Police Practice 

Incorporating Hot-Spots Policing into Your Daily Patrol Plan

By Gary Hoelzer and Jim Gorman

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Imagine several majors and captains pooling their resources to begin a commercial fishing venture. They buy a fleet of boats, hire well-trained casters, and purchase a beautiful 600-acre lake. Then, they strategize how to catch the most fish and make their business profitable. Experienced fishermen know that the fish do not distribute themselves evenly throughout the water, and, thus, the crew does not disperse the boats evenly throughout the lake. They will use technology or, simply, knowledge of the lake to determine where to drop their lines and nets. Dispersing the boats randomly would be ludicrous and would invite financial disaster on the commercial venture.

Ironically, the strategies that fishermen know would fail in the fishing business mirror those employed by some administrators who deploy patrol officers. They expect their officers to catch criminals with only occasional results. If fishermen fished like such officers patrol, they would catch no haul; but, if officers patrolled like fishermen fish, criminals would go to jail, and crime would decrease. You simply fish where the fish live, and you patrol where crimes occur.


“You’re poaching!” I first heard those words in 1981 during my field training at the St. Louis, Missouri, Police Department from other officers who accused me and my field training officer of initiating car stops, pedestrian checks, and arrests in their jurisdictions. My field training officer and I were guilty as charged, for we routinely ventured several miles away from our assigned location (a mostly residential area) to patrol a major retail and entertainment strip. As we began the midnight watch, the residents in our jurisdiction turned out the lights; but, in the neighborhoods to our north, the action was just getting started.My training officer realized that other areas needed our additional presence. Other officers remained territorial about their assignments, but the supervisors appreciated our additional presence in that lively section of the precinct.

Like my training officer, in the mid- to late-1980s, criminologists noticed that crime and disorder generally occur in clusters, rather than an evenly spread-out manner, throughout geographical jurisdictions. Experts, with the assistance of Minneapolis police and city officials, conducted an influential study on the clusters of crime and disorder. In that city, only 3 percent of the addresses produced 50 percent of the reported crime.1 When the police department merely transferred officers out of low-crime areas and into those identified as “hot spots,” both crime and disorder decreased. These eye-opening results spawned additional federally funded studies.

Spurred by the success in Minneapolis, the National Institute of Justice conducted the Kansas City Gun Experiment and the Indianapolis Directed Patrol Project. These experiments took the Minneapolis approach even further by instructing officers to employ specific strategies as they patrolled the hot spots, or “dots.” By targeting specific crimes in the hot spots, violent crime dropped dramatically while community perception of the police and of the safety of their neighborhoods increased.2

By the 21st century, it became clear that incident-based officer deployment more effectively reduces crime and disorder than distributing officers in general geographic areas. A National Academy of Sciences panel concluded:

“(S)tudies that focused police resources on crime hot spots provide the strongest collective evidence of police effectiveness that is now available. On the basis of a series of randomized experimental studies, we conclude that the practice described as hot-spots policing is effective in reducing crime and disorder and can achieve these reductions without significant displacement of crime control benefits. Indeed, the research evidence suggests that the diffusion of crime control benefits to areas surrounding treated hot spots is stronger than any displacement outcome.”3

From Geographic Boundaries to Cops on the Dots

When large departments with sufficient support personnel identify a hot spot, they typically assign special squads of officers to cover them. An agency might call such a squad a community action team (CAT), neighborhood enforcement team (NET), mobile reserve, or tactical operations. As large departments can handle high demand for service, these teams are deployed to a location for a specified period of time and then move to another hot spot. While such teams are effective when they cover a particular area, they seldom remain a permanent fixture in any location; thus, the ultimate responsibility for a hot spot, even in a large agency, falls to the patrol officer assigned to that area.

The vast majority of law enforcement agencies in the United States employ less than 50 officers and do not have the resources to form action teams to address hot spots. They assign officers to geographical locations to conduct field investigations, traffic enforcement, calls for service, and other services expected of uniformed patrol. For a typical agency to address hot spots, it needs to develop deployment plans that minimize geographical boundaries, maximize incident-based deployment, and maintain general patrol services. In other words, put the “cops on the dots.”4

“By targeting specific crimes in the hot spots, violent crime dropped dramatically while community perception of the police and of the safety of their neighborhoods increased.”

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Figure 1. Common patrol areas circled

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Figure 2. Cool zone vs. hot spots

To implement hot-spots policing, agencies first must analyze where crime and disorder clusters in their jurisdictions. Small jurisdictions can chart this effectively with a pin map, but larger agencies need computerized crime mapping. When departments identify a specific problem in a particular geographical area, they highlight it as a “common patrol area,” or CPA. To execute CPA deployment, agencies should-

  • determine geographical hot spots for crime and disorder;
  • designate the sectors responsible for patrol;
  • develop strategies at the operational level to address the crime or disorder problem;
  • analyze the issue for community input and involvement;
  • determine if the CPA will be a permanent designation due to an at-risk location (e.g., retail centers) or temporary due to an ongoing crime spree;
  • direct routine patrols to the CPA without requiring permission to cross geographical sector boundaries; and
  • track the numbers of patrols and outcomes.

Once a department identifies a CPA, the adjoining sectors share responsibility for the area, which adds supervisor patrols and support units. This system more than triples the number of patrols in CPAs, but maintains reasonably quick response times in low-incidence locations.

Our Experience

Located in the heart of the St. Louis metropolitan area, the Town and Country Police Department (TCPD) transitioned from traditional geography-based to incident-based patrol deployment using CPAs. The department still assigns patrol officers to geographical sectors, but CPAs make an officer’s boundaries more fluid. With incident-based deployment, TCPD integrates the intuition and knowledge of experienced patrol officers, like my field training officer, into formal organizational plans.

Early in 2010, TCPD further reduced the emphasis on geographical assignments with the Positioning Units Strategically in Hot Spots (PUSH) program. The program was developed to build on the CPA concept in one particular location, an 11-square-mile city in the St. Louis suburbs. Three sectors (with one officer to patrol each) comprised the jurisdiction, but it was mostly a “cool zone” that experienced little criminal activity.

Early in 2010, TCPD further reduced the emphasis on geographical assignments with the Positioning Units Strategically in Hot Spots (PUSH) program. The program was developed to build on the CPA concept in one particular location, an 11-square-mile city in the St. Louis suburbs. Three sectors (with one officer to patrol each) comprised the jurisdiction, but it was mostly a “cool zone” that experienced little criminal activity.

With PUSH, we consolidated the three sectors into an east patrol and a west patrol and then assigned one officer to each. This leaves the third officer unassigned to any one geographical area so that supervisors can “PUSH” this officer to a location when a problem emerges.

The PUSH plan focuses on clusters of incidents (the dots) as the primary basis for deployment, rather than geographic boundaries. Our latest crime maps illustrate that most dots appear in the southwest or northeast portions of the east patrol; thus, PUSH officers concentrate in those areas.

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Figure 3. PUSH deployment plan

The PUSH program functions like a fictitious war room in World War II movies. In these scenes, military personnel huddle around a large table with long poles in their hands, constantly pushing small shapes around on a map to symbolize moving manpower and resources. As commanders receive intelligence from the field, they move assets accordingly. This fluid approach capitalizes on all available manpower to saturate a hot spot.

Tactics and Strategies

Targeting the most frequent crimes in a hot spot proves much more effective than merely sending more officers to a problem area.5 To supplement the increased patrols, supervisors must develop specific strategies for the CPAs based on the area’s most frequent crimes. We analyze crime data by location and time of day, and as soon as we observe a pattern, we tailor our approach to that CPA. This system allocates resources more effectively as we equip officers with the appropriate technology and training to address the specific incidents that occur in those areas.

For example, at TCPD, we designate all malls and shopping centers as CPAs due to the increase in organized retail theft; therefore, officers target this crime when they patrol these areas. Officers partner with store security, issue “no trespass” warnings to identified thieves, install license-plate-recognition technology, conduct foot patrols, and target repeat offenders; they also have developed a business watch network. These tactics specifically target organized retail theft and, thus, reduce crime in malls and shopping centers.

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Figure 4. Crime and traffic crash activity

Similarly, in 2009, our department noticed increasing reports of “car hopping,” or walk-by thefts of items from parked vehicles. We tailored our patrol in those areas where our crime analysis revealed that car hopping occurred frequently. In one such area, an arterial roadway running through the center of Town and Country, residents reported thefts from vehicles, garages, and homes in the overnight hours. Shortly after we identified the common patrol area, a sergeant patrolling along the roadway around 3:00 a.m. observed a vehicle that resembled one of those sighted in previous thefts. The officer stopped the car in a residential area and identified three occupants who had, in fact, been arrested approximately 1 year earlier for other burglaries and thefts from vehicles. After he apprehended the driver for driving with a suspended license, the officer communicated the intelligence to our detectives. They, in turn, investigated the suspects’ involvement in the related crimes.

Even further, CPA and crime-targeted patrols grant officers the opportunity to use their own ideas, expertise, and experience to develop strategies for different areas. The approaches that officers can apply to a CPA are as extensive as their imaginations, including all of the tools that community policing and problem solving bring to the “war-room table.”

Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety

Incident-based deployment relates not only to criminal activity but also to important public safety issues, such as traffic crashes. When we include traffic incidents on the crime map of Town and Country, the number of dots explodes [see Figure 4]. Six miles of interstate highway run through the city, and this hot spot of crash activity costs millions of dollars and several hundred injuries annually. When we discovered these results, we realized the need for a unit for interstate traffic enforcement and crash reduction. Simply by including crash data in our incident-based deployment analysis, we identified a dangerous public safety issue and took steps to remedy the problem.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies these issues all around the country through the Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS) program. Because crimes often involve motor vehicles, and highly visible traffic enforcement deters crime, the program integrates location-based crime and traffic crash data. DDACTS then studies this data and employs geomapping to identify areas with high rates of crime and crashes. This approach closely mirrors incident-based deployment, and it provides an effective strategy to both fight crime and reduce traffic accidents and violations.6


These economic times challenge law enforcement agencies to accomplish more with fewer resources. To respond to this conundrum, at the Town and Country Police Department, we embrace the philosophy of incident-based deployment, or hot-spots policing. We reduced the number of officers unoccupied during their patrol by deemphasizing geographical assignments or consolidating them and using the extra officers to patrol hot spots, allowing us to maximize limited resources and control crime. These deployment plans also wed policy with practice by capitalizing on the latest academic research on situational crime prevention. Hot-spots policing, like our PUSH program, efficiently allocates an agency’s resources to those that need them most, whether the agency employs 5 officers or 5,000.

Captain Hoelzer and Officer Gorman serve with the Town and Country, Missouri, Police Department.


1 David Weisburd and Anthony Braga, eds., Police Innovation: Contrasting Perspectives (Cambridge: University Press, 2006).

2 Dennis P. Rogan, James W. Shaw, and Lawrence W. Sherman, “The Kansas City Gun Experiment,” National Institute of Justice: Research in Brief (Washington, DC, January 1995).

3 Wesley Skogan and Kathleen Frydl, ed., Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004), 250.

4 Jack Maple and Chris Mitchell, The Crime Fighter: How You Can Make Your Community Crime Free (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1999).

5 Steven Chermak, Edmund McGarrell, and Alexander Weiss, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Reducing Gun Violence: Evaluation of the Indianapolis Police Department’s Directed Patrol Project, NCJ 188740 (Washington, DC, 2002).

6 U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, National Institute of Justice, “Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS),” http://www.nhtsa.gov/DOT/NHTSA/ Traffic%20Injury%20Control/Articles/Associated%20Files/811186.pdf (accessed September 12, 2011).

“This system allocates resources more effectively…to address the specific incidents that occur in those areas.”