Focused Deterrence


Focused deterrence is a strategy to intervene with high-risk groups and individuals to prevent future crimes, primarily future violence. One example is the Group Violence Intervention, for which a guidebook (PDF) is available (National Network for Safe Communities, 2016). The strategy typically starts with an intervention meeting to warn at-risk individuals about potential consequences of their actions and give them incentives to desist. The strategy then combines access to services as an incentive, strict legal consequences for continuing criminal behavior as deterrents, and efforts from community members to monitor and support the individuals on an ongoing basis. Recent evidence suggests that a focus on deterring persons and groups from engaging in violence is a promising strategy to reduce future violence.

How Effective Is Focused Deterrence for Different Kinds of Problems?

  • This strategy is effective for reducing crime in places at elevated risk.
  • It is also effective for reducing individuals’ risk of involvement in serious crimes.
  • Focused deterrence can be potentially effective for improving relations with the community if done in partnership with communities.
  • Parts of focused deterrence that involve collecting and following up on tips from the community potentially lead to solving more-serious crimes.

Resource Requirements

An agency wanting to use focused deterrence will need the following:

  • an interagency group that will coordinate the strategy and the teams
  • a research and evaluation group that will track how well the strategy is working and will identify and help resolve problems
  • an analysis and intelligence team that will identify which offenders are at sufficiently high risk of violence to be included in the intervention
  • a team that will run communications efforts with intervention recipients and groups, including those who will run formal intervention meetings and those who will run ongoing communications between intervention recipients and their supporters
  • a team that carries out enforcement efforts against offenders and offending groups; the team includes both law enforcement and prosecutors (who bring enhanced charges for groups and individuals persisting in criminal behavior)
  • a team that coordinates services provided to individuals who choose to make a positive change away from violence and crime (e.g., linking individuals with community organizations and other agencies that will provide the services, assigning case managers who help individuals get the services they need).

The Focused Deterrence Process

There are five key tasks typically involved in focused deterrence:

  1. Find those at risk of being involved with violence
  2. Hold an intervention meeting
  3. Provide services to those who want to change
  4. Have community members provide ongoing support
  5. Enhance enforcement for persons and groups that persist in crime

Step 1: Find Those at Risk of Being Involved with Violence

The typical approach to finding those at risk is to first conduct audits with community leaders and area police to identify groups and conflicts seen as driving most violence in a jurisdiction.

The next step is to identify the highest-risk individuals. This can be done by reviewing information from frontline officers on different details (patrol, gang, vice, etc.), reviewing recent violent incidents to determine who might be involved in subsequent violence, and requesting tips from the community to identify “power players” believed to be driving criminal activity. Formal crime analyses can also help identify the highest-risk individuals through such means as using social network analysis to map out criminal networks and key actors within them (see, for example, a Bureau of Justice Assistance briefing on what social network analysis is and how to use it (PDF) [Violence Reduction Network, undated]) or searching the agency’s records for those who have high numbers of recent victimizations or violence-related offenses.

In identifying those at risk, agencies need to include equity and civil rights protections. Questions that agencies should consider include the following: Who is involved in identifying those at risk, especially individuals? How do they do it? What are the processes used? What are the criteria for selection? What are the protections and procedures in place to ensure that the selection process and criteria are used correctly?

Tip: Selection of individuals must be logical and defensible, and it must be based on clear criteria regarding why the individuals might pose a major threat to the community.

Step 2. Hold an Intervention Meeting

Holding a meeting to inform individuals why they have been selected for focused deterrence and what that means for them.

  • Typical participants include police and social services representatives, family members, friends, families of crime victims, and other influential community members. The group seeks to persuade high-risk individuals to desist from engaging in violence and other serious crimes.
  • Meeting topics include the following:
    • reviews of the histories of individuals to explain why the intervention is occurring
    • a list of charges faced and other consequences if violence does not stop
    • evidence that authorities have (such as video evidence) to convict them
    • examples of what happened to prior individuals who chose to continue violence
    • discussion among friends, family, and community members about the effects that violence is having on them
    • consequences that the individuals will receive if the violence does not stop
    • discussion of services and supports that the individuals will receive if they do choose to change.

Step 3: Provide Services to Those Who Want to Change

Examples of services an individual might be eligible to receive include the following (not intended to be a complete list):

  • counseling
  • substance abuse treatment
  • housing
  • education
  • employment training and placement
  • help in obtaining identification cards (including a driver’s license, a non-driver state identification card, or a social security card)
  • community corrections (if applicable)
  • Veterans Affairs benefits (for individuals who are veterans).

Tip: There is a strong need for case managers to work with individuals and providers to ensure that individuals receive the services they need. There is also a need for staff who conduct outreach to service providers to help make services available. These providers collectively ensure that someone will respond to individuals’ calls for help and that the individuals get the help they need quickly.

Step 4. Have Community Members Provide Ongoing Support

This step involves ongoing support and monitoring of at-risk individuals from the community, beyond the influence of law enforcement and social services. This step helps continue the intervention when law enforcement is not present. From our review of focused deterrence studies, examples of individuals who provide this support included

  • family members and friends
  • community organizations (churches, nonprofit groups, schools)
  • other criminally involved individuals or syndicate members who want to avoid trouble and can pressure their high-risk peers to desist from violence.

Step 5. Enhance Enforcement for Persons and Groups That Persist in Crime

Tip: These measures are intended strictly for individuals engaging in violence after being warned. They are not meant as options for general punishment of residents in communities with violent gangs. For more on the risks of and alternatives to zero tolerance, see our strategy guide.

Actions taken against groups and persons who persist in crime are intended to sanction them swiftly, with certainty and proportionality. Examples of enhanced enforcements against individuals who carry out violent attacks after being warned to desist include the following:

  • airing unwanted publicity in the media—e.g., videos of gang roundups, discussions on local radio and television news
  • prioritizing prosecutions of the violent offenders—ideally in the federal system, which most isolates the violent from the community
  • subjecting offenders to stricter pretrial sanctions (no bond, etc.)
  • subjecting offenders to stricter sentencing.

Examples of enhanced enforcements for groups include the following:

  • prioritizing service of any outstanding warrants to group members
  • making other law enforcement contacts with group members on a regular basis
  • disrupting and sanctioning the group for committing low-level crimes, such as low-level drug activity, public substance use, and trespassing
  • prioritizing collection of law enforcement intelligence against the group, to gain evidence of additional crimes for prosecution.

A major purpose of these sanctions is future deterrence. Agencies typically publicize the sanctions against groups and persons with the media; they also emphasize the sanctions in future intervention meetings as examples of what could happen if the individuals do not change course.

Additional Reading

The National Network for Safe Communities provides a detailed guide on the Group Violence Intervention (2016) (PDF) that is a revision of Boston's Operation Ceasefire, the premier model for focused deterrence. The Network also provides an implementation guide on the core model for deterring open-air drug dealing, the Drug Market Intervention (2015) (PDF).