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Northeastern’s Center on Crime and Community Resilience identifying innovative ideas to support positive community dynamics

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ben Struhl is the Executive Director of the Center on Crime and Community Resilience. In this role, he works with governments and non-profits around the world to promote the use of research evidence in solving health and safety challenges that are facing disadvantaged communities.

National Night Out Day is an annual event designed to build connections between neighbors and to promote positive relationships between police and communities. The event aims to have the first Tuesday in August be one where, “Neighborhoods host block parties, festivals, parades, cookouts and various other community events with safety demonstrations, seminars, youth events, visits from emergency personnel, exhibits and much, much more.” Boston will be holding 12 different neighborhood events across the city, on both Monday August 6th and Tuesday August 7th.

Why throw a big national event to encourage community block parties? Advocates for National Night Out believe that all of this activity will lead to a direct increase in neighborhood safety. While National Night Out has not been extensively studied, the ideas behind it are connected to a two important areas of research. Northeastern’s Center on Crime and Community Resilience (CCR) is currently working on projects related to both.

The primary idea behind National Night Out is that if neighbors know each other and have better informal connections to each other, crime and violence will be lower. This theory is tied to an influential study done in 1995, titled “Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy.” The research team on the study examined 343 different Chicago neighborhoods, looking at different factors such as crime, income, and community relations in each area. While there was an obvious connection between low income and high crime, the study also found areas where income was low and crime was low, or income was high and crime was high. The factor that better explained the level of crime in each neighborhood was something the authors called “collective efficacy” which they defined as “mutual trust among neighbors combined with willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good, specifically to supervise children and maintain public order.” In areas where collective efficacy was high, crime was low, and in areas where collective efficacy was low, crime was high.

This research presented an opportunity for government policymakers that has still not been fully explored: if collective efficacy is so important to the safety of communities, what can policymakers do to influence this factor? Efforts such as National Night Out are one example of trying to boost collective efficacy. The CCR is interested in identifying other innovative ideas that might support the positive dynamics of communities, as well. One idea the CCR is exploring is whether a community mural-making process done in high-crime areas might be able to improve public safety through a pathway of increased collective efficacy.

The other major idea behind National Night out is that better police-community relations will improve public safety. There are several ways to think about the relationship between police officers and the public they serve—one promising area of research in this area is on “procedural justice.” Procedural justice is concerned with the way that police and community members interact, and has four main principles to guide the actions of police officers:

  • Treating people with dignity and respect
  • Giving citizens ‘voice’ during encounters
  • Being neutral in decision making
  • Conveying trustworthy motives

The current research on procedural justice suggests that this approach improves citizen perceptions of the police during specific encounters. Some studies also suggest that procedural justice improves general citizen perceptions of the police. However, what is less understood is how these perceptual changes might translate into other outcomes—supporters of procedural justice believe the practice could shift the behavior of citizens to make them more likely to obey the law, help police do their jobs, and participate in government. To gain more evidence on this question, the CCR is currently working on a randomized evaluation of procedural justice in the Cambridge Police Department. This randomized evaluation is part of a larger multi-city experiment in collaboration with the Police Foundation, with the goal of better understanding how and why procedural justice works, and in what settings.

Some people tend to focus on a few individuals while thinking about crime, but there is solid research that the dynamics of neighborhoods can heavily influence people to engage in criminal behavior. Because neighborhoods are so important, the CCR is very interested in learning how ideas like National Night Out can change the outcomes of communities and individuals in a positive direction.

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The Center on Crime and Community Resilience is funded through a Global Resilience Institute seed grant. The seed grant program supports multi-disciplinary research in seven strategic focus areas that draw on the diversity of resilience-related expertise that already exists at Northeastern University. This includes research capacity in network science, health sciences, coastal and urban sustainability, engineering, cyber-security and privacy, social and behavioral sciences, public policy, urban affairs, business, law, game design, architecture, and geospatial analysis. To learn more about GRI’s seed grant program, or to see the other funded projects, visit: globalresilience.northeastern.edu/research/seed-grant-funding/

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