David Bayley

David Bayley is most known in my research area, policing interventions to reduce crime, based on this opening paragraph in Police for the future:

The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defense against crime and continually argue that if they are given more resources, especially personnel, they will be able to protect communities against crime. This is a myth.

This quote is now paraded as backwards thinking, often presented before discussing the overall success of hot spots policing. If you didn’t read the book, you might come to the conclusion that this quote is a parallel to the nothing works mantra in corrections research. That take is not totally off-base: Police for the future was published in 1994, so it was just at the start of the CompStat revolution and hot spots policing. The evidence base was no doubt much thinner at that point and deserving of skepticism.

I don’t take the contents of David’s book as so hardlined on the stance that police cannot reduce crime, at least at the margins, as his opening quote suggests though. He has a chapter devoted to traditional police responses (crackdowns, asset forfeiture, stings, tracking chronic offenders), where he mostly expresses scientific skepticism of their effectiveness given their cost. He also discusses problem oriented approaches to solving crime problems, how to effectively measure police performance (outputs vs outcomes), and promotes evaluation research to see what works. Still all totally relevant twenty plus years later.

The greater context of David’s quote comes from his work examining police forces internationally. David was more concerned about professionalization of police forces. Part of this is better record keeping of crimes, and in the short term crime rates will often increase because of this. In class he mocked metrics used to score international police departments on professionalization that used crime as a measure that went into their final grade. He thought the function of the police was broader than reducing crime to zero.


I was in David’s last class he taught at Albany. The last day he sat on the desk at the front of the room and expressed doubt about whether he accomplished anything tangible in his career. This is the fate of most academics. Very few of us can point to direct changes anyone implemented in response to our work. Whether something works is independent of an evaluation I conduct to show it works. Even if a police department takes my advice about implementing some strategy, I am still only at best indirectly responsible for any crime reductions that follow. Nothing I could write would ever compete with pulling a single person from a burning car.

While David was being humble he was right. If I had to make a guess, I would say David’s greatest impact likely came about through his training of international police forces — which I believe spanned multiple continents and included doing work with the United Nations. (As opposed to saying something he wrote had some greater, tangible impact.) But even there if we went and tried to find direct evidence of David’s impact it would be really hard to put a finger on any specific outcome.

If a police department wanted to hire me, but I would be fired if I did not reduce crimes by a certain number within that first year, I would not take that job. I am confident that I can crunch numbers with the best of them, but given real constraints of police departments I would not take that bet. Despite devoting most of my career to studying policing interventions to reduce crime, even with the benefit of an additional twenty years of research, I’m not sure if David’s quote is as laughable as many of my peers frame it to be.

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