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Can “Hot Spot Policing” Help Solve Pakistan’s Crime Problem?

A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine had her mobile phone snatched at gunpoint. It happened while she was standing outside a friend’s house on a seemingly safe street in Lahore. But according to local residents, this was not an isolated incident: around 20 property crimes had taken place on that very block over the past three months.

What was it about this particular stretch of road that attracted so much criminal activity? A recent study of urban crime in Pakistan seeks insight to questions like that.

To understand the dynamics of crime in Punjab, the most populous province of Pakistan, the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) is collaborating with the Punjab Police. The joint project, called Crime, Policing, and State Building, aims to assess the effectiveness of innovative law enforcement strategies such as “hot spot policing.”

IDEAS, in collaboration with the Technology for People Initiative and the Punjab Information Technology Board, recently completed the construction of a unique two-year database of geo-located crime in Lahore, the largest city in Punjab. It has further constructed a 20-year database on crime at the district level for the province of Punjab.

One thing that the project’s data has revealed is that crime in Punjab is not evenly spread. It concentrates in certain areas of cities and is highly correlated to urbanization. Crimes against property and person are not only higher in magnitude in metropolitan areas but are also increasing at a faster rate in cities compared to the rest of Punjab.

Taking Lahore as a case in point, the project found that crime concentrates near spaces with certain distinct features and characteristics, including marketplaces, parks, hospitals, and other easily accessible public areas that attract large numbers of people on a daily basis.

Such patterns have been witnessed elsewhere as well, which is why criminologists are now gravitating towards place-based theories of crime, and hot spot policing as a response to it. Hot spot policing, the theory goes, can effectively reduce overall crime provided there is no crime displacement. It can also lead to cost savings as resources would be concentrated in high-crime areas.

The data reveals that a small percentage of neighborhoods account for a large proportion of crime in Punjab. According to the research conducted by IDEAS, approximately 7.5 percent of neighborhoods were the site of more than half of all crimes.

What’s more, crime levels in these hot spots remain remarkably stable over time—over the past two years, IDEAS found little change in the high crime rates that permeate these areas. Therefore, by committing the majority of its policing efforts to these few locations, cities like Lahore can distribute their limited resources more efficiently.

Having said that, hot spot policing techniques need to be adopted with care and customized on a case-by-case basis. For instance, the street where my colleague was robbed may be a high-crime area due to a lack of street lights—or it may be because of something more complex, such as the absence of capable guardians or a lack of community cohesion.

Moreover, unlike in the United States, where more crime is gang-based, in Pakistan crime is mostly committed by individual offenders in public places. To figure out which strategy would work in which areas, and to reduce the chances of crime being displaced to neighboring areas, a deeper examination of these hot spots is required.

Nevertheless, what is clear is that crime is highly concentrated in cities across the Punjab province, within which criminal activity hot spots have developed. Having established this, we now need to customize policing strategies such as hot spot policing to Pakistan’s context and implement innovative strategies to combat rising crime rates.

Hot spot policing should be included in policy debates pertaining to law and order. Whether it can be successfully adapted to the Pakistani context remains to be seen.

IDEAS is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

Learn more about the project on crime and policing strategies in Pakistan.

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