“Soft” policing at hot spots—do police community support officers work? A randomized controlled trial

Barak Ariel*, Cristobal Weinborn, Lawrence W. Sherman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


Objectives: To determine whether crime-reduction effects of increased police patrols in hot spots are dependent on the “hard” threat of immediate physical arrest, or whether “soft” patrols by civilian (but uniformed) police staff with few arrest powers and no weapons can also reduce crime. We also sought to assess whether the number of discrete patrol visits to a hot spot was more or less important than the total minutes of police presence across all visits, and whether effects based on counts of crime would be consistent with effects on a Crime Harm Index outcome. Methods: We randomly assigned 72 hot spots into 34 treatment units and 38 controls. Treatment consisted of increases in foot patrol by uniformed, unarmed, Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) who carry no weapons and hold few arrest powers beyond those of ordinary citizens. GPS-trackers on every PCSO and Constable in the city yielded precise measurements of all patrol time in all hot spots. Standardized mean differences (Cohen’s d), OLS regression model, and Weighted Displacement Quotient are used to assess main effects, to model the interaction effect of GPS data with treatment, and to measure the diffusion-of-benefits of the intervention, respectively. Outcomes included counts of incidents as well as the Cambridge Crime Harm Index. Results: As intended, patrol visits and minutes by Police Constables were equal across the treatment and control groups. The sole difference in policing between the treatments groups was in visits to the hot spots by PCSOs, in both the mean daily frequency of discrete visits (T = 4.65, C = 2.66; p ≤.001) and total minutes across all visits (T = 37.41, C = 15.92; p ≤.001), approximately two more ten-minute visits per day in treatment than in control. Main effect estimates suggest 39 % less crime by difference-in-difference analysis of reported crimes compared to control conditions, and 20 % reductions in emergency calls-for-service compared to controls. Crime in surrounding areas showed a diffusion of benefits rather than displacement for treatment hot spots compared to controls. A “Reiss’s Reward” effect was observed, with more proactive patrols predicting less crime across treatment hot spots, while more reactive PCSO time predicted more crime across control hot spots. Crime Harm Index estimates of the seriousness value of crime prevented ranged from 85 to 360 potential days of imprisonment in each treatment group hot spot (relative to controls) by a mean difference of 21 more minutes of PCSO patrol per day, for a potential return on investment of up to 26 to 1. Conclusions: A crime reduction effect of extra patrols in hot spots is not conditional on “hard” police power. Even small differences in foot patrols showing the “soft power” of unarmed paraprofessionals, holding constant vehicular patrols by Police Constables, were causally linked to both lower counts of crimes and a substantially lower crime harm index score. Correlational evidence within the treatment group suggests that greater frequency of discrete PCSO visits may yield more crime reduction benefit than greater duration of those visits, but RCTs are needed for better evidence on this crucial issue.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)277-317
Number of pages41
JournalJournal of Experimental Criminology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016, The Author(s).


  • Arrest powers
  • Deterrence
  • Experiment
  • GPS-trackers
  • Hot spots
  • Patrol
  • Police Community Support Officers


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