Using Risk to Fight Crime?

Risk, risk management, and risk mitigation strategies have existed in one form or another for several years in banking and business. The discipline of risk management however tends to be ignored when it comes to law enforcement. This is not to say law enforcement is unfamiliar with risk, they most certainly are, but they tend to see risk only in terms of measuring officer safety. Risk management strategies can also be used to fight crime in a more efficient and effective manner.

Risk requires four elements; context, environment, actions, and consequences. In law enforcement the consequences are always the same; crime. Therefore the other three elements serve as the core of crime prevention through risk management. The best way to describe this is to use a scenario. Take an alley between two multi-level buildings. Alone, the alley represents nothing, and based on its simplicity is not at risk of crime. Take that same alley and change the environment to nighttime, say 9:35pm and add the context of the alley being the quickest route from the local library to St. Mary’s college. With these factors in the place, the alley begins to look more and more like a breeding ground for crime, but we still need actions, which in law enforcement comes in the form of suspects and victims. Suspect actions typically fall closely in line with environment, as in you will find more drug users around drug houses and potentially more vehicle burglary suspects in shopping mall parking lots. In this case, let’s assume this dark alley is the meeting place for small time street robbers and thieves of opportunity. The final element needed to make this scenario come to life is the actions of a victim. Namely, they need to enter the alley.

There are many ways of looking at the alley scenario. Each one requires that law enforcement see the alley and all of its elements as precursors to crime. This conclusion well in place, we must now look at how to prevent the crime. Some law enforcement minds would respond by increasing marked car patrols in the area of the alley. The thought being, “bad guys don’t like the police and will stop being bad guys while we are around.” In terms of basic crime prevention this is a questionable practice, but in terms of risk management it’s absolutely useless. Random patrols do not remove any of the elements of risk we identified above. From a pure risk management standpoint we need to remove one or more of the elements creating the risk. The addition of sufficient lighting for example will affect the environment as will visible CCTV cameras. Public outreach on the part of the school to educate the students on the dangers of walking alone will mitigate the risk of a solo student using the alley. Finally the use of strategic policing, focusing on high risk suspects in the area, will mitigate the chances a suspect and victim will meet in the alley.

The alley example is an obvious oversimplification of larger criminal problems however the same basic principle applies across the board. If a neighborhood is known for gang activity, it is incumbent on the police to examine the area from a risk management stand-point and move strategically to counter the gang problem. The same can be said for neighborhoods known for burglaries, intersections known for collisions, and apartment complexes famous for drug crime. Simply forming task forces with the stated goal of arrests, does nothing to mitigate further risk. However when you remove one element from each of these criminal equations, your chances of diminishing the risk of continued crime increases exponentially. This also places the police agency in a position to form crime eradication strategies to hopefully bring safety and security to the area.

Risk based policing fits neatly with intelligence led policing techniques in that it is most successful after a full examination of the criminal dynamic has taken place. This furthers the goal of efficient resource allocation. As technology continues to spring forward the use of social networking and digital communications will increase the success of risk based policing. Risk based policing is not a panacea, but it is a far more effective strategy than random police patrols or strategies based solely on high arrest statistics.