A fishing village in East Malaysia became famous for perfecting its rescue system. From time to time, someone would come drifting down the river past the village, crying for help. The residents formed dedicated teams and built an observation tower to watch for drowning people.

One day someone asked, “why don’t you go upstream to find out why so many people are falling into the river?” This is the story of the village where Malaysia’s Director for Reducing Crime in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Dr Amin Khan, grew up.

As a result of this life lesson, his motto is ‘prevention is better than cure’, and he uses this approach when leading Malaysia’s efforts to reduce crime. Since 2009, the police has been using a new approach – hotspot policing. The technique has helped cut crime by 29% between 2009 and 2012, according to Dr Yik Koon Teh from the National Defence University of Malaysia.

How it works
Typically, beats, precincts and districts dictate how police patrol the city. But this may not be the best way to prevent crime. “Crime does not occur evenly over the landscape. It is clustered in small areas, or hotspots, that account for a disproportionate amount of crime and disorder,” according to research reviewed by the United States National Institute of Justice.

The principle that underpins the hotspots approach is that police target their response in specific locations or hotspots, like street blocks or addresses, where crime is the highest. Police can identify these hotspots by locating data from call records, CCTVs and patrol officers.

The majority of research shows that this technique is an “effective crime prevention strategy”, according to the Centre for Evidence-Based Crime Policy in the United States. Of 25 tests reviewed by the researchers, 20 showed “noteworthy” reductions in crime and disorder. Policing in hotspots could also have a positive effect on neighbouring areas, they found.

In Malaysia, patrolling hotspots was particularly helpful in reducing crime when used with other measures – installing CCTV cameras, recruiting more police officers and brightening street lights. “These measures have been proven to reduce the crime rate, particularly if implemented collectively,” wrote Dr Teh. The fall in crime rate between 2009 and 2012 was “most likely” due to these measures, he concluded.

Cautious note
However, the approach works better for certain crimes than others, studies show. It worked best for preventing drug offences, violent crimes, like murder and robbery, and disorder, while it was less effective for property crimes like car thefts and house break-ins.

Despite these results, Malaysian citizens are not satisfied and “do not feel safe”, according to Dr Teh. Some even feel crime has gone up. “Even though the crime index came down by 40% over the last five years, the public felt the crime went up or remained at the same level,” Dr Khan wrote.

The Malaysian Police’s focus on hotspots has helped reduce crime. Now, the next step is to communicate these achievements to the wider population.

This article is part of GovInsider’s ‘What Works’ series looking at evidence-based policymaking. If you would like to suggest a topic, please email Medha@GovInsider.Asia’.