New research co-authored by Professor Jens Ludwig demonstrates the underappreciated power of strengthening managerial practices in improving policing outcomes.
Professor Jens Ludwig

Calls for the reimagining of the role of police in public safety have coincided with a surge in gun violence nationwide – by nearly 30% since 2019 – making the search for ways to reduce violence without exacerbating the harms of policing all the more urgent.

Activism and reform efforts tend to focus on either police resourcing (for example, defunding the police versus expanding police budgets) or policing strategies (such as community policing versus broken-windows policing). But neither of those fully explain why some cities are less violent and more equitable in policing than others.

That’s according to new research from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, which shows that a simple but potentially powerful lever for improving policing outcomes is something that also makes a difference in the private sector: management quality.

The research is co-authored by Jens Ludwig, the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor and Director of the UChicago Crime Lab, alongside Max Kapustin, Assistant Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Cornell University, and Terrence Neumann, a doctoral student at the University of Texas, Austin. They examine data on policing outcomes and practices in America’s largest cities to illustrate the limitations of conventional approaches to police reform.

The authors point out, for example, that murder rates per capita in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago were strikingly similar for most of the past century, peaking at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in the early 1990s. Since then, homicides have fallen by 80 to 90 percent in New York and Los Angeles, yet Chicago’s murder rate is nearly back to its all-time high in the early 1990s. That’s despite strong similarity among all three cities in poverty trends, police resourcing, and policing strategy.

“Clearly, there’s something else at play here that led New York and Los Angeles down one path and Chicago down another,” said Ludwig. “We looked at whether the missing factor might be a police department’s ability to effectively do what it’s supposed to do with available resources - that is, the quality of its leadership and management.” 

The authors found that these areas represent a major opportunity for change and are key to greater police effectiveness. For example, they find that across cities, the presence of longer-tenured police leaders correlated strongly with a decrease in violent crimes or police use of force to the order of 20-35%. This suggests that, when controlling for all other factors, managerial skill could help explain why certain districts achieve better policing outcomes.

They also look at the impact of an intervention implemented by the Chicago Police Department in 2016 in response to a surge in gun violence. The authors found that as a result of a new management program, shootings and violent felonies declined by 32% in the first month and 21% after three months without measurable changes in arrests, stops, or police use of force. Were these effects to persist, they would reduce the Black-white disparity in gun violence victimization rates by 13% city-wide.

“While there remains disagreement across the American public about what policing should look like, our research demonstrates that how a department is managed can be an important facilitator -- or barrier -- to change," said Ludwig. “The issue of management and leadership in policing is something we've ignored for too long but desperately need to understand better."

Building on the findings of this research, the University of Chicago Crime Lab recently announced the launch of the Community Safety Leadership Academies (CSLA), which will offer first-of-their kind programs to train the next generation of policing and community violence intervention (CVI) leaders from across America. The CSLA will include both the Policing Leadership Academy and the CVI Leadership Academy with the goal of improving public safety nationwide, an impact goal the Crime Lab will also rigorously measure and evaluate.