The spatial concentration of crime and victimization at geographic locations is a well known and robust empirical finding within criminology. Several studies have indicated that crime is concentrated at micro places such as street addresses, segments, and block groups (Sherman, Gartin, and Buerger 1989; Weisburd et al. 2004), and evaluations of place-based policing tactics at micro places indicate that geographically focused policing tactics are a promising crime reduction strategy (Braga 2001; Weisburd and Eck 2004). The implementation of such micro place policing strategies was guided, in part, by the empirical finding of crime concentration at places and theoretical insights from situational crime prevention theory, routine activities theory, and the ecology of crime literature (Skogan and Frydl 2004; Weisburd and Eck 2004).
As a result, many policing scholars have noted that the police are more likely to make observable impacts on crime when they target the criminal event itself and the environmental conditions that allow for it to occur, rather than targeting the development of the individual criminal offender (Weisburd 1997). Although criminal activity is concentrated at a larger level of geography as well, such as communities or neighborhoods (Shaw and McKay 1942/1969), the policing literature has not yet fully incorporated theoretical insights from the social disorganization literature in the research on policing of larger units of place.
This article discusses the relevance and implications of social disorganization theory for the policing of community-level areas characterized by structural and social disadvantage. Social disorganization theory and policing are linked through such concepts as procedural justice and legitimacy. Research from the social disorganization literature has shown that communities characterized by concentrated disadvantage (that is, extreme structural and social disadvantages such as poverty, public assistance, high percentage of female heads of household, unemployment, percentage of youth) influence the formation of individual perceptions regarding the legitimacy of the police and the extent of criminal activity within the area (Kubrin and Weitzer 2003a). In the sections that follow, I review social disorganization theory and several key insights and discuss the implications of those insights for policing areas of concentrated disadvantage, most notably the importance of perceptions of favorable police legitimacy and procedural justice.
Social Disorganization Theory
Social disorganization theory is among the oldest and most prominent of criminologi-cal theories. Originating in the 1930s from the influential Chicago School, Shaw and McKay (1942/1969) developed an ecological theory of delinquency based on the finding that high rates of delinquency remained stable over time in certain neighborhoods regardless of changes in the racial or ethnic composition of residents. Social disorganization refers to the inability of a community to regulate the activities that occur within its boundaries, the consequences of which are high rates of criminal activity and social disorder (Kornhauser 1978; Sampson and Raudenbush 1999; Markowitz et al. 2001).
Structural disadvantages such as population heterogeneity, residential instability, and poor economic conditions hinder the formation of community cohesion by limiting informal social networks and weakening a community’s ability to exercise effective informal social control over the activities that occur within its boundaries. The focus in social disorganization theory is on the dynamics of criminogenic places, and how such contexts influence and impact individual behavior as well as community-level cohesion and behavior.
There have been several revisions and extensions to the original social disorganization theory put forth by Shaw and McKay. In particular, scholars began to clearly articulate and measure the intervening mechanisms by which neighborhood structural disadvantages lead to increased criminal activity (Bursik 1988; Sampson and Groves 1989; Bursik and Grasmick 1993; Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls 1997). In an influential test of the intervening mechanisms of social disorganization theory, Sampson and Groves (1989) found that a neighborhood’s informal social control abilities (for example, ability to supervise and control teenage peer groups, strength of local friendship networks, and rate of participation in voluntary associations) substantially mediates the relationship between structural disadvantage and crime and victimization rates.
More recent studies have noted the distinction between the presence and type of informal social relationships within communities (Kubrin and Weitzer 2003a). For example, the presence of informal social networks within communities is beneficial for crime reduction in so much as they result in strong community cohesion and solidarity between residents that is pro-social in nature and results in both the desire and resources necessary to obtain collective valued goals. Several researchers have appropriately noted that we cannot assume that all informal social networks are created equally and that the nature of the network greatly dictates the nature of the potential resources and outcomes (Kubrin and Weitzer 2003a).
Further refinements to social disorganization theory include distinguishing between the presence of informal social networks and the potential resources or outcomes that are derived from involvement in such networks (Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls 1997). Concepts such as social capital and collective efficacy reflect the valuable resources generated from involvement in social networks and refer to the degree of mutual trust and cohesion between community members and their ability to work cooperatively toward collective goals (Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls 1997).
In one of the most statistically sophisticated tests, Sampson and colleagues (1997) found that after controlling for individual-level traits and neighborhood-level concentrated disadvantage, collective efficacy was negatively related to neighborhood-level violence. In addition, other studies have observed that there is a positive association between crime and social disorder, and the mediating effects of collective efficacy between structure and crime also applies to the relationship between structure and disorder. The former suggests that social disorder has a causal impact on crime, the latter suggests that disorder and crime reflect the same underlying process at different levels of severity (Skogan 1990; Sampson and Raudenbush 1999; Markowitz et al. 2001). Moreover, concentrated disadvantage was negatively associated with collective efficacy, indicating that areas with structural and social disadvantages are less able to form the informal social networks necessary to generate cohesion and a willingness to obtain collective goals.
It is important to note that exact causal paths and directions linking structural traits, informal social networks and community cohesion, fear of crime, and disorder and crime are debatable, as many of these variables can theoretically impact each other simultaneously, indicating joint causation. For example, few studies have adequately examined the possibility that not only do social disorder and decay lead to low social cohesion but that low social cohesion also impacts the presence of social disorder (Markowitz et al. 2001; Kubrin and Weitzer 2003).
Further improvements to social disorganization theory include focusing on social networks between the community and external local institutions, such as the police, as social networks important for shaping the nature of the dynamics as well as the strength of informal social control within communities (Bursik and Grasmick 1993; Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls 1997; Kubrin and Weitzer 2003a). Social networks that link community residents to outside conventional institutions provide residents with both normative and tangible resources to regulate criminal activity, and recent research has indicated that public social networks may provide the greatest crime reducing benefits for disadvantaged communities (Velez 2001).
Using data from the Police Services Study, Velez (2001) found that structurally disadvantaged communities that had strong relationships with the police, as measured by the quality and frequency of interaction with the police, had lower victimization rates than did disadvantaged communities that had weak ties to the police. There is much evidence indicating that residents living in areas of concentrated disadvantage have weaker networks and perceptions of legitimacy toward the police (Kubrin and Weitzer 2003b; Anderson 1999).
Legitimacy, Procedural Justice, and Policing
Perceptions of legitimacy toward the police refers to the degree to which residents view the police as fair, just, and appropriate (Tyler 1990). Police legitimacy acts as a source of social control based on normative beliefs and represents the individual’s belief in or bond to conventional society. Perceptions of procedural justice, the belief that the police use fair and just procedures in interaction with citizens, are closely related to and in fact influence perceptions of legitimacy (Tyler 1990; Skogan and Frydl 2004).
Several scholars have argued that macro social factors resulted in the economic segregation of minorities into structurally disadvantaged areas, resulting in a clustering of multiple social and structural disadvantages within communities and an intense feeling of social segregation and isolation among residents of dis-advantaged communities (Wilson 1987; Sampson and Wilson 1995). According to Anderson’s (1999) ethnographic study of violence in inner-city ghettoes of Philadelphia, violence results from the void left by the declining significance of social institutions and conventional norms for those living in poverty and economic deprivation and the alienation these individuals feel from mainstream society. The resulting pattern of norms that arise is what Anderson calls the ”code of the street.” Thus, the code of the street arises as a result of a profound lack of legitimacy in conventional institutions such as the police and ”emerges where the influence of the police ends” (Anderson 1999, 34).
Sampson and Bartusch (1998) confirm this relationship between community structure and perceptions toward the police in their study of 8,782 residents of 343 Chicago area neighborhoods. They found that after accounting for individual socio-demographic traits (for example, race) and differences in crime rates, neighborhoods characterized by concentrated disadvantage, as compared to more affluent areas, had higher levels of dissatisfaction with the police and legal cynicism. Neighborhood structural traits shape the ”cognitive landscape” in which normative orientations and perceptions about the law are formed (Sampson and Bartusch 1998). Harsh structural conditions that result in social isolation lead to a feeling in which violence is inevitable and the police mistrusted and avoided.
As a result of evidence such as this, many social disorganization researchers have argued for the theoretical inclusion of subcultural factors to help explain the relationship between concentrated disadvantage and crime (Kubrin and Weitzer 2003; Sampson and Bartusch 1998). Structural contexts of social and economic disadvantage can attenuate individual-level normative values and bonds to conventional society, which create a lack of legitimacy and subsequent void in which competing norms and modes of conduct can develop. This is especially relevant for policing since the police are viewed as the law enforcement agency of conventional society and as representative of the dominant conventional culture (Anderson 1999; Easton and Dennis 1969; Tyler and Huo 2002).
Kubrin and Weitzer (2003b) state that perceptions of police practices in poor communities largely revolve around two themes related to police discretion, under-policing and overpolicing. Residents of poor communities largely perceive the police as providing insufficient protection from crime and victimization, noting that the police have little regard for the occurrences within their community (Kane 2005; Kubrin and Weitzer 2003b).
Conversely, perceptions of police services also tend to focus on the opposite end of the continuum, with several studies reporting that individuals from areas of disadvantage perceive high levels of police misconduct or overpolicing such as unwarranted traffic stops and searches, racial profiling, and verbal and physical abuse (Kubrin and Weitzer 2003b; Kane 2005). Overpolicing tactics such as racial profiling are also related to unfavorable perceptions of police legitimacy and procedural justice (Tyler and Wakslak 2005). Furthermore, since African Americans are overrepre-sented in communities of concentrated disadvantage, findings indicating that African Americans have unfavorable perceptions of police legitimacy are relevant for the policing of disadvantaged areas. Equally if not more important are emerging findings that suggest legitimacy and procedural justice perceptions are significantly associated with law breaking (Tyler 1990; Paternoster et al. 1997; Kane 2005).
Paternoster and colleagues (1997) reanalyzed data from the Milwaukee Domestic Violence Experiment to examine the impact of perceptions of procedural justice on the probability of future spouse assault. Their findings indicate that those offenders who felt as if they were treated fairly by the police had a lower number of rearrests, as compared to those offenders who reported low perceptions of procedural justice. In addition, after controlling for individual traits and prior offending, Paternoster and colleagues found that recidivism counts among those offenders that had been arrested but reported being treated fairly by the police were as low as those of offenders that had not been arrested but instead were released.
Additionally, findings from a study examining the relationship between variations in police legitimacy and violent crime at New York City police precincts from 1975 to 1996 (Kane 2005) found further support. Findings indicate that low police legitimacy, measured as police misconduct and underpolicing and overpolicing, is statistically related to violent crime rates, but only among those communities characterized by structural disadvantage.
This is not surprising, given prior research in the social disorganization literature linking concentrated disadvantage to both weak formal and informal social relationships within communities; more affluent communities likely have strong informal social networks, high levels of collective efficacy, and less need for formal social control mechanisms that result from relationships with the police. For communities with extreme structural and social disadvantages, the issue of police legitimacy is more salient, given the typical absence of strong prosocial intracommunity informal networks, and the crime reducing impacts of favorable perceptions of police legitimacy are greater (Velez 2001).
Policing tactics can be better informed by an understanding of the relationship between disadvantaged communities and the mistrust of authorities it fosters. Given the literature concerning the relationship between concentrated disadvantage and crime rates as well as perceptions of legitimacy, it is likely that policing tactics may have differential impacts, in terms of outcome effectiveness and citizen reactions, across degrees of neighborhood-level structural disadvantage.
For example, community-oriented policing (COP) tactics rely heavily on the support and cooperation of community residents in implementing crime and disorder reducing programs. The community and the police are seen as coproducers in the creation of community safety, order, and well-being (Moore 1992). There are several elements and goals of community policing, one of which requires the police to increase social interactions with community members and develop relationships with the community that facilitate the reduction of disorder and crime. Community policing also encourages community involvement in the defining and solution of community problems, but if perceptions of police illegitimacy lead to decreased involvement and willingness to become involved among residents, the application of COP tactics may be problematic.
Although the COP approach is promising for increasing perceptions of police legitimacy, it is important to note that there may be some difficulties associated with the application at neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage. There has been substantial literature on the difficulties of applying the COP model to police departments due to deeply rooted beliefs in the traditional model of policing (Weisburd and McElroy 1988); however, much less has been mentioned of the difficulties of applying the COP model to communities characterized by concentrated disadvantage.
Just as the normative, cultural, and organizational context of traditional policing made adoption of the seemingly equal role between police and community as crime fighters more difficult, it is likely that the normative, cultural, and structural context of extremely disadvantaged communities will result in reluctance to trust the police and resistance to increased interaction with the police. COP reflects an example of Bursik and Grasmick’s public network and thus represents the intersection of formal and informal social control in communities. Findings from the social disorganization literature suggest that approaches such as COP may face resistance from residents of structurally disadvantaged communities and that preexisting perceptions of low police legitimacy may be difficult to overcome in a short time and may in fact be exacerbated by increased police activity within the community.
The potential difficulties in implementing certain policing tactics in structurally disadvantaged communities is also applicable to policing tactics that are focused at micro places or reducing social disorder. Micro places such as street segments or addresses are situated within larger macro social contexts of the community and urban political economy; thus, it is likely that the environmental aspects, as well as situational aspects, of both the micro place and the community will matter for the commission or prevention of crime.
Additionally, ”hot spots” policing is tightly focused and targeted on small units of place, and this type of policing may perpetuate or contribute to perceptions of overpolicing and subsequent low police legitimacy (Tyler and Wakslak 2005). Similarly, order maintenance policies that seek to reduce crime by reducing perceived and observed social disorder, thereby reducing fear of crime and crime itself, are also susceptible to accusations of overpolicing, since zero tolerance policing tactics have the potential to be viewed as harassment and contribute to low levels of police legitimacy (Wilson and Kelling 1982; Skogan 1990; Skogan and Frdyl 2004).
In conclusion, findings from the social disorganization literature are relevant to the study of policing for several reasons. First, individuals living in areas of concentrated disadvantage are more likely to be dissatisfied with police services, have higher perceptions of legal cynicism, and hold less favorable perceptions about the procedural justice and legitimacy of the police (Sampson and Bartusch 1998; Anderson 1999; Sunshine and Tylor 2003; Kubrin and Weitzer 2003a, 2003b). Second, favorable perceptions of procedural justice and legitimacy toward the police are related to compliance with the law and lower crime rates (Tyler 1990; Paternoster et al. 1997; Kane 2005). Third, policing tactics such as community-oriented policing rely on garnering support from the community; thus, the effectiveness of these tactics is likely to vary by the degree of community disadvantage. Moreover, even policing tactics that are focused at the micro place level, and hence have less reliance on community support, are vulnerable to the ill effects of low police legitimacy, since these micro places are often embedded within larger macro social contexts that are characterized by concentrated disadvantage.
See also: Accountability; Attitudes toward the Police; Community-Oriented Policing: History; Crackdowns by the Police; Criminology; Minorities and the Police; Policing Multiethnic Communities; Quality-of-Life Policing; Zero Tolerance Policing.
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