• Laura Huey

Gun violence? There may be some research on that.

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

In the world of police science there are very few things of which we can state with any degree of certainty, nevermind confidence. Why? Simply because too many policies, programs and practices remain untested. That said, there are a few things for which we have a pretty decent evidence base. Hot spots policing, that darling of many police organizations, is one of them. Another is focused deterrence. I'm guessing that while many of you are familiar with hot spots, you may have much less familiarity with the concept of focused deterrence (or FD as I'm calling it, because I'm lazy).

What is this?

FD is a form of problem-oriented policing that uses deterrence-based strategies (disincentives), in combination with social service activities (incentives), to target specific types of offenders and/or offender groups and alter their behaviour. I like to call this a carrot and (big) stick approach.

“In the focused deterrence approach, the emphasis is on not only increasing the risk of offending but also decreasing opportunity structures for violence, deflecting offenders away from crime, increasing the collective efficacy of communities, and increasing the legitimacy of police actions” (Braga and Weisburd 2012: 22).

The whole concept is based on deterrence theory - one of the oldest criminological theories going.

Deterrence theory views individuals as rational actors, who choose opportunities (both criminal and non-criminal) that allow them to maximize benefits and minimize costs (such as the cost of punishment). In calculating costs versus benefits, potential offenders assess not only the likeliness of getting caught (‘certainty’), but also the swiftness of a legal response and the severity of the punishment. Programs built on deterrence theory use these concepts to tilt offenders’ risk calculations away from crime and towards non-offending behaviour.

certainty + swiftness + severity = deterrence

How do you do FD?

Police, prosecutors, bail and/or probation supervisors advise gang members they are under scrutiny. Gang members are notified at meetings and/or call-ins that there are new rules in place and if any of their members violate the new rules, they will all be subjected to proactive law enforcement (Kennedy 1997).

What is a FD working group?

An inter-agency and/or community-based network that works together to identify and target offenders by confronting them with a range of sanctions if they continue their behaviour, as well as alternate social services if they are willing to work to desist. Working group members directly and repeatedly communicate with offenders so that their messages are fully received and understood (Kennedy 2006). Messages are reinforced through meetings with community members speaking up to express their unwillingness to tolerate further violence, or with family members addressing the impact of an offender’s lifestyle on his or her family and friends.

Any examples?

The first and most well-known focused deterrence initiative was a Boston program called Operation Ceasefire, also frequently referred to by the term ‘Pulling Levers’ (Kennedy 1998).

Launched in the mid-1990s, the goal of Operation Ceasefire was to reduce the gun violence generated by that city’s gang activity. Gang members were notified directly by police and prosecutors in a series of meetings that the violence would no longer be tolerated and that, if new outbreaks occurred, the City would use every legal maneuver possible – ‘lever’ – to bring it to a quick end.

Researchers suggest that what this strategy of face-to-face meetings with offenders did was to alter offender perceptions of the risk of getting caught and the possible consequences of an arrest. To bolster the credibility of those delivering these messages, law enforcement engaged in proactive police work within gang territories. Such efforts have been described as the ‘hard’ side of focused deterrence (CEBCP 2016).

In 2001, Braga and his colleagues reported that Operation Ceasefire had generated a

  • 63% reduction in the monthly average of gang-related killings,

  • 32% decrease in the number of ‘shots fired’ calls to police, and

  • 25% reduction in the number of monthly gun assaults.

In later work, Braga et al. (2013) observed that Operation Ceasefire had not only reduced violence among those gangs that were the target of its operations, but also among other gangs that were not similarly targeted.

In a later meta-analysis of 11 published studies of focused deterrence programs, Braga and Weisburd (2012) concluded that these programs produced a medium to moderate effect on the crimes measured, such as gun assaults or homicides. Only one study, in Newark, did not produce statistically significant results.

So, if this stuff has been around for at least 20+ years, why aren't we doing it more often? Well, that's not a question for a researcher to answer.

*see Abt's Bleeding Out for why crackdowns are not always a bad thing and might bring your gun crime epidemic down to a dull roar.


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