Quality-of-life policing is one of several varieties of police strategies that evolved under the more general framework of community-oriented policing. Although it is not possible to pinpoint the exact date or location of the origins of this form of policing, much of its development can be traced to the evolution of community-oriented policing in the 1980s and 1990s. Gary Cordner (1998) points out that quality-of-life policing is based on the premise that controlling crime requires the police to be attentive to social and physical disorder, minor crime, and appearances of crime.

Quality-of-life policing is not just one form of policing or one policing strategy; rather it encompasses a variety of community policing strategies that involve aggressive enforcement of social disorder offenses such as public drinking, panhandling, public urination, street-level drug dealing, loitering, vandalism, and prostitution. Enforcing municipal ordinances aimed at controlling physical disorder such as dilapidated housing, abandoned automobiles and refuse, and graffiti is often used as a quality-of-life policing strategy. Order maintenance and zero tolerance policing are other labels given to these aggressive policing strategies (Katz, Webb, and Schaefer 2001).

Eck and Maguire (2001) differentiate quality-of-life policing from other community-oriented policing strategies by pointing out that they emphasize the aggressive policing of disorder and place less emphasis on community cooperation. Quality-of-life policing differs from other aggressive policing strategies in that its aggressive focus is on social and physical disorder and not on serious crime per se. While a limited number of police agencies have made quality-of-life policing an agency-wide strategy (Bratton 1996), it is more typically applied to specific geographic areas or neighborhoods that have high rates of disorder and crime.

Factors Influencing the Development of Quality-of-Life Policing

Police scholars (Weisburd and Mazerolle 2000) have identified several influences leading to the development of quality-of-life policing. One such influence was an increased concern in the 1980s on the part of citizens about social and physical disorder in their neighborhoods. This awareness was partly due to the increased use of community surveys by police departments and researchers alike to ascertain citizen perceptions of crime and disorder problems as well as their preferences and priorities for police services. Related to this was an increased demand for the police to address neighborhood disorder problems.

Another important influence on the development of quality-of-life policing was a growing body of research that indicated that traditional methods of policing such as routine patrol and responding to calls for service were relatively ineffective. The recognition of the ineffectiveness of traditional policing methods led to the development of new approaches to policing, including community-oriented policing and related strategies such as problem-oriented policing and zero tolerance policing— all of which focused on the problem of disorder.

A growing awareness of the importance of focusing resources on the spatial distribution of crime also influenced the development of quality-of-life policing. The recognition that crime tended to cluster into ”hot spots” led to the realization that scarce police resources could be used more effectively and efficiently if they were concentrated on hot spots or areas characterized by high levels of social and physical disorder and serious crime.

The Broken-Windows Hypothesis and Quality-of-Life Policing

Probably the greatest intellectual force leading to quality-of-life policing was the development of the “broken-windows” hypothesis proposed by Wilson and Kelling in 1982. They argued that crime and disorder were intimately linked in a spirallike manner where increased disorder leads to increased crime, and increased crime leads to increased disorder. This process is complex, with initial signs of social and physical disorder (for example, ”broken windows”) in a neighborhood sending a message to would-be criminals that crime and delinquency are likely to be tolerated in the neighborhood.

If unchecked, visible social and physical disorder lead to increased fear of crime, and residents come to believe that their neighborhood is unsafe. This can lead to physical withdrawal as well as withdrawal from neighborhood social networks. This withdrawal weakens the informal social control mechanisms that help maintain order and law-abiding behavior in the neighborhood. The natural supervision of young people and watchful guardianship provided by residents in orderly neighborhoods starts to break down. Neighborhood residents no longer engage in the supervision of juveniles and others with tendencies to engage in minor forms of delinquency and crime. Less serious forms of crime in the neighborhood leads to more serious forms; social and physical disorder leads to serious crime indirectly by first making the neighborhood ripe for minor forms of criminal offending.

From a policy perspective, the logical response to the broken-windows hypothesis is to focus the police response on the root causes of serious crime, which are social and physical disorder. Weisburd and Mazerolle (2000) argue that according to many criminologists and crime prevention experts, concentrating police efforts on disorder will produce declines in serious crime. It would seem then, that quality-of-life policing is a logical policy response to the broken windows hypothesis. Katz, Webb, and Schaefer (2001) trace the origin of quality-of-life policing directly back to the broken-windows hypothesis. They conclude that based on this hypothesis, the police should refocus their efforts away from traditional crime fighting approaches and place greater emphasis on combating neighborhood disorder. According to Kelling and Bratton (1998), reacting to serious crime once a pattern of offense has occurred is too late. According to Skogan (1990), the police need to respond to the first signs of disorder before the disorder-to-serious crime spiral becomes operational.

Quality-of-Life Policing and Social Influence and Norm Theories

Closely related to the broken-windows explanation of the disorder-crime linkage are explanations that rely heavily on the concepts of social influence and social norms. In attempting to account for crime, these approaches, which borrow directly from the broken-windows explanation, focus on the development of social meaning that influences changes in the norms or rules that guide behavior. The idea is that in neighborhoods with significant disorder, conventional norms, beliefs, and values break down and are replaced by those that favor the commission of criminal acts. Visible social and physical disorder conveys social meaning that influences the definition of which behaviors are acceptable and valued. Disorder conveys the message that residents in the neighborhood do not care about the neighborhood and that it is okay to break the law and engage in uncivil behavior.

In this perspective, the spiral of disorder leading to serious crime is seen as resulting from changing definitions of acceptable behavior. Kahan (1997) has noted that social meaning has an independent effect on crime because it directs social influences on behavior quite independently of the law. Accordingly, criminal behavior is a function of social influences and meaning associated with visible disorder within the neighborhood, and ignoring these influences and meanings when trying to control crime is futile. Roberts (1999) describes the social influence explanation basis or crime as a process where neighborhood disorder raises fear levels to the point where law-abiding residents either flee the neighborhood or withdraw to their homes. In turn, the disorder that negatively impacts law-abiding citizens attracts law violators to the neighborhood, which results in increased levels of serious crime.

For social norm and social influence theories, it follows that policies that attempt to control crime by increasing penalties, or through other traditional deterrence strategies, are likely to be ineffective. From this perspective quality-of-life policing strategies and tactics are believed to be the most desirable crime control policy option. Aggressive policing that attacks the signs of disorder that convey to would-be law violators that criminal and delinquent behavior is acceptable in the neighborhood is the preferred policy option (Kahn 1997). One example of a quality-of-life strategy consistent with this perspective is the aggressive enforcement of gang-loitering laws, such as the one that was implemented in Chicago in 1992 that resulted in more than 40,000 arrests in a three-year period (Roberts 1999). Note that the Chicago ordinance was eventually held to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Empirical Evaluations of Quality-of-Life Policing

Evaluating whether or not quality-of-life policing accomplishes the goal of reducing serious crime by focusing on disorder requires an examination of the results of quality-of-life policing as well as its underlying foundation, including the broken-windows hypothesis itself and aggressive policing as effective policing strategies.

Skogan’s (1990) research involving residents in forty neighborhoods in six cities, which looked at the links between perceptions of crime and fear of crime and related these to physical and social disorder, was one of the earliest assessments of the broken-windows hypothesis. Skogan concluded that perceptions of crime and fear of crime were causally related to disorder. He also concluded that disorder occurred before serious crime took place in the study neighborhoods. This finding is consistent with the causal sequence of disorder-fear-crime spiral, which is the essence of the broken-windows hypothesis. However, Skogan’s findings have been reanalyzed by other researchers (Harcourt 1998) who concluded that there was no relationship between disorder and serious crime. These researchers argue that it was only a small number of “outlier” neighborhoods that were responsible for finding a relationship among disorder, fear, and crime.

Because most quality-of-life policing strategies are based on aggressive policing, it is logical to consider research and evaluations that have attempted to determine if aggressive policing per se achieves its intended outcomes. If aggressive approaches to policing do not work, there is little reason to expect quality-of-life policing to work since it requires the use of aggressive policing strategies. Several researchers have produced evidence that aggressive policing does control crime (Sherman 1997). Examination of the relationship between the issuance of traffic citations and serious crime has been one approach to evaluating aggressive policing. Using the rate of traffic ticket issuance per officer as a measure of aggressive policing, Wilson and Boland (1978) found that the higher the rate of traffic citations issued by patrol officers, the lower a city’s robbery victimization rate. Other researchers (Sampson and Cohen 1988) have found a similar relationship between aggressive policing and decreased robbery rates.

Even though there is evidence that aggressive policing produces its intended outcome of a reduction in serious crime, other evidence suggests that, although it might produce an increase in arrests for disorder crimes, for example, driving under the influence and minor drug offenses, it might not produce increases in more serious crimes (Cordner 1998; Weiss and Freels 1996).

In addition to research examining the foundation of quality-of-life policing, there is a growing body of evidence bearing on whether or not quality-of-life policing strategies per se reduce serious crime. Sherman carried out some of the earliest research when he examined the impact of an order maintenance crackdown on drinking and parking violations in Washington, D.C. He found that although the crackdown produced an increase in public perception of safety, it did not reduce serious crime in the form of street robbery. A 1999 study by Novak et al. concluded that intensive enforcement of liquor laws did not affect the more serious crimes of robbery and burglary.

Katz, Webb, and Schaefer (2001) evaluated the impact of an aggressive quality-of-life policing strategy that focused on both social disorder crimes and physical disorder. The strategy was intended to reduce serious crime by focusing policing efforts on social disorder such as prostitution, drug-dealing, loitering, and impacting physical disorder through trash removal, graffiti abatement, and property inspections to ensure ordinance compliance. They found that quality-of-life policing had the greatest impact on social disorder, especially public morals crimes, and physical disorder, but not on more serious forms of crime.

Still other studies of quality-of-life policing strategies provide additional evidence that quality-of-life policing can reduce social disorder including a study conducted by Green (1996) that found that a combination of enforcing code violations and increased police presence reduced drug activity and physical disorder. However, this evaluation had little bearing on whether or not quality-of-life policing reduced more serious forms of crime.

Other evidence, however, suggests that quality-of-life policing can produce the intended outcomes of reducing serious crime. In a somewhat unique application of quality-of-life policing, Kelling and Coles (1996) worked with the New York City Transit Police Department to design a strategy that targeted minor crimes and disorder in the New York subway system. This strategy involved enforcing disorder laws and removing loitering youth and homeless persons from subway tunnels and stations. In addition, physical disorder was addressed by improving the physical appearance of substations. The research team concluded that law enforcement focus on disorder in the subway system resulted in a substantial drop in serious crime.

Concerns about Quality-of-Life Policing

Whether or not quality-of-life policing works as intended—by producing a decrease in serious crime by addressing social and physical disorder—is yet to be determined. There is only limited evidence that it impacts serious crime, but greater evidence that it can produce a decrease in disorder. Even if it works as intended, there are still concerns about its desirability as a policing strategy. For example, local ordinances that enable quality-of-life policing such as Chicago’s 1992 gang-loitering ordinance can be so vague that they facilitate police abuse and the harassment of law-abiding citizens. Vague ordinances can make it necessary for police officers to exercise subjective judgments about who has a legitimate reason for being on a street corner, which in part is why the Supreme Court struck down the Chicago ordinance.

Related to this is the concern that some quality-of-life policing strategies can disproportionately and unfairly target racial and ethnic minorities. As Roberts (1999) points out, for many Americans race is an indicator of the propensity for criminality. There is concern that in some quality-of-life policing strategies the police will use race or ethnicity as the basis for estimating criminal propensity and inadvertently arrest law-abiding citizens. In other words, quality-of-life policing can potentially exacerbate the problem of racial profiling.

Some quality-of-life strategies may defeat the purpose of community-oriented policing by weakening the links between the police and the community. Excessive police presence and disproportionately high arrest rates of neighborhood youths can build up neighborhood mistrust of the police, making public cooperation difficult while negating potential reductions in serious crimes due to quality-of-life policing efforts.

Somewhat related to the problem of police mistrust is the potential for some quality-of-life policing strategies to be at odds with minority cultures. Quality-of-life policing strategies typically reflect the values of the dominant culture. What appears to be disorder from the perspective of dominant culture can be order from the perspective of a minority culture. Quality-of-life policing strategies involving code enforcement; for example, prohibitions against loud music, may conflict with cultural practices involving the playing of such music and public drinking at the end of the workweek. The adage that “one person’s junk is another person’s gold” is a consideration for quality-of-life policing. Code enforcement efforts directed at removing what appears to be junked auto parts or abandoned cars could jeopardize the potential effectiveness of quality-of-life policing approaches if those items are commonplace and valued by neighborhood residents.

Whether or not quality-of-life policing works as intended remains to be seen, but in some form it will probably be part of the American policing landscape for the foreseeable future. Police researchers are most certainly going to continue to examine its effectiveness, and civil libertarians will continue to be watchful for its potential abuse. One recent proposal calls for the implementation of situational policing, a new strategy that calls for enhancing the capacity of neighborhood residents to control what goes on in their neighborhood while continuing to focus on social and physical disorder (Nolan, Conti, and McDevitt 2005). This form of policing is ”situational” in that it is premised on the need to customize policing styles to meet the different needs of neighborhoods with different conditions. This approach holds promise for the continued development of quality-of-life policing.

Next post:

Previous post: