The Human Geography of Policing
Police have had a long-time fascination with dangerous places and hot spots. A dangerous place is a location that is thought to attract criminals and therefore, results in higher levels of violent crime. A hot spot, on the other hand, is a geographical concentration of crime. Whereas a dangerous place is a location, a hot spot is generally regarded as an area, such as a city block, apartment building or entertainment complex that generates an abundance of calls for police service. Criminals are said to be attracted to these geographical locations due to the presence of potential victims or because the criminal works or resides in the area.
For a variety of reasons, crime is not distributed equally across space and time. It is logical for police to develop concepts that explain the uneven distribution of crime. Most crime to which police pay attention tends to cluster in specific locations and happen during compressed time frames.
Locations with high levels of crime include bars, certain apartment complexes, liquor stores, bus stops, shopping malls, abandoned buildings and parks. To some extent, mapping police calls about street crime and plotting the resulting clusters can identify areas construed as dangerous places and hot spots. But one should be mindful that the same could also be said of political and white-collar crime, not just street crime.
Political crime is organized in state houses and executive mansions around the country, and white-collar crime follows the path of the dollar and the stock market. In essence, the crime we choose to focus on determines the places that are considered dangerous and what spaces are viewed as hot spots. Living next to a chemical plant, which houses environmental pollutants, can be just as threatening to one’s health as walking down a dark alleyway — and it can be just as criminal. It is no accident some places are seen as dangerous and in need of police attention, while other places that are equally, or even more dangerous, do not come to our attention.
So-called hot spots are products of data police collect and with which they are most concerned. The status of a hot spot is not necessarily inherent in certain locations, but rather constructed based on behavior and social interactions. An affluent suburb may be a hot spot for domestic violence and a high-rise building may be a prime location for crimes committed by white-collar criminals. If people do not alert the police to these activities, if the police do not investigate these activities or if the police fail to collect data or selectively choose crimes they consider important, police are actually shaping the locations of hot spots in their jurisdiction.
If police view geography as a fixed, bounded location that is pre-determined, then they miss the point. A city block is not just a location, but rather a “space” constituted by all human interactions that take place with that space. Additionally, space is defined in conjunction with all the other surrounding spaces and interactions that make it distinct. Merely counting and locating crime on a pre-determined basis does not address the causes of crime; it is merely a first step at addressing a social symptom. Police must be mindful that what creates space is not a bounded and fixed location, but rather a series of human, social interactions in a geography.