Working with data from the nation’s second largest municipal police department, researchers have constructed a “risk terrain model” that links an officer’s relative danger of felonious injury to the presence of certain environmental factors.
“All places may pose risk of battery to officers” on service calls, writes the lead author of the new study, Dr. Joel Caplan, a former LEO and EMT who now is deputy director of the Rutgers University Center on Public Security. But “some places are riskier than others.”
By far the greatest likelihood of attack occurs when you are working in “proximity to foreclosed properties,” Caplan’s research team reveals. Other of the riskiest spots include locations at or near “problem buildings,” bars, schools, gang territory, and banks.
Such “spatial intelligence,” Caplan believes, can be used by officers and administrators to “help mitigate the risk of injury at micro places throughout police jurisdictions” by incorporating the information into “procedures, training, and best practices for tactical responses,” as well as “resource allocation.”
To ignore or poorly assess the findings, he says, may unnecessarily place officers “at higher risk of serious injury.”
The team’s results are based on the mapping of 991 on-duty batteries against Chicago PD officers during a 12-month period. CPD is the second largest local law enforcement agency in the US, with about 12,000 sworn personnel.
The researchers divided the city into more than 36,000 “micro cells,” each measuring 426 ft.-by-426 ft., about the average of one block length in Chicago. The batteries were then pinpointed to the cells according to their place of occurrence. For the purposes of the study, “battery” was defined as the intentional causing or attempt to cause “serious bodily harm or death” and included firearms threats and assaults.
Also positioned within the cells were more than 20 “potential special risk factors”–likely troublesome and hazardous locations–which included apartment complexes, night clubs, homeless shelters, mental health facilities, laundromats, convenience stores, and so on.
From this cocktail of ingredients, a computer analysis allowed the researchers to establish an “exceptionally strong” statistical correlation between batteries against officers and proximity to 11 environmental features.
In a descending order of risk, “police who handle calls for service at locations with foreclosures, problem buildings [sources of complaints about criminal activity], bars, schools, gang territories, banks, apartment complexes, liquor stores, clusters of service requests for malfunctioning streetlights, grocery stores and/or retail shops are at a greater risk of felonious battery,” Caplin writes.
At the upper end of this list, calls “within three blocks of foreclosures and/or within a dense area of problem buildings pose as much as two to three times greater risk of battery to police officers” than calls to locations at the lower end of the spectrum, he says. But even the lesser locations on the list present a significantly higher danger than the average among all the cells analyzed.
Of course, the risk is even greater at locations where more than one of these “model features” is present.
The specifics are unclear, but Caplan theorizes that the behavior of people can be influenced by the geographical features around them. “The nature of certain places may be perceived by offenders to be opportune locations to behave aggressively toward police,” he writes.
For example, “foreclosures may be high-risk due to the absence of invested caretakers who would otherwise serve as ‘eyes and ears’ within the area. This void of guardians may serve as cues to certain suspects that the prospect for instant freedom from criminal justice authorities is better had with aggression toward police rather than cooperation.”
More research is needed, Caplan says, but knowing “with statistical confidence that battery incidents and injuries occur at places with particular features of the landscape” should “inform” officers’ “tactical decision-making when responding to calls at certain locations.
“Even if prior battery incidents have not yet occurred or clustered” at a particular spot, “it is possible to anticipate the likelihood of future incident locations” and approach them with greater tactical caution.
He strongly recommends “replication of this study in other jurisdictions” as a guide to allocating resources, reforming policies and protocols, and strategically managing responses “in ways that enhance police officer safety.”
The study, titled “Spatial risk factors of felonious battery to police officers,” appears in the publication Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management. Click here for a free abstract. A full report of the findings can be downloaded there for a fee.
Dr. Caplan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our thanks to Lt. Glen Mills, Burlington (MA) PD, for alerting us to this study.