Innovative Criminologist Looks at the Role That Place Plays in Crime

by Jim Greif

Distinguished Professor David Weisburd brought with him a revolutionary way to understand and deal with crime when he joined Mason’s Administration of Justice Department in July.

David Weisburd

David Weisburd
Photo courtesy of David Weisburd

Traditional criminology focuses on understanding the characteristics and careers of criminals, but Weisburd has been an international leader in exploring the implications of where crime occurs and the "history" of high-crime places. Looking at "crime in place" is a relatively new focus for criminologists, and studies on the subject first appeared in the late 1980s.

Weisburd's research shows that focusing on where crime is concentrated enables police and communities to target their efforts more effectively.

Simply steering clear of "the bad side of town" may not help citizens avoid crime.

"Research has shown that in what are generally seen as good parts of town there are often streets with strong crime concentrations, and in what are often defined as bad neighborhoods, many places are relatively free of crime," Weisburd says.

While police have generally organized their patrols by neighborhoods or precincts that span several city blocks, a "hot spot" — small areas of concentrated crime — can be a single street segment, a cluster of addresses or even a single building.

For example, in a study conducted in 2004, Weisburd and his colleagues found that 86 out of 29,849 street segments account for one-third of the total number of juvenile crime incidents in Seattle.

Strategies of Place-Based Policing

While targeting crime at the places where it occurs seems like a simple shift in strategy, it requires drastic changes in data gathering and the overall philosophy and actions of the police.

The strategies of place-based policing can be as simple as patrolling hot spots, but could also include changes in laws and techniques. For example, policy makers might use "nuisance laws" to encourage landlords and property owners to aid the police in dealing with crime that occurs in or around their buildings.

"Hot spots provide a stable target for police interventions, unlike the constantly moving targets of criminal offenders," Weisburd says.

If police intervene at a hot spot, many citizens and even police officers believe that the criminal activity will simply move around the corner. Weisburd's research suggests the opposite is true. A study from Weisburd and his colleagues in 2004 found that areas close to the hot spot receiving intervention actually showed a reduction in crime despite the fact that these areas were not the focus.

The Consummate Police Chief's Researcher

A leading expert on crime in places, policing terrorism and white-collar crime, Weisburd is well respected by police chiefs and high-ranking law enforcement officials around the world who have implemented his forward-thinking strategies toward policing.

"David is the consummate police chief's researcher. He understands the political issues involved in policing and is a dream to work with," says Jim Bueermann, chief of the Redlands Police Department in California.

Weisburd led two experimental studies with Bueermann's police department, the "Risk Focused Policing at Places Experiment" and the "Second Responder Experiment."

Bueermann says Weisburd understands that it is important to put the community first.

"David conducts his research in a way that doesn't sacrifice the community on the behalf of research. He understands the practical realities of keeping the community safe."

Using Weisburd's research results and policing strategies, Bueermann helped his department alter and discontinue ineffective practices and implement new strategies that are proven to work.

New Center Planned

Although new to Mason, Weisburd has previously collaborated with many of its administration of justice faculty members, including Cynthia Lum.

Lum studied under Weisburd at the University of Maryland before she joined Mason.

"He has provided me with countless opportunities to develop as a practice-oriented criminologist, and many of us are where we are because of his guidance and help."

Weisburd is also extremely active in his profession outside the university, sitting on a number of national steering committees and participating in working groups. He is a member of the Committee on Crime, Law and Justice of the National Research Council and served on the NRC working group on evaluating anticrime programs and its panel on police practices and policies.

The distinguished criminologist has received more than $12 million in private and public research funds during his career. He is also the founding editor of the Journal of Experimental Criminology and serves on many journal editorial boards in criminology.

Weisburd also holds a joint appointment as the Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law and Criminal Justice and director of the Institute of Criminology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel.

With Weisburd's arrival, the Administration of Justice Department plans to establish the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy to advance scientifically rigorous research in criminal justice practice and policy. Weisburd will serve as the center's director and Lum will be deputy director.

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