In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Police Effectiveness

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Defining Police Effectiveness
  • Assessing Police Effectiveness
  • Broad Police Strategies
  • Police Programs and Practices
  • Specific Police Tactics
  • Specific Places
  • Reducing Crime
  • Reducing Drugs and Disorder
  • Solving Crime
  • Increasing Safety
  • Reducing Fear
  • Increasing Satisfaction and Legitimacy
  • Using Force and Authority Fairly

Criminology Police Effectiveness
Gary Cordner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0048


Police effectiveness refers to the extent to which policing achieves its proper, officially sanctioned goals. Consideration of police effectiveness turns out to be quite complicated for several reasons, including (1) the police have multiple goals, making their bottom line multidimensional; (2) the relative priority of police goals is subject to discussion and debate among the public and within the police field; and (3) assessing police effectiveness is methodologically challenging. Fortunately, these issues have gotten substantial attention in the police field since about the mid-20th century, and many effectiveness-oriented studies have been undertaken. These studies can be organized according to police practices (strategies, tactics, and programs) and desired effects (such as reducing crime, solving crime, and enhancing police legitimacy). Because researchers and police officials have made police effectiveness a top priority, we know much more about “what works” in policing than we did in 1970.

General Overviews

As studies of police effectiveness began accumulating in the 1970s, so did efforts to summarize and synthesize findings. Kelling 1978 is an early review from one of the key researchers involved in the pioneering Police Foundation studies of the 1970s, including the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment. Sherman 1986 makes the important observation that communities vary, and thus what works (i.e., what is effective) might vary depending on community characteristics. Cordner and Hale 1992 is an edited collection of essays on various “what works” topics in policing, while Bayley 1998 provides reports from nine effectiveness-oriented studies. Sherman 1997 and Weisburd and Eck 2004 provide updated reviews of police effectiveness studies across a range of independent and dependent variables. The most exhaustive and systematic review is Skogan and Frydl 2004. Equally wide-ranging is the collection of point–counterpoint essays on such topics as community policing, “broken windows” policing, hot spots policing, and Compstat in Weisburd and Braga 2006. Neyroud 2009 provides a perspective on police effectiveness and policing developments in the United Kingdom.

  • Bayley, David H., ed. 1998. What works in policing. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Collection of effectiveness studies of several important aspects of policing, including preventive patrol, rapid response, criminal investigation, community policing, drug enforcement, and alternatives for handling domestic assault. Good source for some of the important early studies.

  • Cordner, Gary W., and Donna C. Hale, eds. 1992. What works in policing? Operations and administration examined. Cincinnati: Anderson.

    Collection of essays summarizing “what works” evidence related to patrol, criminal investigation, drug enforcement, domestic violence, and crime prevention as well as several administrative topics (e.g., training, leadership, management).

  • Kelling, George L. 1978. Police field services and crime: The presumed effects of a capacity. Crime and Delinquency 24:173–184.

    DOI: 10.1177/001112877802400203

    Review of early effectiveness studies, most of which found that “nothing works.” Argues for police strategies that incorporate more police/citizen contact to overcome police/public alienation and to help reduce the public’s fear of crime. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Neyroud, Peter. 2009. Squaring the circles: Research, evidence, policy-making, and police improvement in England and Wales. Police Practice and Research 10:437–449.

    DOI: 10.1080/15614260903378418

    Describes the development of several policing initiatives in the United Kingdom, including neighborhood policing. Discusses the role of scientific evidence versus public opinion, politics, and bureaucratic interests in judging effectiveness and making strategic and policy decisions. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Sherman, Lawrence W. 1986. Policing communities: What works? In Communities and crime. Edited by Albert J. Reiss Jr. and Michael Tonry, 343–386. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Early review of evidence about what works in policing. Makes the case that communities differ in various ways and therefore the effectiveness of police practices also varies. Calls for more careful studies in different types of communities.

  • Sherman, Lawrence W. 1997. Policing for crime prevention. In Preventing crime: What works, what doesn’t, what’s promising. Edited by Lawrence W. Sherman, Denise Gottfredson, Doris MacKenzie, John Eck, Peter Reuter, and Shawn Bushway, 295–329. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

    Chapter on policing in a larger compendium assessing what works in preventing crime. Early example of meta-analysis to assess and aggregate findings from diverse studies. Identifies four police practices that work, five that do not work, and seven that are promising. Mainly focuses on just one of the goals of policing (reducing crime).

  • Skogan, Wesley, and Kathleen Frydl, eds. 2004. Fairness and effectiveness in policing: The evidence. Washington, DC: National Academies.

    Encyclopedic review of police effectiveness research. The report concludes that focused and tailored police strategies are most effective in controlling crime and disorder. Also the report found virtually no scientific research on many aspects of police effectiveness, even though police have become quite open to research and evaluation.

  • Weisburd, David, and Anthony A. Braga, eds. 2006. Police innovation: Contrasting perspectives. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511489334

    Collection of point–counterpoint essays debating the effectiveness of community policing, “broken windows“ policing, hot spots policing, and other modern strategic alternatives. Illustrious contributors include Wesley Skogan, George Kelling, Dennis Rosenbaum, Mark Moore, the editors, and others.

  • Weisburd, David, and John Eck. 2004. What can police do to reduce crime, disorder, and fear? Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 593:42–65.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716203262548

    Widely cited review by two leading police researchers. They conclude that policing focused on hot spots is most effective at reducing crime and disorder. Diffuse models of community policing reduce fear, while problem-oriented policing shows promise in reducing crime, disorder, and fear. Available onlinefor purchase or by subscription.

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