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

  • Introduction
  • Defining “Proactive”
  • Broken Windows and Other “Aggressive” Tactics
  • Problem-Oriented Policing
  • Hot Spots
  • Intelligence-Led Policing
  • The Impact of Advances in Technology and Software
  • CompStat
  • Predictive Policing
  • Social Network Analysis

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Criminology Proactive Policing
Justin Nix, Jeff Rojek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0183


Since the 1970s, scholars have called for law enforcement in the United States to be more proactive. As will become evident throughout this article, “proactive policing” can take on a variety of meanings. In the most general sense, it is the polar opposite of reactive policing, which is characterized by randomized patrol, rapid response to calls for service, and retrospective investigations. Instead of waiting for a crime to transpire, proactive policing entails striving to prevent crime before it ever comes to fruition. Strategically, the police can go about accomplishing this goal in a number of ways. Several of the most prevalent philosophies are described below. The first section distinguishes between aggressive “broken windows” policing and problem-oriented strategies. In the sections that follow, key readings are presented that highlight the evidence for and against both models. From there, the discussion turns to hot spots policing—a proactive philosophy that certainly aligns with the problem-oriented approach but worthy of separate consideration. As proactive policing strategies have gained momentum throughout the last few decades, technology has become more sophisticated, which facilitates inter- and intra-agency communication as well as identifying problems within a community. Consequently, a section is devoted to advances in technology and software. The growth and evolution of intelligence-led policing and the CompStat managerial model are presented in the sections that follow. Finally, a pair of techniques that encourage proactivity and have become very popular in recent years are offered: predictive policing and social network analysis. The models and techniques presented here are not meant to be an exhaustive list of proactive police strategies. Instead, they represent some of the most prevalent approaches. Collectively, this research makes it abundantly clear that proactive policing is a broad concept that includes a variety of different approaches. No one approach is superior to the others—what works for one agency may not work for the next. Nor should the police feel as though they are limited to selecting one philosophy or strategy; rather, many of them can be used together to complement one another. On the whole, proactive policing is the antithesis of traditional policing methods. Rather than reacting to crime as it comes to their attention, the proactive movement calls for the police to do everything they can to try to prevent crime from occurring in the first place.

Defining “Proactive”

Wilson and Kelling 1982 affirms that by proactively regulating minor offenses, the police can reduce both serious crime and fear of crime among the community by sending a message that crime will not be tolerated (for a more in-depth discussion of the concept presented here, see Kelling and Coles 1996). Walker 1984 agrees that the police should target minor offenses but suggests this would represent an altogether new model of policing rather than a regression to previous strategies, as Wilson and Kelling 1982 contends. Recently, Clarke 2006 and Stockdale, et al. 1999 suggest that proactive policing is more similar to the problem-oriented and intelligence-led policing models (both discussed later). Along these lines, Skolnick and Bayley 1986 recommends that the police get away from reactivity and, instead, come up with innovative strategies to reduce crime in neighborhoods that suffer from the highest rates of crime. Thus, on the one hand, proactivity can mean increasing the number of citations and/or arrests to deter more serious crime. On the other hand, it can mean seeking to better understand crime problems in the community and coming up with innovative ways to address them. The following readings present these different orientations.

  • Clarke, C. 2006. Proactive policing: Standing on the shoulders of community-based policing. Police Practice and Research 7.1: 3–17.

    DOI: 10.1080/15614260600579508

    This article discusses how the Edmonton Police Service built on the principles of community- and problem-oriented policing in an effort to be more efficient and effective during a period of fiscal restraint. The author suggests that “proactive policing” is much like the SARA model or intelligence-led policing.

  • Kelling, G. L., and C. M. Coles. 1996. Fixing broken windows: Restoring order and reducing crime in our communities. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    These authors expand on the broken windows argument first articulated in Wilson and Kelling 1982. The authors provide an in-depth discussion of what they believe to be the shortcomings of previous policing strategies. Then, they highlight proactive efforts by the police in New York, Baltimore, San Francisco, and Seattle.

  • Skolnick, J., and D. Bayley. 1986. The new blue line. New York: Free Press.

    The authors argue the police must move away from reactively responding to crime as it occurs. They examine a number of police strategies used around the United States at the time, and they conclude that the police must develop innovative strategies that proactively deploy officers to specific neighborhoods suffering from chronic disorder.

  • Stockdale, J. E., C. Whitehead, and P. Gresham. 1999. Applying economic evaluation to policing activity. Police Research Series Paper 103. London: Home Office.

    These authors contend that “proactive policing” involves strategically deploying departmental resources in an effort to target chronic offenders as well as particularly problematic areas of the community. They also assert increasing proactivity necessitates greater managerial accountability and, in many cases, a change in management philosophy.

  • Walker, S. 1984. “Broken windows” and fractured history: The use and misuse of history in recent police patrol analysis. Justice Quarterly 1:57–90.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418828400088041

    Walker challenges arguments put forth by Wilson and Kelling 1982, claiming they built their theory on a “false and heavily romanticized view of the past” (p. 88). He agrees the police should address public feelings of safety by proactively targeting minor offenses, but he contends that it represents a new model of policing.

  • Wilson, J. Q., and G. L. Kelling. 1982. Broken windows: The police and neighborhood safety. Atlantic Monthly 249.3: 29–38.

    This seminal article helped community policing gain momentum in the United States. Wilson and Kelling assert that the police should proactively enforce minor crimes and incivilities, which can decrease both serious crime and public fear of crime by sending the message to offenders that crime is not tolerated.

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