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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Fairness and Justice

Crime Squared: Managing Complexity in Criminal Justice Policy


On 23 July 2014, Isaac Lara wrote a piece that appeared in the Kennedy School Review titled Crime Square: How Advances in Criminal Justice Policy Can Improve Public Safety in New York City. Mr. Lara suggests that reductions in crime may come via Place Theory, and suggests a three-pronged approach: (1) increasing visibility by reducing overgrowth, increasing lighting, and adding windows to structures that permit observation; (2) repairing or removing public eyesores such as garbage and graffiti; and (3) installing public amenities such as benches and water fountains.

Place Theory and the focus on the physical environment are necessary components of successful crime-reduction policy. While the combined effects of the aforementioned three-pronged approach can assist in increasing security, caution must be paid that policy writers do not conflate necessary strategic components for comprehensive strategy. In order to be effective, crime-reduction policy must describe a larger strategic vision, incorporating successful components like Place Theory into it. In order to define this larger strategic vision, policy writers must consider three critical issues: understanding complexity, managing influence, and delivering appropriate responses. Taken together, these components afford policy writers and residents the best opportunity for meaningful increases in local security.

Understanding Complexity

Police officers operate within a complex, open–system environment. Consider a neighborhood within the city of New York. The system is complex in that action taken by individuals or groups (a gang shooting) within the neighborhood affect how others in the neighborhood behave (travelling in groups rather than alone, remaining indoors after dark). The system shows emergence or the ability to create change without input from outside the system (formation of block clubs or citizen patrols). The system is open as the actions of external systems can influence their behavior (increased police presence can suppress criminal activity, so more residents remain outside after dark).

Policy writers and law enforcement must understand how each action taken affects the intended recipient and how the recipient’s likely response will cascade across the system. For example, Street Gang A is engaged in illegal narcotics sales, and the abatement of the selling of these drugs has become a priority for local residents. However, Gang A may be aligned with Gang B. The two are allies to counter the threat of Gang C – a much larger gang. Significant police action against Gang A may serve to embolden Gang C, resulting in violence against a now weaker Gang B. Or it may embolden Gang B to take violent actions, as they feel threatened by decreased size. The time investment required for this level of understanding may be intensive, but failing to sense this complexity when implementing policy or an intervention may not deliver intended reductions in crime and instead decrease local security.

Managing Influence

Complex systems are powered by relationships, and relationships are affected by both direct action and influence. The second order effects – and even third order effects – of direct action by law enforcement are influences. Understanding influence allows both law enforcement and crime-reduction policy writers to do a couple of very useful things. First, when the relationships within a system are understood, these second and third order effects of direct action can be anticipated, enabling law enforcement to think deeper about operations. A relevant strategic question becomes “How is this direct action likely to affect the target and influence the system?” Operations, then, can be nuanced or outright crafted to exert specific influence on the system as a whole.

Second, by understanding this influence, law enforcement and policy leaders can determine who can most effectively apply this influence to achieve the intended outcome. Law enforcement is only one tool of public policy – and often not the best tool. Crime-reduction policy writers must integrate the tools at their disposal with their understanding of individuals within the community, so that the best source of influence can be brought to bear. “Two Degrees of Association” (funded by the National Institute of Justice and implemented by the Chicago Police Department) and the “Group Violence Reduction Strategy” (funded by the National Network for Safe Communities) are excellent examples of understanding and applying influence.

 Delivering Appropriate Responses

The path to increased security does not always come from increasing the security apparatus itself. To most effectively address crime, policy writers must (1) conduct a thorough environmental analysis, (2) identify those conditions that contribute to crime and insecurity, and (3) address the needs identified. To ensure a thorough assessment, a framework with specific components that span the breadth of governance should be employed. This may include, but is not limited to: school attendance rates, graduation rates, unemployment rates, access to health care and social services, sanitation services, electricity and water delivery, and community infrastructure  (roads, parks, vacant buildings, vacant lots) in addition to law enforcement service.

The multi-variant conditions that contribute to increased crime must remain on the radar of policy writers, and policy should depend upon collaboration with other civic and non-governmental service providers to present a whole-of-government approach. This, of course, does not mean that law enforcement remains exempt from participation in programs aimed at reducing these conditions. However, larger civic organization must remain the hub of effective crime control policy in order to facilitate inter-agency cooperation.  Concurrently, layers of bureaucracy between civic and social service delivery must be flattened for quicker request delivery.


Crime and lack of security remain continuous struggles for many urban communities and their residents. In order to craft effective strategies, policy writers cannot view interventions as independent efforts with independent outcomes.  Rather, they must understand the nature of complexity. Strategies affect not only their intended targets but others within the system as well. Crime-reduction policy should employ strategies and operations that deliver not only immediate demonstrable results but also exert specific influence on the system as a whole. The use of influence should be considered by all parties participating in crime abatement.

Law enforcement may not always be the most influential tool, and this limitation must be understood. Law enforcement must continue to conduct it’s core mission competencies — patrol, investigations, and arrests – and stay engaged with overall crime-reduction policy efforts; however, crime policy writers should remain cognizant of law enforcement’s limitations and ensure that those service providers most appropriate for addressing the conditions that can lead to crime become decisively engaged.

The problem of crime and the conditions that create it are complex. It should be expected that the effort to reduce crime and those conditions be equally complex.


John A. Bertetto is a sworn member of the Chicago Police Department and managing editor at the foreign policy and security analysis blog Foreign Intrigue. He has written extensively on policing strategies focused against street gangs. His applied research projects have led to collaborative partnerships with USMA West Point, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland. He is one of the primary designers and the law enforcement SME behind the GANG social network analysis software, which has been featured in Popular Science and Governing as well as profiled on ABC and BBC news. Officer Bertetto holds a Master of Science degree from Western Illinois University and a Master of Business Administration degree from St. Xavier University.




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