Abstract: Positive Deviance in Urban Neighborhood Policing (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Positive Deviance in Urban Neighborhood Policing

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Stephen Edward McMillin, PhD, Associate Professor of Social Work and Epidemiology, Saint Louis University, Saint Louis, MO
Background and Purpose

The positive deviance approach investigates how some deviant behaviors produce valuable/desired social and behavioral change. Within social work, positive deviance can inform community development by uncovering strategies used by population outliers to achieve desired outcomes. Positive deviance approaches have been recommended for community policing because of the difficulty in using methods such as randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to collect evidence for police effectiveness. Cowen and Cartwright (2019) found that evidence-based practice methods such as meta-analysis, systematic review, and realist synthesis provide strong evidence in support of positive deviance approaches to community policing even in the absence of RCTs. However, little is known about how positive deviance may inform existing community policing efforts. This study contributes to filling this gap by investigating how positive deviance approaches are present in community policing of a racially mixed, rapidly developing urban neighborhood in St. Louis.


This research was part of a three-year ethnography. Participant observation was conducted at monthly meetings of a local neighborhood association and weekly crime statistics reports for the neighborhood were analyzed in this time. In-depth, semi-structured, qualitative interviews approximately 90-120 minutes in length were conducted with 16 residents of the neighborhood. Convenience sampling – in partnership with a local community organization – and snowball sampling methods were used to recruit participants. Interviews were audiotaped, transcribed verbatim, and reviewed for accuracy. Analytic methods used included open, thematic coding and qualitative description analysis.


This analysis found three primary thematic topics where positive deviance was present in community policing in this neighborhood: 1) Prolonged engagement and credibility: The city police department assigned a neighborhood liaison officer to neighborhoods dealing with high crime. While neighborhood liaisons often changed assignments frequently, this neighborhood’s liaison officer was an African-American veteran officer who had served as this neighborhood’s liaison for the last six years. He consistently attended the monthly neighborhood association meeting, where he presented a written report, answered questions, and socialized with neighbors at a pizza party after each meeting. 2) Transparent data-sharing: This liaison emailed weekly crime statistics as well as comparative annual summaries of crime statistics for the neighborhood, most recently showing a 5.9% increase in personal crime, a 17.3% decrease in property crime, and a 13.3% decrease in overall crime for the neighborhood. These descriptions were considerably more detailed than local newspaper crime reports and crime tracking and also enumerated and summarized calls for service, an average of almost 60 each week in the neighborhood. 3) Responsive updates and self-correction: The liaison would acknowledge when he had forgotten or left our crime statistics, and when permitted would elaborate and comment on news reports and answer emailed questions, while also candidly noting where police response was likely to be limited, e.g. juvenile delinquency.

Conclusions and Implications

This study suggests positive deviance is a promising approach for community policing. The neighborhood officer studied here was a positive deviant who demonstrated prolonged engagement, transparent data-sharing, and responsive self-correction behaviors that were outliers from other neighborhood liaison behaviors in this urban area.