Examining the Empirical Realities of Proactive Policing Through Systematic Observations and Computer-Aided Dispatch Data

AuthorCynthia Lum,Megan Stoltz,William Johnson,Xiaoyun Wu,Christopher S. Koper
Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
Examining the
2020, Vol. 23(3) 283–310
! The Author(s) 2020
Empirical Realities
Article reuse guidelines:
of Proactive Policing
DOI: 10.1177/1098611119896081
Through Systematic
Observations and
Dispatch Data
Cynthia Lum
Christopher S. Koper, Xiaoyun Wu,
William Johnson, and Megan Stoltz
The 2017 National Academies of Sciences (NAS) Committee and Report on
Proactive Policing highlighted what we know about the effects of proactive policing
practices on crime prevention and police–community relations. However, the eval-
uation evidence reviewed by the NAS, which largely comes from case studies of
carefully managed proactive initiatives, does not provide a basis for estimating how
extensively these practices are used or whether they are used in the most effective
ways. Accordingly, it is unclear whether police proactivity as practiced on an every-
day basis reflects optimal strategies and implementation methods as recommended
by the NAS. This study addresses this knowledge gap by analyzing almost 2 million
computer-aided dispatch records from four agencies and systematically observing 84
officers for more than 180 hours to better understand the empirical realities of
police proactivity. The findings indicate a major difference between the types of
proactive interventions supported by research and the practice of everyday police
George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Cynthia Lum, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University, 4400 University
Drive, MS 6D12, Fairfax, VA 22030, USA.
Email: clum@gmu.edu

Police Quarterly 23(3)
proactivity. Specifically, proactive policing practices are limited in scope and are often
implemented in less than optimal ways. A large proportion of proactive activities are
also not recorded, rewarded, or supervised, indicating that patrol commanders may
have little control over, or awareness of, proactive deployment. From an evidence-
based policing perspective, much more effort is needed to record and track proac-
tivity to measure its impacts (both positive and negative) and align it with what we
now know about effective proactive activity from research.
policing, proactive, evidence-based, patrol, traffic stops
One of the most significant reforms in modern policing has been the push for police
to be more proactive and preventative. The recent National Academies of Sciences
(NAS, 2018) Committee on Proactive Policing formally defined proactivity as:
strategies that have as one of their goals the prevention or reduction of crime and
disorder and that are not reactive in terms of focusing primarily on uncovering
ongoing crime or on investigating or responding to crimes once they have occurred.
(pp. 1, 30)
Thus, in its simplist form, proactive policing includes law enforcement
officers’ actions to reduce crime and disorder or improve police–citizen relation-
ships outside of their responses to 911 calls or dispatcher requests for backup or
administrative duties. Proactivity might include, for example, conducting traffic
stops in a high-accident location to reduce speeding and prevent future crashes,
approaching a suspicious or high-risk individual for questioning or supervision,
providing visible presence in a high crime area to deter would-be offenders,
problem-solving with residents to prevent future problems from occuring, or work-
ing with children to teach them how not to be victims of crime. Proactive policing
need not be particularly innovative. However, well-known policing innovations in
the last four decades are indicative of this approach and have included community-
oriented policing, problem-oriented policing, intelligence-led policing, place-based
or “hot spots” approaches, focused deterrence initiatives (i.e., “ceasefire” or
“pulling levers” approaches), the so-called broken windows approach (sometimes
referred to as zero-tolerance policing or disorder policing), policing with procedural
justice, and traffic initiatives intended to prevent accidents, drunk driving, or even
crime (i.e., the “DDACTS” program1).
After reviewing the research on these programs, the NAS committee2 con-
cluded that these types of proactive activities—with important caveats and

Lum et al.
exceptions—can be important to law enforcement’s ability to prevent and
reduce crime and improve community satisfaction. The committee’s conclusion
was primarily based on a large body of existing evaluation research that has
examined the programmatic interventions aforementioned. Despite these find-
ings, the everyday reality of police proactivity is actually not well understood
and may differ from the proactivity examined by the NAS. Many of the pro-
active interventions that the NAS committee reviewed were developed primarily
as special initiatives and for the purposes of research and evaluation. However,
we do not know whether those interventions are practiced regularly by law
enforcement agencies or what other types of proactivity might be deployed on
a day-to-day basis. The committee also considered the possibility of negative
consequences of certain types of proactive activities. But without knowing to
what extent and how those activities are practiced, the nature of those conse-
quences remain elusive.
In this study, we examine the nature of proactivity as practiced, inquiring
whether that practice is aligned with how researchers and their practitioner
partners have envisioned and studied police proactivity. To answer this ques-
tion, this study uses a combination of systematic observations, interviews,
and data analysis to examine the types, frequencies, and dosages of proactive
policing activities in daily patrol work. The results are provocative; the realities
of proactive policing are starkly different and much more limited compared to
the proactivity that is studied in the evaluation research. Specifically, police
primarily operationalize proactivity through traffic stops and generalized pre-
ventative patrol, rather than the variety of proactive interventions presented by
the NAS. Officers also do not record their proactive activities with the same
consistency and detail as their reactive activities, leaving both researchers and
practitioners at a disadvantage in terms of tracking, measuring, and adjusting
proactive deployment. Given the NAS’s recommendations, reconciling these
disconnects between research knowledge and how proactivity is practiced will
be an essential translational step in improving the fair and effective implemen-
tation of evidence-based, proactive innovations.
Everyday Proactivity—A Knowledge and Measurement Gap
One needs only to attend an International Association of Chiefs of Police
annual conference, read The Police Chief Magazine, or sit in on a “Compstat”
or community meeting to see that police leaders want their officers to be more
proactive and prevention-oriented. Police chiefs will often remark that making
arrests and reacting to calls for service are no longer enough to address the
myriad concerns that law enforcement agencies face. This push for more
police proactivity has not only been fostered by police leaders but has also
been supported by a large body of research (see reviews by Lum & Koper,
2017; National Research Council, 2004; NAS, 2018; Sherman & Eck, 2002;

Police Quarterly 23(3)
Weisburd & Eck, 2004). Overall, this body of research has found that tailored
and focused strategies that target specific high-risk places or people using pro-
active and problem-solving approaches can be effective in reducing crime and
disorder, at least in the short run. In addition, other proactive tactics that are
more community-centric may not necessarily lead to immediate crime reduc-
tions but can be essential to improving police legitimacy, community satisfaction
with police activities, and procedural justice (see Gill, Weisburd, Telep, Vitter, &
Bennett, 2014).
The generally positive evaluation research about the effectiveness of proac-
tive interventions comes with important caveats. The NAS Committee on
Proactive Policing warned that some types of proactive policing could have
unintended effects. These effects can include prompting negative reactions
from communities; failing to impact crime, disorder, and fear; increasing the
risk of harm to citizens and officers; creating unwanted disparities; or even
violating constitutional rights (NAS, 2018). For example, misdemeanor
broken-windows arrest strategies or pre-textual traffic stops3 can be overused
in aggressive ways which could result in racial and ethnic disparities in both
criminal and social justice outcomes. Some community policing strategies once
thought to prevent crime may have little effect on crime and disorder and may
cost taxpayers large sums of money (a well-known example being drug abuse
resistance education programs or “DARE”). Other proactive approaches, such
as pedestrian stops, could be used in targeted and limited ways for crime control
gains, but, at the same time, may reduce the legitimacy of the police, especially
among communities of color.
The research knowledge reviewed by the NAS about police proactivity pri-
marily comes from evaluations of ad hoc and often short-lived interventions,
programs, strategies, or tactics, many of which were developed for research and
evaluation or were special law enforcement initiatives evaluated after the fact.
This research is important, as it provides agencies with ideas to shape their

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