There is little evidence that alternatives to the police work

Yesterday I shared an article for Vox by German Lopez which sets out some of the evidence that police reduce crime and violence. Some in the ‘defund’ movement argue that there are alternative approaches to public safety which can achieve similar results to policing in terms of reduced crime without the claimed side effects of ‘police racism.’ “Unfortunately,” Lopez writes, “there’s little evidence for such an approach yet.”

“One widely publicized approach,” Lopez notes, are “violence interrupters,” who use “locally trusted community liaisons — typically people who previously were part of gangs or took part in criminal activities — to break up conflicts before they escalate into violence. An award-winning documentary threw support behind the idea, and President Joe Biden’s administration has shown support for it.”

But the research on interrupters ranges from weak to disappointing. A 2015 review of the evidence published in the Annual Review of Public Health looked at a handful of studies on the model in several American cities. None of the studies had fully positive results. The best result, in Chicago, indicated that the approach perhaps produced positive effects for shootings in four of seven evaluation sites — barely better than a coin flip. One program, in Pittsburgh, was so ineffective that it “appeared to be associated with an increase in rates of monthly aggravated assaults and gun assaults” in some neighborhoods.

The 2020 John Jay report was a bit more positive on interrupters but ultimately concluded the findings were “mixed.” The studies conducted so far are low-quality, with no randomized controlled trials completed to date. “It’s concerning,” Harvey, who helped write the John Jay report, told me. “It really is an example of weak evidence.”

“There are some approaches to crime and violence with stronger evidence behind them,” Lopez notes, “including summer jobs programsraising the minimum age to drop out of schoolgreening vacant lotsmore streetlightsmore drug addiction treatmentbetter gun control, and raising the alcohol tax.” But:

…these other approaches were all evaluated in a world where police exist, so even the positive research can’t demonstrate that these are necessarily true alternatives to police.


…non-police interventions tend to require a longer-term view rather than promising to reduce crime, especially violent crime, quickly. These interventions help address the root causes of crime and violence, from poverty to drug addiction. But it takes time to lift people and places from poor conditions, hence studies on alternatives producing results over months or years. Policing approaches, meanwhile, tend to produce effects within weeks or months, since it turns out people can be deterred from crime or violence quite quickly once officers are deployed on a block.

Lopez notes that these other approaches are worth trying but, Lopez concludes:

…at least for now, there’s no good evidence that the alternatives can replace the police, Meanwhile, policing has strong evidence suggesting it really can work to cut crime and violence.

“The idea that we can reduce the violence we’ve been seeing without any use of the police is not evidence-based; it’s an aspiration, and it’s a high-risk idea,” [Aaron] Chalfin [a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania] said. “A balanced portfolio feels like the lowest-risk strategy to me.”