Letters and cards telling people about local police reduce crime

Article by Elicia John & Shawn D. Bushway: “Community policing is often held up as an instrumental part of reforms to make policing less harmful, particularly in low-income communities that have high rates of violence. But building collaborative relationships between communities and police is hard. Writing in Nature, Shah and LaForest describe a large field experiment revealing that giving residents cards and letters with basic information about local police officers can prevent crime. Combining these results with those from Internet-based experiments, the authors attribute the observed reduction in crime to perceived ‘information symmetry’.

Known strangers are individuals whom we’ve never met but still know something about, such as celebrities. We tend to assume, erroneously, that known strangers know as much about us as we do about them. This tendency to see information symmetry when there is none is referred to as a social heuristic — a shortcut in our mental processing…

Collaborating with the New York Police Department, the authors sent letters and cards to residents of 39 public-housing developments, providing information about the developments’ local community police officers, called neighbourhood coordination officers. These flyers included personal details, such as the officers’ favourite food, sports team or superhero. Thirty control developments had neighbourhood coordination officers, but did not receive flyers….

This field experiment provided convincing evidence that a simple intervention can reduce crime. Indeed, in the three months after the intervention, the researchers observed a 5–7% drop in crime in the developments that received the information compared with neighbourhoods that did not. This level of reduction is similar to that of more-aggressive policing policies4. The drop in crime lessened after three months, which the authors suggest is due to the light touch and limited duration of the intervention. Interventions designed to keep officers’ information at the top of residents’ minds (such as flyers sent over a longer period at a greater frequency) might therefore result in longer-term effects.

The authors attribute the reduction in crime to a heightened perception among residents receiving flyers that the officer would find out if they committed a crime. The possibilities of such findings are potentially exciting, because the work implies that a police officer who is perceived as a real person can prevent crime without tactics such as the New York City police department’s ‘stop, question and frisk’ policy, which tended to create animosity between community members and the police….(More)”