Reducing Fear of Crime and Increasing Citizen Support for Police

Extensive research has shown that citizen satisfaction with the police is influenced by their perceptions about neighborhood crime and disorder. Numerous studies have found that citizens had lower overall satisfaction and confidence in the police when they had higher levels of fear of crime in their neighborhood and higher perceptions of neighborhood disorder (such as trash, graffiti, abandoned cars, loud music, loitering homeless people, etc.). Perceptions of crime, however, do not always match actual levels of crime. For example, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, both property and violent crime declined steadily from the 1990s through 2013.1 National survey data from the Gallup organization, however, reveals that fear of crime among Americans steadily increased during the same period.2 While actual crime has decreased, perception of the amount of crime increased.

Another important point to keep in mind is that policing tactics that decrease actual crime may not reduce fear of crime. Extensive research has found that specific policing tactics such as intelligence-led directed patrols, crime prevention by environmental design, nuisance abatement activities, targeting repeat offenders, and other problem-oriented policing strategies are very effective at reducing actual crime, but many of these tactics have no effect on fear of crime or citizen satisfaction with the police.3 Actual crime and perceptions of crime are two separate issues that often need different policing tactics. This research brief will address the available evidence on what law enforcement agencies, and their officers, can do to reduce citizen fears about crime and disorder in local neighborhoods, thereby increasing local citizen satisfaction with the police.

What Reduces Fear of Crime?

Criminal justice researchers Jihong Zhao of Sam Houston State University, Matthew Scheider of the U.S. Department of Justice, and Quint Thurman of the University of the Southwest sought out every published research study of policing tactics in the U.S. that measured whether or not certain police activities reduced citizen fear of crime. They were able to locate 31 such studies published before 2002, many of which examined multiple types of policing activities. They found that almost all of these studies also measured citizen satisfaction with the police before and after implementing changes in policing activities.4 From these studies they were able to determine what kinds of policing tactics reduced fear of crime and increased citizen satisfaction with the police.

These studies revealed that most of the problem-oriented policing strategies that have been so effective at reducing actual crime did not reduce fear of crime, and sometimes even increased fear of crime. For example, when an area is flooded with extra patrol cars aggressively making stops and searching for weapons, the increased police presence makes some citizens perceive the area as dangerous when they had not thought so before. Three policing activities, however, repeatedly showed evidence of reducing fear of crime and increasing citizen satisfaction with the police. These three strategies were police sub-stations, community meetings, and non-enforcement, face-to-face contact between officers and citizens in the neighborhoods of greatest need.5

Dr. Zhao and his colleagues found ten studies that dealt with the implementation of a police substation within a strip mall, housing project, or community center. Some of the substations studied were staffed only by officers, and others by a mixture of officers and civilian personnel. Some substations were operated 24-hours a day, others were only open during the day or evening shift, and a few were manned only a few days and times each week. In every case, the presence of a substation in the neighborhood reduced fear of crime among neighborhood residents. In two-thirds of the studies, the presence of a substation increased citizen satisfaction with the police among neighborhood residents as well.6

Dr. Zhao and his colleagues examined thirteen studies of community meetings of various sorts. Some were neighborhood watch meetings and some were “town hall” style meetings where citizens came to state their grievances with the police, both of which had an impact on reducing fear of crime and increasing satisfaction with the police. The greatest impact on fear of crime and citizen satisfaction, however, came from community problem-solving meetings. This type of meeting involves inviting residents of a specific neighborhood or apartment complex to meet, receive instruction in the S.A.R.A. model of problem-oriented policing, and then work in small groups with officers to identify and develop strategies addressing specific crime problems that were of concern to the residents. The interactions between the citizens and officers in these problem-solving meetings open the eyes of citizens to the realities and difficulties police officers face, but also reveal to officers unknown or untapped community resources available to assist them. All of the studies of community problem-oriented meetings with citizens found that they reduced fear of crime among the participants and increased their satisfaction with the police.7

Dr. Zhao and his colleagues also reviewed ten studies that tested proactive, non-enforcement citizen contacts. These contacts were not public relations fluff, but rather real police work activities focused on maintaining order, detecting crime, and making citizens feel safe.8 For example, in one study the Houston Police Department targeted a couple of high crime blocks and required patrol officers to stop twice during their shift to meet residents at their homes, or business people at their stores or offices. During these brief contacts (usually less than 10 minutes), the officer would introduce him or herself, say the purpose of the visit was simply to get acquainted and learn whether there were any problems in the area the citizen felt the police should know about. The officer then left a business card. For each contact, the officer completed a citizen contact card listing the citizen’s name, address, phone number, and any problems discussed. Neighborhood citizen satisfaction surveys that were conducted before and after officers were ordered to make these contacts revealed that fear of crime fell substantially in the neighborhoods targeted, and citizen satisfaction with the police rose.9

All ten studies of proactive interactions with average citizens found decreases in fear of crime and increases in citizen satisfaction with the police.10 Some of the studies, like the one in Houston, involved officers being given a quota of two interactions per shift, but were also given the discretion to decide where and with whom to conduct these contacts. Other studies involved situations where officers were assigned specific addresses at which they were to conduct their contacts. While attending a Bureau of Justice Administration conference last summer, I learned that the Portland Bureau of Police in Oregon had mated this strategy with its intelligence- led policing efforts. On their department, a computer, through the computer-aided dispatch system, assigns officers to conduct these non-enforcement contacts at specific crime hot spot locations at specific hot crime times. Regardless of the method, the same positive outcomes result.

What do these three strategies – community substations, community problem-solving meetings, and proactive non-enforcement contacts – have in common? All three tactics increase the quantity and quality of face-to-face non-enforcement interactions between police officers and community members in the areas of greatest need of police services. All three of these tactics create situations in which people living in areas of greatest need get to know officers by name and the officers get to know the many good (but apprehensive or fearful) citizens of the neighborhoods they patrol. Too much police-citizen interaction involves the 10% of society that causes trouble for the remaining 90% of the people. We need to increase non-hostile interactions with that 90% of the community.

Are there Newer Studies?

Some might criticize the research Dr. Zhao and his colleagues reviewed as being too old. There are two responses to this argument. First, there is abundant research evidence that human behavior does not change much from century to century, much less from decade to decade. Second, there is more recent research that continues to support the findings of Dr. Zhao and his colleagues.

One study published in 2016 involved showing citizens a photograph of a city street scene and asking them to complete a short survey about how fearful they would be about walking down the street.11 Of the 352 people in the study, some were shown a version of the street scene with foot patrol police officers present, others were shown a version with police cars on the street, and others were shown versions with no police presence visible. The people who were shown the version with the foot patrol officers indicated they were least fearful of walking down the street. However, those who were shown the version with the two police cars on the street were the most fearful of walking down the street. In other words, when they saw two officers walking in the area they were less fearful, but when they saw two patrol cars they were more fearful than if there had been no police presence at all.

Think about that from your own personal experience. When you are out of your jurisdiction and out of uniform, do you feel more comfortable approaching a uniformed officer who is standing in line at a fast food restaurant, or an officer sitting in his patrol car in a vacant parking lot? When on duty, are you more at ease when people approach you when you are inside or outside of your patrol vehicle? Apparently there is something going on psychologically for both the officer and the citizen regarding the patrol vehicle.

In another study, researchers surveyed 977 residents of apartments in one large city. The survey contained questions about a variety of different city services, but included questions about fear of crime, satisfaction with the police. These residents were surveyed about how often they saw police cars, foot patrols, or had informal face-to-face contact with police officers. The residents who reported having had informal face-to-face contact with the police in the last six months had the lowest fear of crime and the highest satisfaction with the police, followed by those who had seen foot patrols. Having seen police cars in the neighborhood had no influence on fear of crime or satisfaction with the police.12

A final study from England assigned foot patrol officers or civilian police volunteers to patrol crime hot spot locations at peak times for crimes to occur. Like the officers in Houston described earlier, these officers approached citizens, introduced themselves, and asked if there were any crime or disorder problems needing their attention. These officers averaged only 21 minutes at each hot spot location but they ended up significantly reducing citizen fear of crime and increasing general public satisfaction with the police. Because they were a police presence targeted at hot spot locations and times, they also reduced reported crimes at these hot spots by 39%, and reduced emergency calls for service by 20%.13


Remember that the tactics that reduce actual crime have little impact on fear of crime and citizen satisfaction with the police. Citizen perceptions of crime and the police are unrelated to actual crime rates. One thing that law enforcement agencies can do to improve citizen satisfaction and confidence in the police is to help reduce citizen fear of crime, especially in the neighborhoods of most need. Research has revealed that the most effective tactics law enforcement agencies can implement to reduce citizen fear of crime, and increase citizen satisfaction with the police, involve non-confrontational, face-to-face interaction between officers and average citizens in the neighborhoods of greatest need of police services. Proactive non-enforcement citizen contacts, community problem-solving meetings, and interactions through neighborhood substations are three examples of tactics that lower fear and increase satisfaction with the police.

This is really the type of policing that goes on every day in small town police departments all across the nation. In small towns and villages, the residents usually know their officers by name and vice versa, with several personal friendships existing between the two. Officers hear concerns from residents almost daily and often develop solutions in cooperation with the reporting residents. The police station is usually within walking distance to everyone in town and the door is always open. Some residents even routinely stop by the station just to visit.14 Perhaps through increasing non-enforcement, face-to-face official police contacts between officers and average citizens, we can move closer to this ideal in every community.



1 Worrall, J. (2014). Crime Control in America. Boston, MA: Pearson.

2 Ibid.

3 Hoover, L. T. (2014). Police Crime Control Strategies. Clifton Park, NY: Cengage.

4 Zhao, J., Scheider, M., & Thurman, Q. (2002). The effect of police presence on public fear reduction and satisfaction: a review of the literature. The

Justice Professional, 15(3), 273- 299.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Brown, L., & Wycoff, M. A. (1987). Policing Houston: reducing fear and improving service. Crime and Delinquency, 33(1), 71-89.

10 Zhao, J., Scheider, M., & Thurman, Q. (2002).

11 Doyle, M., Frognar, L., Andershed, H., & Andershed, A. (2016). Feelings of safety in the presence of the police, security guards, and police volunteers. European Journal of 

Criminal Policy and Research, 22(1), 19-40.

12 Salmi, S., Gronroos, M., & Kreskinen, E. (2004). The role of police visibility in fear of crime. Policing: IJPSM, 27(4), 573-591.

13 Arien, B., Weinborn, C. & Sherman, L. W. (2016). “Soft policing” at hot spots: do police community support officers work? A randomized, controlled trial. Journal of 

Experimental Criminology.

14 Weisheit, R. A., Falcone, D. A., & Wells, L. E. (2005). Crime and Policing in Rural and Small-Town America. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Threats To Surviving This Job

Law enforcement is one of the most difficult, stressful, and dangerous careers an individual can pursue. The threats to your life, however, come from more sources than the knives and guns of evil doers. In fact, less than 20% of the law enforcement officers who died over the last three years died as a result of an assault. Even after you leave the job, the things you were exposed to as a law enforcement officer can still shorten your life. Recent research has revealed that law enforcement officers still only live an average of 6 years beyond retirement.1 While the average life expectancy in the U.S. is about 78 years, it is only 66 years for law enforcement officers.2

Just as it is important in officer safety training to identify and analyze the threats posed by criminals, we should also be doing the same for threats posed by sources other than an attacker. Just as we pass along intelligence updates about the latest concealed weapon or BOLO memos about dangerous persons in our jurisdictions, we should be passing along information about the other lethal risks law enforcement officers face. The information below will remind you of the many health dangers you face in a law enforcement career, and will conclude with a brief overview of ways to protect yourself against these many dangers.

Law Enforcement Officer Mortality

According to the Officer-Down Memorial Page website, over the last three years 398 law enforcement officers died while on duty or in the line of duty.3 When one adds the estimated number of active law enforcement officers who committed suicide, the total number of officer deaths over the last three years rises to 806 deaths, or an average of 269 officer deaths each year.4 As there are approximately 809,000 full and part-time law enforcement officers at the local, state, and federal level in the U.S., this means 1 out of every 3,000 officers dies at work or because of work each year.5

Deaths Due to Violence

Over the last three years, 157 law enforcement officers have died from a violent attack. Of these deaths, 119 involved a firearm, 23 a vehicle used as a weapon, 7 bombs, 6 clubs or fists, and 2 involved an edged weapon. Together, these deaths only made up 19.5% of all the officer deaths from 2013 through 2015.

Deaths Due to Accidents

Over the last three years, 148 law enforcement officers died in an accident. Of these deaths, 126 involved a vehicle, such as cars, motorcycles, aircraft, and watercraft. They involved incidents such as normal driving, emergency driving, and being hit by a vehicle as a pedestrian. The remaining 22 deaths resulted from accidental causes such as drowning, electrocution, firearms accidents, and falls.

Deaths Due to Health or Exposures

Over the last three years, 93 law enforcement officers died at work due to health issues, or died due to health problems from things they were exposed to at work. Of these deaths, 46 were due to exposures at work to such things as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, tuberculosis, or toxic substances. The remaining 47 died at work due to a heart attack, stroke, or brain aneurism. In addition to these numbers, it is unknown how many officers died in retirement over the last three years due to health problems they developed from this career. Retired law enforcement officers die of heart disease, cancer (esophageal, colon, kidney, and lymphatic), and cirrhosis of the liver at much higher rates than the average U.S. retired population.6

Deaths Due to Suicide

Suicide is the leading cause of death among active law enforcement officers. All of the causes of death discussed above, when combined, only account for half of the officer deaths in the U.S. over the last three years. While firm numbers are hard to get, it is estimated that at least 408 law enforcement officers took their own lives from 2013 through 2015.7

Training to Survive

The odds are that you already participate in officer safety training to combat threats of violence. You train with your firearm and other weapons. You practice your defensive tactics techniques. You are constantly on guard mentally, observing for possible physical threats. You likely read and discuss books and articles regarding officer safety techniques, but do you do the same to defend against the other (more prevalent) dangers from your job? Do you go to training on officer wellness? Do you read books and articles about how to survive this career and live a healthy retirement? Do you utilize the techniques that can help alleviate stress from the job in a safe and healthy way? Do you practice the techniques that can improve your overall physical and psychological well-being? Do you even know what these techniques are?

There are a number of techniques that have been proven to help law enforcement officers reduce stress, prevent suicide, and reduce the risk of physical and psychological health issues. First, just as in training against violent attacks, mental conditioning helps officers prepare for non-violent situations that still pose career dangers or stressors. Visualizing potential situations and thinking through in advance how you would handle them improves performance and reduces stress. Second, just as is the case on the firing range, breathing techniques can help lower an officer’s hyperarousal to stressful circumstances, reducing tunnel vision and giving the officer clearer thoughts. Third, physical conditioning, in the form of exercise, proper diet, sufficient sleep, and avoiding substances harmful to your body, can have an enormous impact on fighting off illnesses and reducing stress. Finally, hobbies, interests, and relationships outside of public safety work are crucial to an officer’s physical and mental health.8

We at the Dolan Consulting Group hope that you take as much interest in your total safety and well-being as you do in your safety from violent attack. Below are resources we highly recommend that you utilize to improve your health, safety, and well-being. Stay safe!



Gilmartin, K. M. (2002). Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and their Families. Tucson, AZ: E-S Press.

Blum, L. N. (2000). Force Under Pressure: How Cops Live and Why They Die. New York, NY: Lantern Books.

Barker, J. C. (1999). Danger, Duty, and Disillusion: The Worldview of Los Angeles Police Officers. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.


Richard R. Johnson is the Chief Academic Officer at the Dolan Consulting Group. He holds a bachelor’s degree in public administration and criminal justice from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA), a master’s degree in criminology from Indiana State University, and a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati. He was formerly a university professor in the area of criminal justice, leaving the University of Toledo at the rank of full professor. Dr. Johnson has published more than 50 articles on policing issues in peerreviewed research journals, including such top ranked journals as Justice Quarterly, Crime & Delinquency, Criminal Justice and Behavior, and Journal of Criminal Justice. Prior to becoming an academic, Dr. Johnson served as a trooper with the Indiana State Police, and as a criminal investigator with the Kane County State’s Attorney Office in Illinois.


The Dolan Consulting Group LLC is an organization of public policy experts who address issues related to public service provision organizations, such as law enforcement agencies, corrections agencies, fire departments, emergency medical services, hospitals, and school districts. We provide services such as assessments, training, and research with the goal of improving the operations and outputs of these agencies through evidence-based solutions. Our staff includes former public safety leaders, attorneys, and statisticians, all of whom also have real world experience working in government and conducting quality training.


Dolan Consulting Group

Harry P. Dolan, President and CEO

2840 Plaza Place, Suite 325

Raleigh, NC 27612



1 Brandl, S. G., & Smith, B. W. (2013). An empirical examination of retired police officers’ length of retirement and age at death. Police Quarterly, 16(1), 113-123.

2 Ruiz, J., & Morrow, E. (2005). Retiring the old centurion: life after a career in policing. International Journal of Public Administration, 28, 1151-1186.

3 Officer Down Memorial Page:

4 O’Hara, A. F., Violanti, J. M., Levenson, R. L., & Clark, R. G. (2013). National police suicide estimates: web surveillance study III. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 15(1), 31-38.

5 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics:

6 Ruiz, J., & Morrow, E. (2005). Retiring the old centurion: life after a career in policing. International Journal of Public Administration, 28, 1151-1186; Violanti, J. M., Vena, J. E., & Petrolia, S. (1998). Mortality of a police cohort: 1950-1990. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 33, 366-373.

7 O’Hara, Violanti, Levenson, & Clark (2013).

8 Blum, L. N. (2000). Force Under Pressure: How Cops Live and Why They Die. New York, NY: Lantern Books.