Pulling Levers Policing Research Paper

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Pulling levers focused deterrence strategies are increasingly being implemented in the United States to reduce serious violent crime committed by gangs and other criminally active groups, recurring offending by highly active individual offenders, and crime and disorder problems generated by overt street-level drug markets. These new approaches share many of the same basic elements of third-party policing, problem-oriented policing, and situational crime prevention strategies. Briefly, pulling levers focused deterrence strategies seek to change offender behavior by understanding underlying crime-producing dynamics and conditions that sustain recurring crime problems and implementing an appropriately focused blended strategy of law enforcement, community mobilization, and social service actions. Direct communications of increased enforcement risks and the availability of social service assistance to target groups and individuals are a defining characteristic of pulling levers strategies. The available evaluation evidence suggests these new approaches generate noteworthy crime reduction gains. Unfortunately, little systematic research exists to explain why these strategies seem to work in practice.


A number of US jurisdictions have been experimenting with new problem-oriented policing frameworks, generally known as “pulling levers” focused deterrence strategies, to understand and respond to serious crime problems generated by chronically offending groups, such as gun violence among gang-involved offenders. These new initiatives generally follow a core set of activities to reduce violence: the convening of an interagency working group representing a wide range of criminal justice and social service capabilities; more or less real-time partnerships with academic researchers to develop jurisdiction-specific assessments of violence dynamics, perpetrator and victim characteristics, and related issues such as drug market characteristics and patterns of weapons use and acquisition; the design and implementation of a focused law enforcement, community mobilization, and social service/opportunity provision strategy; and the direct communication of enforcement risks and offers of help to the criminally active groups and chronic offenders.

Many of the key ideas of pulling levers focused deterrence strategies fit well within the developing discipline of third-party policing (Mazerolle and Ransley 2005). This perspective suggests that the resources of the police should be expanded to “third parties” that are believed to offer significant new resources for doing something about crime and disorder. Third-party policing asserts that the police cannot successfully deal with many problems on their own and thus that the failures of traditional policing models may be found in the limits of police powers. Using civil ordinances and civil courts or the resources of private agencies, third-party policing recognizes that much social control is exercised by institutions other than the police and that crime can be managed through agencies other than the criminal law.

The developing evaluation evidence suggests that pulling levers focused deterrence strategies generate noteworthy violence reduction benefits (Braga and Weisburd 2012). However, the varied crime prevention mechanisms that generate the observed effects are not well understood. Pulling levers strategies follow the iterative steps of problem-oriented policing (problem identification, problem analysis, development of appropriate prevention responses, and assessment; Goldstein 1990); honor core situational crime prevention ideas (Clarke 1997), such as increasing risks faced by offenders, while finding new and creative ways of deploying traditional and nontraditional law enforcement tools to do so; and are illustrative of the regulatory shift in policing that is articulated within third-party policing such that some of the “pulling lever” tools are the same interventions used in third-party policing programs that seek to engage others, either voluntarily or coercively, to do something more about crime and disorder problems than they are currently doing (Mazerolle and Ransley 2005).

Pulling levers focused deterrence strategies can be seen as a generally applicable framework for acting on the core set of situational crime prevention ideas (Braga and Kennedy 2012; Skubak Tillyer and Kennedy 2008). Mapping focused deterrence actions onto the base situational prevention ideas of increasing the effort, increasing the risks, reducing rewards, reducing provocations, and removing excuses is helpful in understanding the crime prevention mechanisms that generate the observed crime reduction results. In this research paper, the emergence of pulling levers focused deterrence strategies to control gang violence and the application of these approaches to individual chronic offenders and overt drug markets is discussed within the context of third-party policing. The crime control mechanisms that seem to be associated with puller levers programs are discussed within the situational crime prevention framework.

The Emergence Of Pulling Levers Focused Deterrence Strategies

Pioneered in Boston to halt youth violence, the focused deterrence framework has been applied in many American cities, in part through federally sponsored violence prevention programs such as the Strategic Alternatives to Community Safety Initiative, Project Safe Neighborhoods, and the Drug Market Initiative. In its simplest form, the approach consists of selecting a particular crime problem, such as youth homicide; convening an interagency working group of law enforcement practitioners; conducting research to identify key offenders, groups, and behavior patterns; framing a response to offenders and groups of offenders that uses a varied menu of sanctions (known as “pulling levers”) to stop them from continuing their violent behavior; focusing social services and community resources on targeted offenders and groups to match law enforcement prevention efforts; focusing community normative expressions on targeted offenders and groups; and directly and repeatedly communicating with offenders to make them understand why they are receiving this special attention and what the special attention comprises (Kennedy 1997).

The Boston Gun Project was a problem-oriented policing enterprise expressly aimed at taking on a serious, large-scale crime problem – homicide victimization among young people in Boston in the 1990s. The trajectory of the Boston Gun Project, and the resulting Operation Ceasefire intervention, is by now well-known and extensively documented (see, e.g., Kennedy et al. 1996; Braga et al. 2001). Briefly, a working group of law enforcement personnel, youth workers, and Harvard researchers diagnosed the youth violence problem in Boston as one of patterned, largely vendetta-like hostility among a small population of chronic offenders and particularly among those involved in 61 loose, informal, mostly neighborhood-based “gangs.” These 61 gangs consisted of some 1,300 members, representing less than 1 % of the city’s youth between the ages of 14 and 24. Although small in number, these gangs were responsible for more than 60 % of youth homicide in Boston.

The ability of the City of Boston to deliver a meaningful violence prevention intervention was created by convening an interagency working group of line-level personnel with decision-making power that could assemble a wide range of incentives and disincentives (Braga et al. 2002). In addition to the Harvard research team, the Ceasefire Working Group was specifically comprised of members from the Boston Police Department’s Youth Violence Strike Force; US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); US Attorney’s Office (federal prosecutors), Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office (local prosecutors), Massachusetts

Department of Probation, Massachusetts Department of Parole, Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (juvenile corrections), Boston School Police, City of Boston youth outreach workers, and Boston TenPoint Coalition activist black clergy. As needed, Massachusetts State Police, US Drug Enforcement Administration, Youth Service Providers Network, Boston Public Schools, and other agencies were also involved in particular interventions. It was also important to place on the group a locus of responsibility for reducing violence. Prior to the creation of the Ceasefire Working Group, no one in Boston was directly responsible for developing and implementing a comprehensive strategy for reducing violence (Braga et al. 2002).

The Operation Ceasefire focused deterrence strategy was designed to prevent violence by reaching out directly to gangs, saying explicitly that violence would no longer be tolerated, and backing up that message by “pulling every lever” legally available when violence occurred (Kennedy 1997). The chronic involvement of gang members in a wide variety of offenses made them, and the gangs they formed, vulnerable to a coordinated criminal justice response. The authorities could disrupt street drug activity, focus police attention on low-level street crimes such as trespassing and public drinking, serve outstanding warrants, cultivate confidential informants for medium-and long-term investigations of gang activities, deliver strict probation and parole enforcement, seize drug proceeds and other assets, ensure stiffer plea bargains and sterner prosecutorial attention, request stronger bail terms (and enforce them), and bring potentially severe federal investigative and prosecutorial attention to gang-related drug and gun activity.

Simultaneously, youth workers, probation and parole officers, and later churches and other community groups offered gang members services and other kinds of help. These partners also delivered an explicit message that violence was unacceptable to the community and that “street” justifications for violence were mistaken. The Ceasefire Working Group delivered this message in formal meetings with gang members (known as “forums” or “call-ins”), through individual police and probation contacts with gang members, through meetings with inmates at secure juvenile facilities in the city, and through gang outreach workers. The deterrence message was not a deal with gang members to stop violence. Rather, it was a promise to gang members that violent behavior would evoke an immediate and intense response. If gangs committed other crimes but refrained from violence, the normal workings of police, prosecutors, and the rest of the criminal justice system dealt with these matters. But if gang members hurt people, the working group concentrated its enforcement actions on their gangs.

The Ceasefire “crackdowns” were not designed to eliminate gangs or stop every aspect of gang activity but to control and deter serious violence. To do this, the working group explained its actions against targeted gangs to other gangs, as in “this gang did violence, we responded with the following actions, and here is how to prevent anything similar from happening to you.” The ongoing working group process regularly watched the city for outbreaks of gang violence and framed any necessary responses in accord with the Ceasefire strategy. As the strategy unfolded, the working group continued communication with gangs and gang members to convey its determination to stop violence, to explain its actions to the target population, and to maximize both voluntary compliance and the strategy’s deterrent power.

A large reduction in the yearly number of Boston youth homicides followed immediately after Operation Ceasefire was implemented in mid-1996. A US Department of Justice (DOJ)sponsored evaluation of Operation Ceasefire revealed that the intervention was associated with a 63 % decrease in the monthly number of Boston youth homicides, a 32 % decrease in the monthly number of shots-fired calls, a 25 % decrease in the monthly number of gun assaults, and, in one high-risk police district given special attention in the evaluation, a 44 % decrease in the monthly number of youth gun assault incidents (Braga et al. 2001). The evaluation also suggested that Boston’s significant youth homicide reduction associated with Operation Ceasefire was distinct when compared to youth homicide trends in most major US and New England cities (Braga et al. 2001).

The assertion that pulling levers focused deterrence strategies generate noteworthy violence prevention gains has been strengthened by subsequent replications of the Boston experience. A number of cities have experimented with the pulling levers framework to control gang violence and experienced some very encouraging results. Consistent with the problem-oriented policing approach, these cities have tailored the approach to fit their violence problems and operating environments. Quasi-experimental research designs have revealed noteworthy violence prevention gains in East Los Angeles, California (Tita et al. 2004); Indianapolis, Indiana (McGarrell et al. 2006); Lowell, Massachusetts (Braga et al. 2008); and Stockton, California (Braga 2008).

The emergence of the pulling levers focused deterrence approach to controlling violent gangs and other criminally active groups can be most directly traced to the increasing use of problem-oriented policing and situational crime prevention techniques by police departments over the course of the 1990s to address violent crime problems. The devastating harms generated by the 1990s youth violence epidemic helped to push criminal justice agencies, especially police departments, toward developing innovative violence prevention strategies (Weisburd and Braga 2006). However, like third-party policing more broadly, it is important to recognize that the development of pulling levers strategies can also be placed in the context of a regulatory shift in policing that occurred during the 1990s which flowed from a changing climate of governance and regulation as well as a blurring of civil and criminal laws (Mazerolle and Ransley 2005). As will be discussed further below, the formation of interagency working groups that seek to regulate the behavior of high-risk groups through the routine application of enforcement levers mirrors the creation of an actuarial system, where the public police are one node in a network, responsible for identifying and managing risks.

Applying Pulling Levers Focused Deterrence To Individual Offenders

A variation of the Boston model was applied to individual offenders in Chicago, Illinois as part of the US Department of Justice-sponsored Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) initiative (Papachristos et al. 2007). Gunand ganginvolved parolees returning to selected highly dangerous Chicago neighborhoods went through “call-ins” where they were informed of their vulnerability as felons to federal firearms laws, with stiff mandatory minimum sentences; offered social services; and addressed by community members and ex-offenders. A quasi-experimental evaluation showed a neighborhood-level homicide reduction impact of 37 % (Papachristos et al. 2007). Individual-level effects were remarkable. For offenders with gun priors but no evidence of gang involvement, for example, attendance at a call-in reduced return to prison at around 5 years from release from about half to about 10 % (Fagan et al. 2008).

Applying Pulling Levers Focused Deterrence To Overt Drug Markets

There is less experience in applying the focused deterrence approach to other crime and disorder problems. In High Point, North Carolina, a focused deterrence strategy was aimed at eliminating public forms of drug dealing such as street markets and crack houses by warning dealers, buyers, and their families that enforcement is imminent (Kennedy 2009). With individual “overt” drug markets as the unit of work, the project employed a joint police-community partnership to identify individual offenders, notify them of the consequences of continued dealing, provide supportive services through a community-based resource coordinator, and convey an uncompromising community norm against drug dealing. This application of focused deterrence is generally referred to as the “Drug Market Intervention” (DMI) strategy.

The DMI seeks to shut down overt drug markets entirely (Kennedy 2009). Enforcement powers are used strategically and sparingly, employing arrest and prosecution only against violent offenders and when nonviolent offenders have resisted all efforts to get them to desist and to provide them with help. Through the use of “banked” cases, the strategy makes the promise of law enforcement sanctions against dealers extremely direct and credible, so that dealers are in no doubt concerning the consequences of offending and have good reason to change their behavior. The strategy also brings powerful informal social control to bear on dealers from immediate family and community figures. The strategy organizes and focuses services, help, and support on dealers so that those who are willing have what they need to change their lives. Each operation also includes a maintenance strategy.

A preliminary assessment of the High Point DMI found noteworthy reductions in drug and violent crime in the city’s West End neighborhood (Frabutt et al. 2004). A more rigorous evaluation of the High Point DMI is currently being conducted. Quasi-experimental evaluations of a similar DMI strategy in Rockford, Illinois (Corsaro et al. 2009), and Nashville, Tennessee (Corsaro et al. 2010), found noteworthy crime prevention gains associated with the approach. Study findings suggest that the DMI strategy generates statistically significant and substantive reductions in crime, drug, and nuisance offenses in the targeted neighborhoods.

The Links Between Third-Party Policing, Situational Crime Prevention, And Pulling Levers Focused Deterrence Strategies

Third-party policing and pulling levers focused deterrence strategies are strongly linked as both approaches seek to harness the crime control and prevention work of the police to a network of third-party partners. As suggested by Braithwaite (2000), recent transformations of governance in Western democracies have resulted in a move toward networks of power and away from state sovereignty and control. These broader societal changes have influenced crime control and policing by “changing the focus from state responsibility for preventing and correcting criminal behavior to a system where crime control and prevention networks are responsible for identifying and managing risks” (Mazerolle and Ransley 2006, p. 193). In pulling levers strategies, police work within a “network of capacity” to prevent gang and group-involved violence (Moore 2002; Braga and Winship 2006). These networks are well positioned to control risky group behavior because criminal justice agencies, community groups, and social service agencies coordinate and combine their efforts in ways that magnify their separate crime reduction effects.

When implemented properly, pulling levers focused deterrence strategies combine the “top-down” approach to crime control and prevention suggested by the third-party policing perspective with the “grassroots” approach of careful analysis and response development suggested by situational crime prevention and problem-oriented policing perspectives. As documented by Mazerolle and Ransley (2006), third-party policing initiatives often, but not exclusively, occur in the context of situational crime prevention and problem-oriented policing projects. In Boston, for instance, the Ceasefire Working Group represented a system of decentralized networks of governmental and nongovernmental agencies that mobilized to prevent and control outbreaks of serious gang violence. At the same time, the Ceasefire Working Group members carefully analyzed the nature of gang disputes and the vulnerabilities of the gangs involved to a variety of sanctions and implemented a set of violence reduction actions that were customized to the targeted gangs.

Situational crime prevention and problem-oriented policing are analytic approaches that have often, either explicitly or implicitly, taken the position that traditional law enforcement is not a desirable option in dealing with recurring crime problems (Goldstein 1990; Clarke 1997). Although situational crime prevention and pulling levers focused deterrence strategies developed separately, these approaches are complements in crime prevention and control. Focused deterrence strategies involve many elements that, at face value, appear very traditional and are thus hard to see and understand in the new light in which these strategies seek to use them.

By identifying the links between the situational crime prevention and focused deterrence strategies, many of these new prevention ideas are made clearer to those seeking to these approaches to deal with crime problems. This remainder of this section builds upon prior work that locates focused deterrence approaches within a situational prevention framework (Braga and Kennedy 2012; Skubak Tillyer and Kennedy 2008).

Situational crime prevention and third-party policing strategies both seek to change criminal decision making. Third-party policing initiatives exploit the coercive nature of a range of alternative civil, criminal, and regulatory rules and laws levers to persuade (or force) the decision change. Put another way, the use of the law within third-party policing interventions is a coercive way to alter offender decisions, whereas situational crime prevention interventions seem to encourage offenders to make a more rational decision by weighing the risks and benefits of committing a crime. The common ground in influencing offender decisions shared by these two perspectives is evident in the discussion below. The core situational crime prevention areas of increasing the effort, increasing risks, reducing rewards, reducing provocations, and removing excuses provide a familiar and easy-to-understand framework to summarize the varying crime prevention mechanisms at work in pulling levers focused deterrence strategies. The discussion below is also limited to decisions to commit a criminal act, such as committing a gun homicide, rather than decisions to become involved in crime or decisions to persist or desist from criminal offending (Cornish and Clarke 2003).

Increasing Risk

Deterrence theory posits that crimes can be prevented when the costs of committing the crime are perceived by the offender to outweigh the benefits (Zimring and Hawkins 1973). Most discussions of the deterrence mechanism distinguish between “general” and “special” deterrence (Cook 1980). General deterrence is the idea that the general population is dissuaded from committing crime when it sees that punishment necessarily follows the commission of a crime. Special deterrence involves punishment administered to criminals with the intent to discourage them from committing crimes in the future. Much of the literature evaluating deterrence focuses on the effect of changing certainty, swiftness, and severity of punishment associated with certain acts on the prevalence of those crimes (see, e.g., Apel and Nagin 2011). Pulling levers focused deterrence strategies honor core deterrence ideas, such as increasing risks faced by offenders, while finding new and creative ways of deploying traditional and nontraditional law enforcement tools to do so, such as directly communicating incentives and disincentives to targeted offenders (Kennedy 1997, 2009).

Increasing the risks faced by offenders to change their decisions to commit particular crimes is a central idea in both frameworks. Pulling levers strategies aimed at “gangs,” for example, are designed to alter the objective sanction environment by increasing enforcement risks faced by groups of offenders and accurately and directly communicating that change to a specific population of offenders in a manner that enhances the legitimacy of the strategy. Ongoing intelligence analysis reduces the anonymity of offending groups in the commission of their crimes. Triggering events, such as committing a homicide, result in a swift and certain enforcement response by law enforcement coupled with informal sanctions by community members intended to weaken pro-offending norms. Partnering criminal justice agencies mobilize a varied set of sanctions that are tailored to the specific crime dynamics associated with the offending group and to the varied offending behaviors of the individuals that comprise the targeted group. Beyond halting crime outbreaks by groups, the pulling levers focused deterrence strategy seeks to prevent further offending by making it risky for criminal group members to encourage pro-offending norms and narratives within their social networks.

In addition, more traditional situational crime prevention techniques are often implemented as part of the core pulling levers work in practice.

Extending guardianship, assisting natural surveillance, strengthening formal surveillance, reducing the anonymity of offenders, and utilizing place managers can greatly enhance the range and the quality of the varying enforcement and regulatory levers that can be pulled on offending groups and key actors in criminal networks. In High Point, North Carolina, the interagency working group conducted call-ins with landlords of drug houses to ensure that these place managers dealt with drug problems on their properties immediately or face certain and swift law enforcement and civil code violation penalties. Similarly, the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence, a multiagency community collaborative effort to apply focused deterrence principles to reduce group-based violence, used civil forfeiture techniques to close down a highly problematic bar that generated recurring serious violence.

A particularly interesting development within focused deterrence is the realization that the “guardians” so central to traditional situational crime prevention can themselves be offenders: who nonetheless can be brought to exercise powerful influences over other offenders. For instance, in Lowell, the interagency working group recognized that they could systematically prevent street violence among Asian street gangs by targeting the gambling interests of older, influential members. When a street gang was violent, the Lowell Police targeted the gambling businesses run by the older members of the gang. The enforcement activities ranged from serving a search warrant on the business that houses the illegal enterprise and making arrests to simply placing a patrol car in front of the suspected gambling location to deter gamblers from entering. The working group coupled these tactics with the delivery of a clear message, “when the gang kids associated with you act violently, we will shut down your gambling business. When violence erupts, no one makes money” (Braga et al. 2006, p. 40). These possibilities have led to the idea of deliberately mobilizing even serious offenders as “intimate handlers” of other offenders along particular dimensions of their offending portfolio.

Reducing Rewards

In many cities facing serious gun violence problems, chronic disputes among gangs and other criminally active groups generate the bulk of homicides and nonfatal shootings (Braga et al. 2002). These disputes are often personal and vendetta-like. In these settings, violence and a willingness to be violent often confer a very desirable status on particular members within group memberships and hierarchies. The rewards of violent behavior further encourage proof-fending norms and narratives within these criminal relationships and networks. Pulling levers strategies attempt to reverse this problem by associating swift and certain negative consequences with behaviors, such as committing homicides and shootings, that once enhanced the reputation of individuals within a group and the group itself. The communication strategies explicitly make a “cause and effect” link between the actions of interagency working groups and the targeted criminal behavior by the group.

Pulling levers focused deterrence strategies have extended the concept of denying the benefits of crime beyond those accrued by individual offenders to include these powerful group processes associated with repeat violent offending (Skubak Tillyer and Kennedy 2008). Nonetheless, there is considerable overlap and cross-fertilization between focused deterrence strategies and the various intervention ideas associated with particular situational prevention actions designed to reduce the rewards associated with offending. Ideas involving concealing and removing targets can be seen in the efforts of interagency working groups to use enforcement strategies, such as enhancing and monitoring probation conditions to limit their presence in high-risk places at high-risk times, and community-based actions, such as peace walks through gang turfs, to alter the presence of gang members in public places who are often the “targets” of retaliatory violence. Disrupting illegal drug markets can also produce desirable reward-reducing effects that can counter outbreaks of violence. Limiting the ability of group members to earn money when violence erupts can certainly reduce any benefits accrued to the group by violent behavior. Ideally, the violence that once won the respect of other group members would now bring anger and disassociation by one’s peers.

Reducing Provocation

In pulling levers strategies, deterrent messages are framed to address the group context from which many crime problems emerge. The groups themselves can act as another internal communication vehicle for transmitting the actual sanction risk to other offenders. As Skubak Tillyer and Kennedy (2008) describe, meaningful enforcement actions and scrutiny by law enforcement agencies can leverage the rationality of group members to no longer encourage norms that provoke the outbreaks of violence. The citywide communication of the antiviolence message, coupled with meaningful examples of the consequences that will be brought to bear on groups that break the rules, can weaken or eliminate the “kill or be killed” norm as individuals recognize that their enemies will be operating under the new rules as well.

This perspective on reducing group-based provocations to commit violence developed as the Boston Gun Project unfolded. A central hypothesis within the working group was the idea that a meaningful period of substantially reduced youth violence might serve as a “firebreak” and result in a relatively long-lasting reduction in future youth violence (Kennedy et al. 1996). The idea was that youth violence in Boston had become a self-sustaining cycle among a relatively small number of youth, with objectively high levels of risk leading to nominally self-protective behavior such as gun acquisition and use, gang formation, tough “street” behavior, and the like: behavior that then became an additional input into the cycle of violence. If this cycle could be interrupted, a new equilibrium at a lower level of risk and violence might be established, perhaps without the need for continued high levels of either deterrent or facilitative intervention. The larger hope was that a successful intervention to reduce gang violence in the short term would have a disproportionate, sustainable impact in the long term.

Removing Excuses

Sampson et al. (1997) emphasize the capacity of a community to realize common values and regulate behavior within it through cohesive relationships and mutual trust among residents. They argue that the key factor determining whether crime will flourish is a sense of the “collective efficacy” of a community. A community with strong collective efficacy is characterized by high capacities for collective action for the public good. Pulling levers focused deterrence strategies enhance collective efficacy in communities by emphasizing the importance of engaging and enlisting community members in the strategies developed. The High Point DMI strategy, for example, drew upon collective efficacy principles by engaging family, friends, and other “influential” community members in addressing the criminal behaviors of local drug dealers (Kennedy 2009).

Community-based action in pulling levers strategies helps to remove the excuses used by offenders to explain away their responsibility for the targeted behavior. In call-ins and on the street, community members effectively invalidate the excuses for criminal behavior by challenging the norms and narratives that point to racism, poverty, injustice, and the like. In Boston, for example, black clergy challenged gang members who attempted to use these excuses by countering that poverty, racism, and injustice were not linked to their decisions to fire shots in their neighborhoods and kill other young people who have experienced the same societal ills and life difficulties. Community members also work with law enforcement and social service agencies to set basic rules for group-involved offenders such as “don’t shoot guns” and, hopefully, to alert the conscience of these offenders by appealing to moral values inherent in taking the life of another, causing harm to their neighborhood, or the pain that would be experienced by their mothers if they were killed or sent to prison for a long time in a very far away location.

The social service component of focused deterrence strategies serves as an independent good and also helps to remove excuses used by offenders to explain their offending. Social service providers present an alternative to illegal behavior by offering relevant jobs and social services. The availability of these services invalidates excuses that their criminal behavior is the result of a lack of legitimate opportunities for employment, or other problems, in their neighborhood.

A recent elaboration of these ideas has been to use persons of standing to explicitly challenge the “street code” (Anderson 1999) that in many places drives much or most “street” violence. This code has identifiable, if unwritten, elements with powerful criminogenic implications: that early death is inevitable; jail and prison nothing to fear; disrespect must be met with violence; the enemy of my friend is my enemy; the failings of mainstream others justify violent offending; and the like. A long sociology of “techniques of neutralization” (Matza 1964) puts such exculpatory norms at the center of the etiology of street violence. When, for example, “original gangsters” respected by current offenders undercut such norms, it may in turn undercut felt justification for violence and other offending.

Situational crime prevention also seeks to reduce offending by making it easier for potential offenders to comply with laws and rules. Focused deterrence strategies also do so, in some very particular ways. To the extent that street norms stand against compliance, altering them for the better facilitates compliance: the law stands against violence, but the street honor code promotes it, so vitiating the honor code makes it easier to obey the law. Many potentially violent offenders do not wish to be violent but are under very real peer pressure to be so; undercutting and even reversing group and network dynamics make it easier for them to back off. Strengthening community norms against offending makes it easier to resist both internal and external pressure to offend. The original Boston project framed this “honorable exit” from violent offending as a possible consequence of changes in objective sanction risks and group dynamics.

A recent and potentially very important strain in focused deterrence thinking has focused explicitly on the gulf, often explicitly racialized, in the “norms and narratives” of law enforcement, affected communities, and offenders. These gulfs, rooted in historical and present experiences, understandings, and misunderstandings, can have powerful impacts on the ways in which these parties understand each other and on the perceived legitimacy of law enforcement, law, and informal rules and standards. If law enforcement is seen by the community and offender groups as a deliberate racial oppressor, for example, it will be difficult for community norms to support stands against drug dealing and easier for offenders to break the drug laws. If those norms and narratives are effectively addressed – which usually includes changes in actual behavior on both sides – it becomes easier for community standards to support compliance, easier for offenders to comply, and harder for them not to (Kennedy 2009; Meares 2009; Tyler 1990).

These developments draw heavily on a rich literature addressing the “legitimacy” of law enforcement in the eyes of those subject to the law (Meares 2009; Tyler 1990). Very interestingly, one of the core findings in that literature is that even offenders obey the law most of the time. This empirical fact, of considerable theoretical and practical significance, stands in contrast to situational crime prevention’s establishing assumption of the “motivated offender”: the idea that we can take the presence of the impulse to offend as a given and for granted. That establishing assumption is just that – an assumption explicitly deployed as a way to break with traditional criminology’s pervasive and, for applied purposes not very helpful, search for the deep causal roots of individual offending. The emerging salience of legitimacy as an idea of profound practical significance could well lead to a reexamination, and refinement, of the idea of offending in situational crime prevention.

Increasing Effort

Situational crime prevention seeks to increase the effort a criminal must expend to complete a crime through a variety of specific actions such as target hardening, controlling access to facilities, screening exits, deflecting offenders, and controlling tools and weapons (Clarke 1997; Cornish and Clarke 2003). In preventing and responding to outbreaks of serious violence by groups of offenders, many of these situational actions can be used to good effect in developing a “thicker” response to the offending groups in question. Focused deterrence responses benefit from changing the environments in which gangs and drug crews congregate, commit lesser offenses together, and launch plans for retaliation. Gang members are well known to commit a wide array of crimes (known as “cafeteria-style offending”; see Klein 1995). Making it more difficult to sell drugs at specific places, commit burglaries and car breaks, and rob passersby can be a powerful deterrent response to particular groups of offenders who rely on these illicit opportunities to generate income. Disrupting the ability of groups to associate with each other in space and time, through, for instance, controlling access to and screening exit from public housing, can slow down group processes that facilitate violence and make it more difficult for rivals to locate other group members targeted for retaliatory shootings.

Focused deterrence strategies seek to create similar dynamics. Changes in group norms and in objective risks associated with particular forms of misbehavior may, for example, make it more difficult to recruit peers for particular instances of co-offending. Ethnographic research on illicit gun markets in Chicago has shown that gangs’ assessment of the law enforcement responses to gun violence leads them to withhold access to firearms for younger and more impulsive members (Cook et al. 2007). DMI’s goal of fundamentally disrupting overt drug markets can greatly enhance the difficulty of drug dealing: when buyers no longer routinely “cruise” once active markets, even a motivated street dealer may find it impossible to do business.


The evaluation evidence briefly presented in this research paper suggests that pulling levers focused deterrence strategies generate noteworthy crime reduction gains. A recently completed Campbell Collaboration systematic review identified eleven evaluations of pulling levers strategies (Braga and Weisburd 2012). The basic findings of this review were very positive; their main effect meta-analysis reported a statistically significant, medium-sized crime reduction effect associated with the reviewed programs. Nonetheless, the authors were concerned with the lack of rigorous randomized experimental evaluations of this promising approach. Only one of the reviewed interventions was tested using a randomized experimental design.

Despite their concerns over the lack of randomized experiments, Braga and Weisburd (2012) concluded that the findings of eligible focused deterrence evaluations fit well within existing research suggesting that deterrence-based strategies, if applied correctly, can reduce crime (Apel and Nagin 2011). The pulling levers approach seems to have the desirable characteristic of altering offenders’ perceptions of sanction risk. Braga and Weisburd (2012) also noted, however, that pulling levers strategies contained other complementary crime control mechanisms at work that needed to be highlighted and better understood. Applying pulling levers actions to the core set of base situational prevention ideas is very helpful in unraveling the varied pathways through which these programs produce the observed crime reduction impacts.

While originally developed from a problem-oriented project, pulling levers focused deterrence approaches share some direct links with third-party policing initiatives. The successful application of pulling levers strategies to high-risk groups, individuals, or places is heavily reliant on the coordinated actions of a network of criminal justice, social service, and community-based agencies. The police are an important, but singular, node within this network. Pulling levers strategies seek to change the behavior of targeted groups and individuals by engaging a wide range of incentives and disincentives; drawing on third-party policing activities, these “levers” can include the application of criminal and civil laws and be supported through the formation of willing (and unwilling) partnerships.


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