• Center for Problem oriented policing

POP Center Tools Identifying and Defining Policing Problems Page 2

Understanding a ‘Problem’ as a Basic Police Work Unit                                            previous page next page

Dealing with troublesome situations that threaten the public’s safety and security is the essence of police work.1 The public expects the police to deal with all manner of problems, ranging from minor public nuisances to serious criminal conduct. Most commonly, a citizen calls the police to report a troublesome situation—whether a crime, a suspicious circumstance, a hazardous condition, a nuisance, or an accident. Or police officers themselves will spot a troublesome situation and take the initiative in dealing with it. These citizen requests or officer-initiated actions generate the calls-for-service—or incidents—that have long constituted the basic police work unit. If the incident constitutes a crime, it will likely be classified as a criminal case—an alternative form of the basic police work unit. Each incident or case is handled by police, applying standard processes and procedures, with the objective of resolving the situation, at least for the short term. A suspect is arrested, a dispute is settled, an accident is investigated, and reports are made. And police then turn their attention to the next incident or case.

Problem-oriented policing calls for the police to organize at least part of their work around a new basic work unit: a problem. A policing problem is different from an incident or a case. Under problem-oriented policing a problem has the following basic characteristics:

  • A problem is of concern to the public and to the police
  • A problem involves conduct or conditions that fall within the broad, but not unlimited,
  • responsibilities of the police
  • A problem involves multiple, recurring incidents or cases, related to one another in one
  • or more ways
  • A problem is unlikely to be resolved without special police intervention2 

Another way of summarizing these characteristics is by the acronym CHEERS:*

* See Clarke and Eck n.d. (Step 14) for further discussion of the CHEERS test.

Community     Individuals, groups, or organizations are affected by the problem.

Harmful           The problem causes actual or perceived harm to community members. The harm is not necessarily the result of criminal conduct.

Expectation     The public’s expectation that police address the problem is reasonable. Some problems about which citizens call the police are more appropriately addressed by private citizens
or organizations, or by other governmental agencies.

Events              The problem is experienced through discrete events that may or may not result in police calls-for-service.

Recurring         The discrete events will have been recurring for some time and, importantly, are likely to continue to recur in the absence of some special police intervention.

Similarity          The discrete events are similar to one another in one or more ways (more on this later in the guide).

Distinguishing Among Problems, Patterns, and Incidents

The distinction between policing incidents and policing problems is reasonably clear. Less clear is the distinction between patterns of incidents and problems. Police routinely deal with lots of incident patterns: a rash of burglaries or vehicle break-ins in a neighborhood, a spate of complaints about speeding along a stretch of roadway, a series of rapes or murders in a community, and so forth. Whether these incident patterns should be addressed through a problem-solving approach or merely through intensive criminal investigation or directed patrol is largely a matter of judgment. The main point is to recognize that there is a distinction to be made.

Because problem solving entails deep analysis into the causes and contributing factors underlying problems, it often is more time- and resource-intensive than handling incidents and investigating cases. Many incident patterns will be adequately addressed by applying conventional policing techniques to apprehend or deter known offenders and to aid victims. Generally, problems are distinct from incident patterns in one or more of the following ways:

  • Incident patterns occur over a shorter time period (think days or a couple of weeks); problems persist over longer time periods (think months, years, or decades).
  • Incident patterns are likely to be the work of one or a relatively small group of offenders and/or affect a relatively small number of victims; problems tend to be the work of a steady stream of new offenders and/or affect a steady stream of new victims.
  • Incident patterns tend to occur in one or a few number of locations; problems tend to occur over multiple locations.
  • Incident patterns tend to have fairly straightforward causes; problems tend to have multiple and relatively complex causes and contributing factors. 

Most important, defining a troublesome situation as a problem, as opposed to an incident pattern, carries with it a commitment to analyzing the situation so as to understand its causes and contributing factors, and then developing and implementing responses designed to achieve long-term, sustainable improvements in the community’s and police’s response to the problem.

It is vital that any police agency be capable of responding to and handling incidents; recognizing and interrupting patterns of incidents; and identifying, analyzing, and addressing chronic problems. To do so, your agency should develop and apply the systems and methods most appropriate to the situation.*

* Rachel Boba and Roberto Santos 2011 have developed what they call a Stratified Model of Problem Solving, Analysis, and Accountability that is helpful toward this end.

Distinguishing among incidents, incident patterns, and problems reliably and accurately is important primarily because problem solving is often—although not always—resource intensive. Classifying problems as incidents or as incident patterns can result in unnecessary harm to the community because the underlying conditions that give rise to the incidents go unaddressed. Conversely, though, classifying an incident or an incident pattern as a problem can result in resources being expended unnecessarily, whether analytical resources expended studying the situation or operational resources expended responding to it.

Objectives of the Scanning Phase of Problem Solving

The Scanning phase has the following related objectives, each of which will constitute the subject of the remaining sections of this guidebook:

1. Recognizing potential problems that warrant further inquiry by the police
2. Verifying that perceived problems are real and warrant police attention
3. Defining problems precisely, accurately, and in a way that facilitates police addressing them
4. Persuading others to give problems special police attention
5. Determining the appropriate level of aggregation for addressing the problem 

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