May 13, 2009 — Simply enforcing the law doesn't always stop crime. Trying to prevent crime from ever taking place is another key part of public safety.
Virginia state and local officials have increasingly used crime prevention as a tool of law enforcement strategy and have established the state as a national leader in the field, according to an analysis in the current issue of the Virginia News Letter, published by the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
Coinciding with that push, crime rates in Virginia have fallen in the last decade and a half, especially the rates for property crimes such as burglary, larceny and auto theft. Although it is impossible to know how much of the decline has been due to crime prevention programs, a good case can be made that these have contributed to the drop, writes John G. Schuiteman, a public safety expert and former analyst with the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.
State officials would be wise to look carefully at these successes and develop model crime-prevention practices, perhaps through a statewide commission, he suggests.
Most of the prevention efforts of Virginia's law enforcement agencies have involved programs that promote crime deterrence and education, such as Neighborhood Watch groups, school resource officers and the training of citizens to make them aware of criminal activity. Other types of programs seek to ameliorate some of the contributing conditions of crime, such as mentoring at-risk youths so that they are not easily drawn to criminal activity.
Some 400 to 500 officers and deputies administer Virginia's prevention services on a daily basis, or approximately 2.1 percent of the local law enforcement officers in the state, Schuiteman found in a survey. Of Virginia's 165 local police agencies, approximately three-fourths have at least a part-time crime prevention staff officer.
The Virginia State Police also keep an estimated 120 or more troopers qualified as crime prevention specialists. At least one specialist is assigned to each of the agency's 48 subdivisions.
But much of the credit for Virginia's crime prevention work also is due to state agencies that distribute federal dollars, Schuiteman said. The agencies include the Department of Criminal Justice Services and attorney general's office. A nonprofit organization, the Virginia Crime Prevention Association, also has played an important role.
But, Schuiteman concludes, crime prevention programs have two major problems: funding has been haphazard and there are no standard measures of effectiveness.
Nearly all agencies that use crime prevention techniques do so because at some point they received federal start-up money. And that money waxes and wanes as Congress reacts to crime problems such as drugs, gangs or security threats. (In the current proposed federal economic stimulus package, for example, there are new competitive grants for programs for reducing violent crime.)
The problem of measuring success is partly due to the relative newness of the field and lack of standardized information, Schuiteman said.
State officials should consider establishing a crime prevention commission with a mission of promoting model policies, inter-agency cooperation, standardized terms and statewide data collection, Schuiteman recommends.
"This important but constantly evolving field deserves the full attention of our citizens and policymakers," he writes.