The word “community” has many definitions and, consequently, has been heavily debated in criminological circles. At the most basic level, the term can refer to a geographic area, such as a neighborhood, or to a set of social ties that link individuals or groups (Hunter & Riger, 1996). With community crime prevention, the phrase often refers to both— a neighborhood or smaller area where people organize themselves into groups or networks to prevent (either directly or indirectly) local crime and other problems.
Community crime prevention are efforts to prevent neighborhood crime through collective citizen action. There are many strategies for empowering citizens to attack neighborhood problems, but in the field of crime prevention, community organizing through voluntary community groups has been the predominant approach. Community safety needs to be defined in a holistic and multilevel manner, and its operational philosophy and methodology should undergo an extensive reexamination. Only then will the system maximize positive deterrent effects and will preventive measures impact the community and culture.
For example, by properly securing a community means the removal of the barrier of fear and, in turn, allows interaction to take place among community members—a fundamental need in the crime prevention effort. In the 1980s, as levels of violence escalated to unprecedented heights, Americans responded in the only way they knew how—with increased fear and avoidance of dangerous situations. They retreated to the safety of their homes, adding locks, bars, alarms, and, sometimes, guards.
Research now suggests that such restrictions of behavior and security purchases are often effective in reducing an individual’s risk of property loss (Lavrakas, Normoyle, Skogan, Herz, Salem, & Lewis, 1990; Rosenbaum, 1998), but the price might have been higher than expected. Concerned about this type of restrictive crime prevention behavior, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (1993, p. 46) observed that “although these prophylactic measures may be steps in self-protection, they can lead to a lessening of the bonds of mutual assistance and neighborliness. ”
Indeed, community crime prevention researchers have suggested that one primary explanation for high levels of crime, disorder, and fear of crime in specific neighborhoods is the absence of “community” (Greenberg, Rohe, & Williams, 1985; Jacobs, 1991; Kelling & Coles, 1996; Skogan, 1990). In any event, the 1990s witnessed a nationwide call for collective crime prevention actions. Given the public’s preference for “private-minded” anticrime measures designed to protect themselves and their immediate property and family, local community leaders saw a clear need to get people out of their homes and involved in the process of
protecting the neighborhood. In turn, this “public-minded” approach should have benefits for both the community and its individual members. The rationale for these expected benefits can be found in criminological theories about why and how crime occurs in a community context which is the next part of this essay. Part B: Compare the two major strategies in community crime prevention. Describe the different theories of crime associated with each, the levels of theoretical analysis, and the assumptions each has about the causes of crime.
Discuss the strengths and limits of the differing interventions associated with the two major strategies. Give examples of when one may be better than another, depending on the ‘intended outcome’ (Crawford 1998: 6). (2000 words, of which at least 50% should compare strengths and limits and give examples of when one approach may be better than another) The two major strategies in community crime prevention are collective citizen action and community organizations. “Organizing” the community has become a common response to neighborhood and community problems. Across the nation, literally thousands of grassroots
community organizations have sought to organize and empower local residents given perceived threats such as crime, toxic chemicals, noise pollution, traffic safety, and other environmental stressors (Heller, 1990). Collective grassroots action is considered necessary when the public believes that traditional, formal responses from governmental and service agencies have been (or will be) ineffectual at best, or, at worst, harmful to the community. Grassroots community activism for the purpose of community empowerment has experienced a major rebirth in recent years, beginning in the late 1980s (Boyte, 1990; 1997).
There are many different approaches to community empowerment. Dreier (1996) identified three distinct strategies for empowering the community and its strengths: (1) “community organizing” efforts to mobilize people against specific problems and increase their voices in decisions affecting their lives; (2) “community-based development” to improve the physical and economic conditions through job creation, business development, housing, and so on; and (3) “community-based service provision” that will enhance people’s
skills and opportunities, such as job training, child care, and parenting skills. Collective responses to crime can take many forms and be conceptualized in different ways (Greenberg, Rohe, & Williams, 1985; Rosenbaum, 1988; Yin,Vogel, Chaiken, & Both, 1996).
Programs vary depending on the extent to which they focus on preventing offending or preventing victimization (Lewis & Salem, 1991), are initiated by efforts indigenous or exogenous to the neighborhood (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993; Greenberg, Rohe, & Williams, 1985), address social problems at the root of crime or opportunities for crime (Rosenbaum, 1988; Skogan, 1990), and engage in social action to advocate the cause of disadvantaged groups or to preserve the status quo by reinforcing common values and practices (Lewis, Grant, & Rosenbaum, 1988; Skogan, 1990). Many of these distinctions are overlapping.
For example, groups whose primary interest is victimization prevention tend to focus their efforts on reducing opportunities for crime, defending the neighborhood from criminal behavior, and reinforcing the status quo through social control mechanisms. Some are single-issue watch groups, whereas others are multi-issue community organizations. In contrast, groups whose primary interest is the alleviation of social problems facing the neighborhood tend to attack crime by providing social services (for example, drug treatment, housing for the homeless, employment training) and by advocacy efforts that target governmental and service agencies.
In the latter case, crime prevention is a by-product of efforts to improve the neighborhood and strengthen human capital rather than a primary objective of the group. Research strongly suggests that local voluntary organizations are an important vehicle for collective crime prevention activities in urban neighborhoods (Lavrakas et al. , 1990; Podolefsky & DuBow, 1991). Neighborhood surveys in major cities during the late 1980s indicate that between 10 and 20 percent of neighborhood residents participated in local voluntary organizations and even fewer participated in crime prevention activities through these groups.
More recent national survey data confirm these findings and provide documentation of changes in collective participation rates over time. A national sample survey in 1991 found that approximately 12 percent of the adult population belonged to a neighborhood group that was involved in crime prevention activities (O’Keefe & Mendelsohn, 1994). This figure increased dramatically in the decade that followed. Another national survey using the same question in 2002 found that the percentage of adults belonging to a neighborhood group involved in crime prevention had increased to 31 percent (O’Keefe, Rosenbaum, Lavrakas, Reid, & Botta, 2006).
The dominant form of collective citizen crime prevention in the United States during the past 25 years has been “Neighborhood Watch” or “Block Watch. ” Watch programs, which are widely supported by community organizations and law enforcement agencies, typically involve “citizens coming together in relatively small groups (usually block clubs) to share information about local crime problems, exchange crime prevention tips, and make plans for engaging in surveillance (‘watching’) of the neighborhood and crime-reporting activities.
” (Rosenbaum, 1998, p. 104). Two national sample surveys conducted by O’Keefe and his colleagues measured changes in levels of citizen participation in crime prevention behaviors from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, including watch-type activities (O’Keefe et al. , 2006). The results indicate that watching a neighbor’s house while the neighbor is away (and vice versa) increased substantially during this decade, but getting together formally with a group of neighbors to discuss crime prevention actually declined.
Specifically, the percentage of households that reported “always” “keeping a helpful watch on neighbors and their property” rose from 43 percent in 1991 to 61 percent in 2002. Similarly, from 1981 to 1991, there were noticeable increases in the percentage of households that “always” ask a neighbor to watch their homes when away (55 percent vs. 74 percent) and ask a neighbor to stop deliveries or bring in the mail (46 percent vs. 69 percent).
However, participation in group meetings to “discuss steps to take against crime” dropped from 47 percent in 1992 to 30 percent in 2002. Thus, ad hoc defensive actions to protect one’s own property and that of one’s immediate neighbors continues to rise in the United States, but more formal group meetings to discuss crime prevention actions appear to have declined in frequency. Nevertheless, Neighborhood Watch remains a popular program.
Although comparable data are not available from 1992, the 2002 survey revealed that 42 percent of all households in America reported having a Neighborhood Watch program in their neighborhood, and more than two-thirds said that the program was “extensively” implemented. Collective crime prevention practices are consistent with at least three criminological theories—social disorganization, social support, and opportunity reduction theories of crime. This essay will briefly describe each as it provides a framework for understanding community crime prevention interventions.
Social Disorganization Theory Social disorganization theorists such as Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay began to identify the community variables that were responsible for differences in community- level crime rates (1981; 1992). Noting that high-crime communities were characterized by heterogeneity of class and ethnicity, high levels of transiency, and large numbers of youths, these theorists argued that the driving force behind the crime problem was “social disorganization,” that is, a weakened capacity of local institutions and organizations to regulate social behavior.
In essence, families, schools, churches, and ethnic activities that once held these communities together and defined appropriate social behavior are no longer functioning in this capacity. Although social disorganization theory has been attacked many times over the years (Carey, 1985; Matza, 1989), today this theory has received renewed interest from a new generation of scholars who have shown greater precision with their concepts, methods, and approaches to data analysis (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993).
The argument for collective citizen action against crime, as derived from social disorganization theory, can be stated very simply as follows: If social disorganization is the problem and if traditional agents of social control no longer are performing adequately, people then need to find alternative ways to strengthen informal social control and restore a “sense of community” (Rosenbaum, 1998, p. 327). Greenberg and her colleagues define social control as “the use of rewards or punishments to insure that members of a group—such as a family, organization, neighborhood, or society—will obey the group’s rules or norms” (1991, p.4).
In contrast with formal social control, which is derived from written rules and laws and is enforced by the police and courts, informal social control is derived from local customs and norms, and is enforced by ordinary citizens through behaviors such as surveillance, verbal reprimands, rejection, warnings, and other pressures to achieve conformity. More precisely, Hunter (1995) identifies three levels of social control networks—private, parochial, and public.
Private social control involves intimate, primary ties among friends and family members, and control is often exercised by withdrawing affection, support, and esteem and by physical punishment. Parochial social control involves relations among neighbors (via community groups, schools, churches, local businesses) and might include efforts to influence social behavior through community group activities, surveillance of suspicious or deviant behavior, and social intervention as needed.
Finally, public social control involves relations with agencies outside the neighborhood (such as police departments and other government and social service agencies) and includes efforts to bring more resources and services to the neighborhood. Social Support Theory In practice, social disorganization and social control theories focus on the process of control and conformity, achieved primarily through various punitive responses to nonconformists.
However, collective neighborhood responses to crime could, in theory, be derived from a more positive, supportive approach to preventing antisocial conduct. Cullen (1994) offers such an alternative model by developing a “social support” explanation of criminality. After a careful review of research and existing theories of crime, Cullen makes a compelling argument that social support reduces criminal involvement. Social support can be defined as “the perceived or actual instrumental and/or expressive provisions supplied by the community, social networks, and confiding partners.
” (Lin, 1996, p. 18). Essentially, the social support model suggests that neighborhood crime and disorder are fueled by a community (and society) that is “not organized, structurally or culturally, to be socially supportive” (Cullen, 1994, p. 531). Driven by self-interest and individualism, Americans have little time to express “communitarian” concerns for neighbors, show compassion for the less fortunate, or exhibit other types of support for persons outside their immediate family.
Interestingly enough, Cullen argues that high-crime community characteristics that are traditionally interpreted as signs of social disorganization— such as family disruption, weak friendship networks, and low rates of citizen participation in voluntary organizations—can just as easily be interpreted as signs of weak social support in these environments. In essence, the absence of informal helping networks can contribute to criminality in the neighborhood as much as the absence of informal social control.
These theories can suggest different solutions to neighborhood crime and disorder problems by focusing on either the restoration of social control or the strengthening of social support mechanisms needed to prevent antisocial and dysfunctional behavior. However, as Cullen notes, the solutions can be complementary and mutually dependent because social support, trust, and respect are often prerequisites for exercising social control in a relationship. Nevertheless, voluntary community groups tend to give more attention to social control strategies.
Opportunity Reduction Strategy Perhaps the most appropriate theory for understanding community crime prevention practices is the opportunity reduction approach. In a nutshell, opportunity theories suggest that criminal behavior is driven by the opportunity to commit crime presented by a particular location, time, and set of circumstances. Therefore, the removal or reduction of these opportunities, according to this model, should lead to a reduction in crime in that particular setting and under those conditions.
For a crime to occur, four basic elements must be present: criminal law, an offender, a target or victim, and a place or environment. The opportunity models have emerged from research focusing on different aspects of the criminal event. Environmental criminology, influenced by the writings of Jeffrey (1991) and Newman (1992), helped us understand how changes in the physical environment (urban design and architecture) would influence crime and perceptions of safety in particular neighborhoods.
More recently, research focusing on the thoughts and behaviors of offenders has led to the development of important opportunity theories of crime, including routine activities (Cohen & Felson, 1999) and offender decision-making or rational choice (Rengert, 1998). The routine activities theory provides the clearest illustration of how opportunity is the key element in the commission or prevention of crime. This theory suggests that a crime is more likely to occur in places where there is a convergence of “motivated offenders,” “suitable targets,” and the absence of “guardians” who can prevent the offense.
The limited rational choice decision making theories help us understand how offenders select particular neighborhoods, plan their offenses, and select their targets, but again, the key element is the offender’s assessment of whether the right opportunity to maximize benefit and minimize costs exists. Indeed, research has established a link between environmental opportunity/risk and criminal behavior (Clarke, 1992). The implications of opportunity theories for community crime prevention are clear.
Community groups and individuals concerned about the neighborhood must do everything possible to make crime more difficult or costly for offenders by either removing or reducing opportunities in specific locations. Clarke and his colleagues have delineated and classified the different ways this can be accomplished (Clarke, 1992). Generally speaking, opportunity reduction strategies strength are to (1) increase the level of effort required to commit a crime, (2) increase the risk of detection and apprehension, or (3) reduce the rewards associated with crime .
Although voluntary community organizations sometimes get involved in strategies to increase the effort needed to commit a crime (for example, educating local residents about target hardening or access control measures) or strategies to reduce the rewards for offending (for example, property marking, graffiti cleaning), historically, their primary agenda has been to encourage human surveillance of public spaces to detect and prevent criminal activity.
In the language of opportunity theory, local residents, through neighborhood watches and patrols, seek to increase the number of “guardians” who will protect the neighborhood and decrease the number of “suitable targets” by supervising the behavior of youth. If offenders come to the conclusion that the risk of detection and apprehension are higher in a particular neighborhood or on a particular block as a result of human surveillance, they should be less inclined to perpetrate crimes in that geographic area.
The theoretical explanations offered by the three models just described are more complementary than they are conflictual when applied to community crime prevention practices. Indeed, neighborhood guardians, individually and collectively, employ a wide variety of strategies to prevent crime and maintain order. These include the provision of social supports, in combination with social control sanctions, to encourage local youths to act in prosocial ways. In addition to helping local youths desist from offending and avoid victimization by being “streetwise,” neighborhood guardians are on the lookout for predatory and property offenders who might be deterred by surveillance and intervention or, if necessary, by police action. Even though considerable uncertainty and debate exists about the extent of nurturing and supportive behaviors in urban neighborhoods, there is little question that neighborhoods are organizing to fight back against known offenders. References Boyte, H. (1990). The backyard revolution: Understanding the new citizen movement.
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