OnPolicing Blog

Harm Reduction and 21st Century Policing

February 10, 2017

Tim Hegarty

Captain Tim Hegarty

Riley County (KS) Police Department

Tim Hegarty

Captain Tim Hegarty

Riley County (KS) Police Department

In their recent paper titled Reinventing American Policing, Cynthia Lum and Daniel Nagan lay out a blueprint for transforming 21st century policing in a way that makes the profession more effective in providing safety and security for the public while maintaining trust in the police by the public.

Their plan is based upon two guiding principles.

First, crime prevention should take priority over arrests, and second, how citizens perceive police efforts at crime prevention should be considered independently from the results of those efforts.

The paper itself is a must read for any police executive, but a critical point made by the authors about the evolution of policing might be easily overlooked.

They write:

The difficulty in pursuing these two principles is compounded by the policing’s complex organization and the many important responsibilities of the police that are not directly related to crime control (e.g., traffic safety, responding to medical emergencies, dealing with disputes and conflicts, and assisting mentally ill and homeless citizens). Balancing these two principles means doing so within the context of these activities, not outside of them.

Lum and Nagan are not suggesting that the police shoulder these non-crime responsibilities alone but rather that the police are now expected to at least share a role in helping to address many such circumstances and events that are harmful to a community.

This concept has been labeled “harm-focused” policing by Jerry Ratcliffe, and it had its origins in Lawrence’s Sherman’s Crime Harm Index. Sherman sought a way to prioritize the use of police resources by focusing them on the most harmful crime events.

The accepted standard for measuring the impact of crime, the Uniform Crime Index, treats every crime as statistically equal even though the resulting harm from different types of crimes is far from equal.

To account for this discrepancy, Sherman suggested applying a weight to each crime according to level of harm it represents to society as determined by statutory sentencing guidelines. Combining the weights of all crime would then create a single number showing crime’s bottom line: a Crime Harm Index.

A standardized Crime Harm Index could be built for both places and people, enabling the police to more efficiently determine the allocation of resources and to more effectively target strategies for crime reduction.

A Crime Harm Index could also help the police in measuring the true success of their strategies by answering the question of whether harm was reduced as a result rather than merely the total number of crimes.

Ratcliffe later proposed expanding the scope of harm to include public safety issues other than crime while still advocating for the use of some form of index to weight and prioritize each type of harm.

In addition, Ratcliffe posited the inclusion of such crime prevention tactics as investigative stops as a harm, arguing as Lum and Nagin do that citizen reaction to police activities is of equal importance to the outcomes of the activities.

This would allow for a more relevant bottom line. Using Malcom Sparrow’s business analogy from Measuring Performance in a Modern Police Organization, a decrease to the Crime Harm Index would be part of an agency’s gross revenues.

Investigative stops would be considered a cost to be subtracted from the gross revenue in determining net revenue.

Ratcliffe illustrated this in his work, showing that despite a reduction in public safety harms, the high cost of investigative stops in the form of negative citizen reaction could result in a net increase in overall harm.

Even if one were to agree with this point in particular and the concept of harm-focused policing in general, the most critical problem is how to objectively quantify non-crime harms like drug overdoses, repeated encounters with mentally disturbed individuals, or investigative stops.

Regardless of the potential obstacles, harm-focused policing is worth further exploration, particularly in light of Lum and Nagan’s blueprint.

Harm-focused policing supports their first guiding principle by helping to concentrate prevention efforts on the most harmful places and people, which addresses, among other things, their concerns about the attention given to low-level offenses.

Harm-focused policing, particularly as outlined by Ratcliffe, also supports the second guiding principle by acknowledging the importance of citizen reaction to prevention efforts.

Finally, because many community harms will require community responses, it necessarily creates the need for increased police/community engagement and can serve as the catalyst for a new era of police accountability where the “Com” in Compstat stands for community.


Tim Hegarty has served with the Riley County (KS) Police Department since 1995 and is currently a captain in command of his agency’s Support Services Division. Previous commands include the Riley County Police Department’s Administration, Patrol, and Investigations Divisions. He has served as an adjunct instructor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at Kansas State University and as a subject matter expert and instructor for the Virginia Center for Policing Innovation. He is also a Level II Certified Instructor in Problem-Based Learning.

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