Understanding Your Local Problem
Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.
Any systematic understanding of your particular local problem also begins with identification of those individuals and organizations within your community who are affected by or are called to respond when chronically inebriated individuals create a service demand.
The various groups of community stakeholders will likely have divergent—and sometimes conflicting—priorities, perspectives, and goals that will have to be effectively reconciled. In addition to criminal justice agencies, the following groups have an interest in the problem of chronic inebriation and should be considered for the contribution they might make in gathering information about the problem and forming systematic responses to it:
- Social services agencies. Government agencies and nongovernment organizations serving chronic inebriates have an interest in improving living conditions for their clients, but they also are interested in reducing the level of resources consumed by relatively few chronically needy clients. They also have data specific to certain individuals, service areas, and groups that police may not have as well as expertise and resources to improve responses. These agencies and organizations may include those focused on issues related to the homeless, alcohol or substance abuse and addiction, mental illness, veterans, probationers and parolees, the chronically unemployed, and displaced persons.
- Health care and emergency medical service providers. These organizations may be public or private. Along with the police, these organizations interact with many chronically inebriated individuals on a routine or repeated basis, or both. Like social service agencies, they may have data, expertise, and resources otherwise unavailable to other system actors. These organizations are frequently the frontline portal through which chronic inebriates are offered sobriety counseling; they also identify physical and mental health issues that might otherwise go unattended. They also bear a considerable share of the financial burden associated with the treatment and care of chronically inebriated individuals.
- Religious and charitable organizations. As with social services agencies, these groups are interested in improving the daily lives of the populations they serve. Rather than seeking broader solutions to individual problems, religious and charitable organizations may tailor their efforts to more immediate needs, such as food, clothing, heat, and shelter. These organizations may also provide monetary support for programs. Likewise, their staff and congregations can be valuable sources of volunteers. Religious organizations may help shape the moral or ethical content of public policy discussions about community responses to chronic public inebriation.
- Residents who live near, work, or travel through areas where chronic inebriates routinely gather. People who live near parks, liquor stores, public transit stations, clinics, or other service locations frequented by chronically inebriated individuals may be especially prone to unwanted interaction with this population. This part of the community often suffers disproportionately from crimes committed by chronic inebriates. They may be the victims of aggressive panhandling, petty theft, property damage, or verbal or physical assaults. They may simply experience annoyance or discomfort at their "forced" proximity to individuals whom they may take to be irrational, diseased, unclean, bothersome, or criminal. Their interests may be satisfied by simply displacing or pushing the problem individuals out of their immediate area. Even so, these residents may be able to provide you with information about specific chronically inebriated individuals and the particular nature of crime and disorder in their area.
- Businesses. Businesses can be both the frequent targets and unwitting enablers of crime and disorder that can accompany a population of chronically inebriated individuals. Where certain merchants and restaurant owners may regard this population as a liability (for having to begrudgingly tolerate the use of their premises or imposition upon their clientele), a liquor or convenience store owner may have a vastly different view. Because of this duality, local business owners may or may not be motivated to support a given local solution. That said, business owners may need to be educated as to how a given response might benefit them, even if it appears on its face to hold negative consequences (e.g., a decline in sales due to sales restrictions).
- Media. Local media coverage can influence how the public perceives the problem of chronic inebriation. Media reports centered on chronic inebriation and the broad public costs associated with it will doubtless raise awareness of the issue. Good investigative journalism about chronic public inebriation can supplement your own analysis of the problem. Unbalanced or overly editorialized coverage of the problem, however, may work against you. Therefore, it is essential to involve members of the press early in your planning efforts. If properly managed, the media can be a potent ally in communicating program goals and tailoring public expectations to the realities at hand.
- Chronically inebriated individuals. It is perhaps an obvious point, but the chronically inebriated themselves have a central stake in the public response to them. Though little publicized, chronic public inebriates may experience victimization at the hands of both the public as well as other chronic inebriates, some of which goes unreported. Chronic inebriates themselves have information you need about criminal victimization and risky behavior within their community. Understanding chronic public inebriates as both "victims" and "offenders" is key to a more effective response. Understanding their perspectives, attitudes, and expectations is an important part of developing effective strategies to combat the problem.
- Regulatory agencies. The cooperation of organizations that regulate or license the sale of alcohol may be crucial to the success of any response predicated on changing alcohol availability. Moreover, these agencies may have a familiarity with sales patterns and practices that could be useful in understanding your local problem.
Asking the Right Questions
Based on the data and input from community stakeholders, the nature and scope of local problems will start to come into focus. Before planning your response, you need to establish the basic scope and dimension of your problem. Some relevant questions might include:
- What are the primary types of incidents related to chronic public inebriation (e.g., disorderly conduct, medical distress, panhandling, loitering) that generate calls for police service?
- How do the nature and seriousness of incidents involving chronic public inebriation vary across the service area?
- What is the cost to the local government to respond to these incidents (including police, emergency medical services (EMS), and detoxification costs)?
- Do a majority (or even a significant number) of incidents involve the same core group of chronic inebriates?
- Are there situational or background characteristics common to frequent or recurrent offenders (e.g., homelessness, mental illness, veterans' status)?
- How much prior contact have individual chronic inebriates had with police? What has been the nature of that contact (e.g., as victim, serious-crime offender, petty-crime offender, nuisance offender)?
- Are chronic public inebriates long-time residents of your community or recent arrivals?
- Who commonly complains about the behavior of or conditions created by chronic public inebriates (e.g., merchants, passersby, residents, or other street people)?
- What specifically is the nature of the complaints (e.g., loss of business revenue, reduced access to public spaces, intimidation, unsightliness or odor, concern for inebriates' welfare, criminal victimization)?
- How commonly are chronic public inebriates victims?
- What is the nature of chronic public inebriates' victimization (e.g., theft of their property, assault, harassment, exposure to hazards)?
Locations and Times
- Do complaints and incidents tend to cluster around particular places; or around particular seasons, days, or times of day? (The identification of chronic inebriation hot spots in your community may be apparent upon casual observation, or it may require detailed mapping and analysis to discern.)
- What features of identified hot spots or times seem to contribute to the complaints and incidents?
Current Responses to the Problem
- How are officers currently authorized, trained, and expected to handle incidents involving chronic public inebriation?
- How do officers actually handle incidents involving chronic public inebriation? (Some officers might have developed novel ways of handling these incidents; some of these will be appropriate and effective, and some will not).
- What facilities and resources are available to officers to assist them in responding to the needs of chronic public inebriates?
Measuring Your Effectiveness
Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. Even though the seriousness of a given problem may drive a desire for immediate action, the most successful responses are borne out of careful planning. As such, you should take measures of your problem before you implement responses to determine how serious the problem is and after you implement them to determine whether they have been effective. You should take all measures in both the target area and the surrounding area. For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 1, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers and Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 10, Analyzing Crime Displacement and Diffusion.
In thinking about the relative success or failure of a given response, you will want to consider exactly what goals and outcomes are desirable, appropriate, and realistic for your community. Some communities that have employed the following responses regard success as the mere removal of an obvious problem from public view (e.g., reducing the number of chronic inebriates in the city parks). Some are much more holistic, defining success not only in terms of removing public disorder or lessening certain service demands, but as a measure of facilitating positive change in the lives of the chronic inebriates themselves. While broad proclamations of success or failure are often difficult to make without some qualification, you will likely need to assess any response with a mixture of both qualitative and quantitative techniques to gauge your effectiveness.
Evaluation (or assessment) measures are of two types: process measures and outcome measures. Process measures show the extent to which responses were properly implemented. Outcome measures show the extent to which the responses reduced the level or severity of the problem. Because your local circumstances may differ from those of other places, you might develop additional questions unique to your local problem. The following are potentially relevant measures:
- Improved understanding of providers' respective roles, responsibilities, and options at each point in the process
- Adequacy of resources (e.g., personnel, facilities, vehicles, and programs) to meet the service demand
- Reduced volume of intoxicating beverage sales to chronic inebriates
- Increased participation among chronic inebriates in alcohol- or drug-treatment programs
- Reduced public costs of responding to chronic public inebriation
- Reduced number of arrests or involuntary detentions of chronic public inebriates
- Reduced number of calls for police service related to chronic public inebriation
- Reduced number of incidents in or near homeless shelters and sobering centers
- Reduced victimization of chronic inebriates (e.g., fewer crimes, fewer deaths and injuries)
- Reduced number of calls for emergency medical service related to chronic inebriation
- Reduced number of emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and hospital stays by chronic inebriates
- Reduced recidivism among chronic public inebriates, especially among most frequent offenders
- Reduced public costs for chronic public inebriates
- More positive perceptions of the problem of chronic public inebriates in affected communities
- Increased legitimate use of public areas (e.g., parks and sidewalks) once abdicated to chronic inebriates