Geographical Policing: A Case for Caution

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

Police have had what is fast becoming a long-time fascination with “dangerous places” and “crime hot spots.” A dangerous place is a location that is thought to attract criminals and therefore result in high levels of violent crime. On the other hand, a hot spot is a geographical concentration of crime. Whereas a dangerous place is a location, hot spots generally seen as areas such as a block, apartment building, or an entertainment area. Criminals are said to be attracted to geographical locations by entertainment, potential victims, their work, and their residence. Because of the ways we define crime, growing social inequities, and the types of crime police decide to focus on, crime is not distributed equally across space and time. Most of the crime that the police pay attention to tends to cluster in specific locations and happen during compressed time frames. Locations that have high levels of crime include bars, certain apartment complexes, and areas around liquor stores, bus stops, shopping malls, homeless centers, fast-food restaurants, abandoned buildings, and parks. To some extent, examining police calls about street crime and mapping the resulting clusters can identify dangerous places and hot spots.

We must, however, remember that the same can be said not only of “street” crime but of political crime, crimes committed by law enforcement officials, and white-collar crime. Political crime is organized in state houses and mansions; police crime happens on the streets and in precinct houses; and white-collar crime follows the path of the dollar. In essence, the crime we choose to focus on determines what places are considered dangerous and what spaces are seen as hot spots for crime. Living next to a chemical plant housing environmental criminals can be just as dangerous to one's health as walking down a dark alley in an inner city—and it can be just as criminal. It is no accident that some places become seen as dangerous and in need of police attention while other places that are equally, or even more, dangerous do not come to our attention.

Police also need to remember that so call “hot spots” are the product of the data the police collect and with which they are concerned. Hot spots are not necessarily inherent in a location, but rather constructed based on behavior and social interaction. An affluent subdivision maybe a “hot spot” for domestic violence and a high-rise building may be the prime location for the crime committed by white-collar crimes, but if people do not alert the police of these activities, if police do not investigate these activities, or if police fail to collect data or selectively choose the crimes they consider important, they are shaping the locations of “hot spots” in their cities. If police view geography as fixed, bounded location that is pre-determined, then they miss the point. A city block is not just a “place,” but rather it is a “space” constituted by all the human interactions that take place with that space. Additionally, a space is defined in conjunction with all the other surrounding spaces and interactions that make it distinct. Merely, counting and locating crime on a pre-determined, even if computerized, map does not address the causes of crime; it is merely a first step at addressing social symptoms. Police must be mindful that what creates “space” is not a bounded and fixed location, but rather human social interaction.


Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

Published on November 19, 2013