In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hot Spots Policing

  • Introduction
  • Theory and Basis of Hot Spots Policing
  • Overview of Hot Spots Policing Innovation
  • Hot Spot Characteristics and Selection
  • Critiques of Hot Spots Policing
  • Researching Hot Spots Policing
  • Displacement and Diffusion
  • Data Sources

Criminology Hot Spots Policing
Tammy Kochel, Seyvan Nouri
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0178


Since the 1980s, the nature of policing has expanded beyond a person-focused approach to include a location-based approach. Recently developed proactive policing strategies that are concerned with the geographic distribution and explanation of crime include hot spots policing and community policing, and oftentimes problem-oriented policing, broken windows policing, third-party policing, and focused deterrence strategies. Hot spots policing entails focusing police efforts at crime prevention in a very small geographic area where crime concentrates. This strategy is one of only a few policing strategies grounded in both theory and research. Crime concentrates at places even more than it concentrates in people. Research in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the 1980s demonstrated that 60 percent of the crime occurs at 6 percent of places (see Sherman, et al. 1989, cited under Theory and Basis of Hot Spots Policing). Place-based theories about routine activities and rational choice have led to deterrence-based strategies such as directed patrol, crackdowns, and other traditional approaches to hot spots policing, as well as more community-oriented, problem-solving, and situational crime prevention approaches at crime hot spots. Hot spots policing is one of few areas in criminal justice research that has been tested using randomized controlled trials, a gold standard for research. Several systematic reviews suggest that focusing police efforts in a small geographic area reduces crime. Furthermore, research on displacement and diffusion of benefits suggests that hot spots policing does not merely geographically displace crime. In fact, nearby places may experience a diffusion of crime benefits. Only a few studies have examined the noncrime impacts of hot spots policing, but these suggest that it does not harm public perceptions of police and may even promote informal social control. Cost-effectiveness analyses have been partially used to assess the relative costs and outcomes of hot spot policing interventions. Additionally, existing research has suggested the crime harm index (CHI) for assessing the crime impact of hot spot policing interventions. Several data sources are available from past National Institute of Justice–funded studies on hot spots of crime and hot spots policing.

Theory and Basis of Hot Spots Policing

Hot spots policing is built upon theories about crime at places, treating a place (e.g., address, street segment, or other small geographic area) as the unit of analysis. This is explained in Sherman, et al. 1989, which provides the first application of theory to the spatial analysis of crime at places. Andresen and Malleson 2010 shows that crime concentrates and is stable at smaller units of analysis. Sherman 1995 even shows that places have criminal careers, much like offenders do. Koper, et al. 2015 suggests investigating the histories and characteristics of specific places and maintaining case files of hot spots. Eck and Weisburd 1995 discusses the three theories associated with crime and place: routine activity theory, rational choice theory, and crime pattern theory. Attempting to explain the concentration of crime at places, routine activity theory specifies that crime occurs when motivated offenders and suitable targets converge in time and space in the absence of capable guardians. There is an assumption that offenders apply rational choice in their decision making about crime. Crime pattern theory explains how the design of the environmental backdrop and movement of people throughout space contributes to increased risk for crime. Specific characteristics of places put them at greater risk for crime to occur. Weisburd and Eck 2017 suggests the reconsideration of traditional criminological theories such as social disorganization in understanding social and physical dynamics of hot spots. Braga and Schnell 2017 suggests that police should address the latent conditions at crime hot spots that cause them to be attractive to potential offenders, and that one strategy of understanding these underlying conditions is to use place-based crime theories, like situational crime prevention applied with a problem-oriented policing approach. Clarke and Eck 2007 explains the 80/20 rule and risky places. Bowers 2014 shows that qualities of places may affect risk to specific facilities, but also nearby areas. Weisburd, et al. 1993 reviews the available literature as a basis of the specialization versus the generalization of crime at places. Technological advances in policing, coupled with theoretical advances, have been important to promoting the capacity for and adoption of hot spots policing, as Eck, et al. 2000 explains. These theories explain the crime-place association while they do not account for variation in police behavior. Recently, policing scholars have tended to use behavioral ecology models like optimal foraging theory to explain and predict police officer behavior when doing activities at hot spots; see, for example, Sorg, et al. 2017.

  • Andresen, M. A., and N. Malleson. 2010. Testing the stability of crime patterns: Implications for theory and policy. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 48.1: 58–82.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427810384136

    Considers the impact of the choice of spatial unit. Empirical test of the stability of crime at street segments versus census tracks (proxy for neighborhood). Results from the smaller scale show that using larger units may conceal variation in crime within them.

  • Bowers, K. 2014. Risky facilities: Crime radiators or crime absorbers? A comparison of internal and external levels of theft. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 30:389–414.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10940-013-9208-z

    Discussion and empirical test (for theft) of risky facilities as crime radiators that promote crime within facilities as well as promote it in the nearby area. Data is from a metropolitan area of the United Kingdom.

  • Braga, A. A., and C. Schnell. 2017. Beyond putting “cops on dots”: Applying theory to advance police responses to crime places. In Unraveling the crime-place connection: New directions in theory and policy. Edited by D. Weisburd and J. E. Eck, 261–288. Advances in Criminological Theory 22. New York: Routledge.

    Discusses the important role of theory in improving police responses to crime places whose underlying conditions attract criminals and generate crime. The use of problem-oriented policing and situational crime prevention helps identify these challenges and change them in a effective manner. Aggressive-enforcement policing interventions can undermine police-citizen relations and bring harm to residents.

  • Clarke, R. V. G., and J. E. Eck. 2007. Understanding risky facilities. Problem-Oriented Guides for Police: Problem Solving Series 6. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

    Practitioner-oriented toolkit that defines risky facilities, applies the 80/20 rule, and explains the relevance to hot spots. Provides a guide to applying problem-oriented policing at risky facilities.

  • Eck, J. E., J. S. Gersh, and C. Taylor. 2000. Finding crime hot spots through repeat address mapping. In Analyzing crime patterns: Frontiers of practice. Edited by V. Goldsmith, P. G. McGuire, J. H. Mollenkopf, and T. A. Ross, 49–64. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781452220369.n5

    Outlines three hypotheses about how crime hot spots relate to the cloud of crime spaces around them and can create clusters of hot spots. Demonstrates repeat address mapping.

  • Eck, J. E., and D. Weisburd. 1995. Crime places in crime theory. In Crime and place. Crime Prevention Studies 4. Edited by J. Eck and D. Weisburd, 1–33. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice.

    Applies rational choice, routine activity, and crime pattern theories to micro places. Summarizes research on crime at places, relating it back to the theories.

  • Koper, C. S., S. J. Egge, and C. Lum. 2015. Institutionalizing place-based approaches: Opening “cases” on gun crime hot spots. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice 9.3: 242–254.

    Offers the investigation of “case of place” to be considered in place-based approaches to address crime at hot spots. This method demands a substantial effort from law enforcement actors to examine the characteristics of hot spots and assign tailored interventions for them.

  • Sherman, L. W. 1995. Hot spots of crime and criminal careers of places. In Crime and place. Crime Prevention Studies 4. Edited by J. Eck and D. Weisburd, 35–52. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice.

    Introduces the concentration of crime at places and ties it to routine activity theory and situational crime prevention. Describes the criminal careers of places similar to criminal careers of persons, discussing onset, desistance, continuance, specialization, and desistance.

  • Sherman, L. W., P. R. Gartin, and M. E. Buerger. 1989. Hot spots of predatory crime: Routine activities and the criminology of place. Criminology 27.1: 27–56.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1989.tb00862.x

    Applies routine activity theory to places and presents spatial analysis of calls for service in Minneapolis to demonstrate that crime is concentrated at relatively few address hot spots.

  • Sorg, E. T., J. D. Wood, E. R. Groff, and J. H. Ratcliffe. 2017. Explaining dosage diffusion during hot spot patrols: An application of optimal foraging theory to police officer behavior. Justice Quarterly 34.6: 1044–1068.

    Capitalizes on concepts of optimal foraging theory to account for dosage diffusion during hot spot experiments. Finds that police officers tend to move to buffer zones to patrol once hot spots reach some degree of perceived crime depression. Uses the size of treatment areas and the amount of crime within and outside these areas to predict the diffusion of hot spots patrols to catchment area.

  • Weisburd, D., L. Maher, L. Sherman, M. Buerger, E. Cohn, and A. Petrisino. 1993. Contrasting crime general and crime specific theory: The case of hot spots of crime. In New directions in criminological theory. Advances in Criminological Theory 4. Edited by F. Adler and W. S. Laufer, 45–70. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

    Outlines important literature on crime and place. Discusses specialization of crime at hot spots versus crime generalization.

  • Weisburd, D., and J. E. Eck, eds. 2017. Unraveling the crime-place connection: New directions in theory and policy. Advances in Criminological Theory 22. New York: Routledge.

    Discusses the fundamental role of theory in advancing the association between crime and place. The criminological theories (traditional and opportunity theories) of crime-place are discussed to broden understanding of dynamic factors that contribute to form the structual properties of places responsible for a substantial amount of crime and social problems.

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