A Criminal Justice Professor Sees Ways to Reduce Both Crime and Police-Community Tensions

The deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police – and raw frictions between law enforcement and communities of color – have made a profound leap into public consciousness in just the past year. For many Americans, images of Walter Scott in South Carolina, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Eric Garner on Staten Island, among others, have been inescapable and very troubling. 

For people who live in many African American communities, these incidents are nothing new, according to Rod Brunson, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Newark, who for more than a decade has researched law enforcement methods and police-community relations. The difference now is that the rest of the world is seeing them.

“Until we had this rash of seeing these things play out on video, most Americans would not have imagined that someone would be running from the police and be shot in the back,” says Brunson. “For the people who live it, it is very real. The rest of the world either didn’t know or didn’t care to know.”

Brunson has published an article in the journal Criminology & Public Policy that he hopes can be a guide for reducing crime while also curbing police actions that take innocent lives and inflame communities. 

At its heart is a policy known as focused deterrence, where the police make extra efforts to identify and engage with youths who have shown a tendency to commit crime, and make it clear to those individuals that they have a choice: Either accept help in getting a better education or a job, or face severe legal consequences.

According to Brunson, that is a promising contrast with more traditional methods where law enforcement takes a blanket approach, scrutinizing entire communities with little regard for who deserves negative treatment and who does not. That, he writes, is unfair to the majority of disadvantaged youth who do not engage in violent crime. Even within gangs, he notes, only a handful of youths actually commit crimes that warrant their being jailed.  

When people who don’t commit crimes are harassed as if they do, says Brunson, it drives a wedge between the community and law enforcement. On the other hand, when police get to know their community and see the people who live there as individuals, the better the result becomes.

“Getting to know who are the bad guys and who are the good guys is an imperfect science,” Brunson acknowledges, “but the more time you spend in the neighborhood, the more you know the kids you see aren’t just standing on the corner. They’re waiting for their school bus. Or they’re waiting for their coach to come and pick them up.”

Brunson says that, in turn, leads both police and residents to be more trusting. “Stronger relationships have the potential to be formed,” says Brunson, “so that it’s not this anonymous police officer stopping this citizen and it’s not this anonymous citizen stopped by this police officer.” An improved environment can then emerge where instead of being fearful of the police, as many law abiding citizens now are, communities will start to help law enforcement to focus on real lawbreakers. Regular meetings between police and community leaders help to cement that process.

Brunson says focused deterrence works well in cities where authorities have tried it. He has studied two such places personally. In Rockford, Illinois, a neighborhood where the strategy was adopted saw violent crime fall by 14 percent. Police action that targeted drug traffickers in a Nashville neighborhood helped reduce drug crime there by nearly 40 percent. In both places, residents said they felt better both about police performance and the overall atmosphere in their neighborhoods. 

While the approach appears to be effective, says Brunson, it also takes more effort and resources than many municipal leaders seem willing to devote. “Officials may speak broadly of community policing,” he says, “but people are sometimes hard pressed to tell you what it is and what it looks like.”  

This year, however, Brunson sees an opportunity. With so much attention now being paid to the issue – because of the videos and the political tensions they have stirred up – he suggests that police administrators are now more receptive to ideas that come from academic research such as his. He considers that a positive.

The alternative is what nearly nobody seems to want – keeping things the way they are. 


PHOTO CAPTION: Rod Brunson says when people who are not criminals are treated as if they are, it detracts from crimefighting as well as neighborhood peace. (Photo by Steve Thackston)