commitment and researcher-practitioner partnerships are vital to assisting sites in identifying the problem, implementing effective strategies, managing resources, evaluating processes and outcomes, as well as maintaining programmatic sustainability and keeping track of individuals and groups for law enforcement.[85]

One way in which the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence enhanced institutionalization of its focused deterrence strategy was through applying core corporate principles used in business management—objectives, goals, strategies, and measures—and adopting a series of balanced scorecards used as a strategic management decision-support tool.[86] This process is intended to help balance long- and short-term goals with various performance indicators, linking measures to the overall strategy.[87] This fits into the National Implementation Research Network’s core implementation drivers that support successful implementation and sustainability.[88]

Collaboration and Community Engagement

No attempt to reduce gun violence in a community can be undertaken by a single person, group, or organization. Administrators of the long-standing focused deterrence program in High Point, N.C. contribute its documented success in part to its use of community groups to engage in community awareness building in the target areas.[89] The role of community groups was to educate local residents about the police department, the group itself, and the focused deterrence initiative. The strategy and its stakeholders were visible in the community, transparent about why they were there and what they wanted to accomplish, responsive to the concerns of residents, and followed through with promises. [90]

Similarly, Winship and Braga’s (2006) description of their experiences implementing the focused deterrence model in Boston (i.e., the Boston Ceasefire program) indicates that the Boston Police Department engaged in extensive efforts to strengthen its relationship with community leaders in the neighborhoods where the program was implemented.[91] These efforts included discussing with community leaders the police department’s intentions and activities and seeking community input into enforcement activities in an effort to gain their support.

As Braga and Winship note, community leaders acted as the “informal ‘litmus test’” for determining whether the enforcement actions and practices of the police department would be acceptable to the communities targeted.[92] The result was that community leaders were more supportive of police actions. In some instances, those very community leaders would publicly defend the police enforcement activities. These efforts may have strengthened the focused deterrence activities in those neighborhoods by displaying to potential offenders that the police had community support and backing, while at the same time reinforcing the message that the community would not tolerate violent behaviors.

Strategic and operational community-police consultation is important in establishing and maintaining community engagement and relationships.[93] Police can also manage their relationship with the community by being fair in their encounters with community members, thereby generating more positive views of the police.[94] This practice, which attempts to account for community views, is referred to by Meares as “rightful policing.”[95] Community members are less likely to conclude that profiling has occurred when they have experienced fairness from the police or when they believe that the police are fair in their dealings with the community. Stuntz (2002) suggests that for police to manage racial distrust of the police in minority communities, police must regulate who they stop and the way they conduct stops.[96] Doing so would support the focused-deterrence strategy, strengthen community-police relations, and potentially garner greater support from community for focused deterrence strategies



This project was supported by Grant #16-DJ-BX-0083, awarded to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance. Points of view or opinions contained within this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.


Suggested citation: Reichert, J., Smith, V., Adams, S., Gleicher, L., Hill, L., & Escamilla, J. (2018). Focused Deterrence: A policing strategy to combat gun violence. Chicago, IL: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.



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Focused Deterrence: A Policing Strategy to Combat Gun Violence