DESPITE WIDESPREAD EMBRACE by police departments of various approaches to officer training, there is remarkably little firm evidence on the impact of schooling law enforcement personnel on everything from dealing with implicit bias to de-escalation techniques. What’s more, amid fears about rising crime levels in many US cities, there has been concern that some reform-minded changes in policing could come at the expense of controlling crime.

That makes the results of a new study of policing in three US cities, including Cambridge, all the more noteworthy. In one of the first rigorous analyses of training in “procedural justice,” which aims to have police officers treat residents more fairly, the study found that the training led to better interactions with residents, fewer arrests, and a reduction in crime. 

“There’s a kind of rhetoric going on right now that suggests that police reform and police effectiveness are somehow in opposition to each other. Our study suggests we can focus on police reform and be successful at it and that won’t harm the crime control effectiveness of police and, indeed, enhances it,” said David Weisburd, a professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University, who led the study.

The researchers looked at 120 crime “hot spots,” 40 such locations in each of three US cities: Houston; Tucson, Arizona; and Cambridge. They randomly divided a group of 28 officers who patrol those areas to either receive 40 hours of intensive training in “procedural justice,” an approach to policing that emphasizes “fair and respectful treatment of people by police,” or to receive four hours of training in hot-spot policing and data collection. The hallmarks of procedural justice interactions include “giving voice, showing neutrality, treating people with dignity and respect, and evidencing trustworthy motives,” according to the study.

Trained observers, who were not told which group officers had been assigned to, rode along on patrols to record information on their interactions with residents. The study found that officers assigned to procedural justice training were significantly more likely to give people “voice,” show neutrality, and demonstrate respectfulness in interactions with the public. On the measure of showing “trustworthy motives,” the findings did not achieve statistical significance, but were in the direction of positive benefits. Meanwhile, interactions involving officers in the “standard condition” group who received only a half-day training in hot-spot policing were significantly more likely to include disrespectful behavior. 

In the hot spots patrolled by officers receiving procedural justice training, there were 60 percent fewer arrests and a 14 percent reduction in crime compared with hot spots receiving “standard condition” policing. Surveys of residents showed those in areas receiving standard patrols were significantly more likely to say police harassed people on their street or used “more force than necessary.” 

Despite concerns about rising crime rates in many US cities, the results argue against the idea that “making fewer arrests is going to make crime skyrocket in these locations,” said Cody Telep, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University and a co-author of the study. 

Telep said the findings seem to “fit it well” with research released a year ago showing that a reduction in prosecution of some misdemeanor offenses in Suffolk County was associated with fewer subsequent arraignments of those individuals.

In the new policing study, there were, overall, many fewer arrests in the 40 Cambridge hot spots than in the 40 targeted locations in both Houston and Tucson. Nevertheless, the paper said the crime reduction trend appeared to be even stronger in Cambridge than in the other two cities.
Cambridge police officials are scheduled to receive a full briefing on the study findings later this month, and they declined to comment on the report until they see disaggregated data from the three individual cities.  

Weisburd, who also holds an appointment at the Institute of Criminology at Hebrew University in Israel, said some of the recent debate over policing has become unnecessarily polarized. He said concern about crime has prompted some to say we need to ignore reform strategies, while some advocates of police reform or “defunding” of departments have expressed little concern over police effectiveness or crime rates. 

Weisburd said the new study shows both sides have it wrong. “This is very good news for police if we’re looking for things that reduce friction between the police and public and improve the way police behave with the public and at the same time do something about crime problems,” he said.