Police chase crime clusters, not just criminals

Police chase crime clusters, not just criminals

Uniformed city police officers are a common sight near Brent Place at South Reynolds Street in the West End, but Swedish law enforcement officials, not so much. 

Representatives of the Nordic nations law enforcement agencies toured the towers grounds, one of 15 hot spots around Alexandria, to learn more about the departments innovative policing strategy. 

The Swedes want to take that knowledge back home with them.

Officers Gregory Holden, Daniel Gordon and Tara May gave the guided tour Monday. The trio comprises three-fifths of the citys hot spot detail, which has been in place since spring. 

A departure from walking the beat, hot spot officers focus on areas with crime clusters. Armed with all the information analysts can provide them officers track trends meet residents and focus on deterring crime rather than making arrests though they do make arrests.

We found that if we looked at where this kind of [criminal] activity was occurring and focused on the disorder aspect, it would drop everything else and it did. Weve seen some huge reductions in crime, said Deputy Chief Hassan Aden after meeting with the foreign nationals earlier in the day. Our best tactic is getting out and talking to people, getting proactive, identifying individuals, asking where do you live, what are you doing here?

Its a revolution in the way law enforcement looks at crime and crime prevention, said Cynthia Lum, deputy director of George Mason Universitys Center for Evidence-based Crime Policy and former Baltimore detective. Shes studied how officers in Alexandria target specific locations rather than people within the city.

Getting out of the police cruiser and meeting people is key to the tactic, Lum said. Officers hone in on small, specific areas and pop in and out of hot spots randomly so would-be perpetrators never have a chance to make trouble 

Getting officers to buy into the approach is just as tough, she said.

U.S. police are primarily individual-based. Theyre still very reactive; crime prevention is not per se something that you regularly see, Lum said.

Alexandria’s five-member hot spot team is an all-volunteer detail. Theyre expected to set their own hours (based on where and when crimes are committed), request their own search warrants and they receive top-of-the-line equipment. Its more paperwork and responsibility, but its also more fulfilling, said May. 

This gives the officers their own chance to be creative and problem-solve on their own, she said. As a patrol officer, we didn’t know what [hot spot officers] were doing. You knew they were out there and doing something, but [theyre] given their own sets of guidelines, thinking outside the box and it’s been working. If you have select officers that are motivated and do want to make a change, you want to target them.

Its an approach Roland Svenson, a county police commissioner, and Fredrik Marglund of Swedens National Council for Crime Prevention, would like to see in their native country. While the types of offenses might vary gun crime isnt as common in Sweden theres the potential for success and the first step is studying how hot spot theory is applied elsewhere. 

Our objective is to learn how this work can be done and how to implement and get experience, Marglund said. Its about giving back to society. Government research is to serve the people.

Theyre not the first to take notice of Alexandrias new techniques. Officials from Norway stopped by the week prior, according to Aden. Hes proud the department is recognized internationally, but happier that crime in Alexandria is on track for a 44-year low. 

If we can take care of crime problem by preventing it, that creates a much healthier criminal justice system, he said. That’s our focus. Overall crime reduction is the goal of why we’re doing this.