Common Sense Isn't Enough—Hotspots Edition

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Nov. 13 2012 4:12 PM

Common Sense Isn't Enough—Hotspots Edition

I wrote the other day that the GOP "shellshocked" narrative revealed a disturbing lack of familiarity with social science research, a lack of familiarity that's problematic because common sense and going with your gut are a poor way to understand the world. For an example from the left, I was interested in Washington, D.C. Councilmember Yvette Alexander's thoughts on DCPS' planned school closings:

Rather than close the schools, she says, the city needs to tackle the issue of underenrollment at its root.
"Closing it is kind of like just shifting the problem to another place," she says. "It’s like when the police crack down on crime in one area and it just moves to another area."
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It's an interesting choice of example. Hotspot policing definitely seems like it wouldn't work. I remember when I was a kid and at one point there was a big crackdown on drug dealing in Washington Square Park. Well obviously the crime was just going to migrate somewhere else nearby in the neighborhood. And maybe to an extent it did. Certainly drug dealing wasn't eradicated from the city. But you didn't see an open-air market of the same scope and scale pop up a few blocks away. On net we seem to have really gotten less crime.

And according to the National Institute of Justice, evidence suggests that on the whole hotspot policing works. Smart police departments, like the one in St Louis, are trying to team up with social scientists to better understand why it works seems it seems a little unintuitive:

UMSL agreed and put Rosenfeld on paid leave. He’s now camped full-time in the office next to Roth’s, through the end of the year. One of his graduate students is half-time in the police department’s crime analysis unit across Clark Street.
Rosenfeld’s first experiment in conjunction with the department has already begun. One consistent finding across the country, he said, is that “hotspot” policing works. More officers in the right areas mean less crime.
But what should those officers be doing in those hotspots? Should they just drive through, covering as much ground as possible? Or should they slow down, get out of their cars, knock on doors, search abandoned homes and conduct field interviews?

Just guessing or going with our gut doesn't work very well. In this case, note that most people aren't criminals. So sitting at your desk and trying to introspect about how you would respond to new police tactics if you were a criminal can be problematic. After all, you're not a criminal and that's no coincidence. You've got to actually do the research to figure out what's going on.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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