• Center for Problem oriented policing

POP Center Tools Identifying and Defining Policing Problems Page 3

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Recognizing Potential Policing Problems

The term scanning is used in the SARA model to communicate the idea that you need to actively scan the policing environment to identify troublesome situations that might warrant addressing as problems rather than relying on conventional policing methods—i.e., preventive or directed patrol, handling incidents, investigating cases, arresting offenders—to address the situation. To properly scan your policing environment you should employ various systems and routines designed for this purpose.

Some policing problems are readily apparent because the volume of incidents or the harm being caused by them is so great and so public. A sudden spate of violent sexual assaults reported to police, for example, could readily compel police to not only work to solve the cases, but to re-examine the whole community response to preventing and responding to violent sexual assaults. But many policing problems are not so readily apparent. They might be hidden among the many incidents and cases police are handling, perhaps classified in different reporting categories, occurring in a wide range of locations, or affecting different people. Each incident or case might seem relatively minor in its own right, but prove to be more significant when aggregated into a larger problem. Don’t assume that if a problem were significant, it would be obvious to everyone. Many police agencies have discovered that their officers have been handling similar incidents for years or even decades, usually with little or only temporary success, without anyone recognizing the persistent nature of the problem and the need to address it as a problem rather than as a string of isolated incidents. Often times, because so many different police officers handle these incidents, no one officer recognizes the persistence of the problem. 

[In 1992] a man began calling the COPS Coordinator’s Office complaining about juveniles involved in the drug trade. He claimed to be a neighborhood watch leader, a grand juror, a confidential police informant, and a former military intelligence officer. He spoke about his efforts to rid the neighborhood of crime and gang problems.

After about a dozen such phone calls, we researched the dispatch and incident report files to learn more about these problems and this man. Between January and May of 1992, the police were dispatched to 1718 South 13th St. 27 times. The type of calls varied from minor disturbances to more serious armed robberies and assaults.

In just three years, the man, Mr. H., was listed as the victim in 17 separate felony crime reports, most of which were robberies, burglaries, and assaults. Mr. H. was also arrested for aggravated assault in one of the incidents. Crime summaries showed a pattern in which Mr. H. either reported unknown intruders who assaulted him in his home or unknown assailants who robbed him on the street. The reports further identified a few associates who themselves were regular criminal suspects. Several police officers were injured in a suspicious fire at this address as well.

Almost all of the calls for police service to this address were made by Mr. H. complaining about people not leaving his residence, stealing money from him, or hanging around in the street. Most of these calls were disposed of without a written report.

Over one-hundred staff hours were spent handling the initial criminal investigations alone. Substantial, but undocumented time was further spent handling calls and on follow-up investigations. No single patrol officer or detective, however, handled more than a couple of incidents.

Source: St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department 1993 


In October 1994 Seventh District Officers Fran Krupp and Laure Lamczyk received a call to 5876 Kennerly in the Wells-Goodfellow Neighborhood for burglars in the building. They met the caller, Mrs. R., who is in her late 80s and legally blind. Mrs. R. complained that someone had broken into her basement and that she could hear them talking while they did their laundry.

The officers found no signs of intruders. Mrs. R., however, was convinced that someone had entered her basement, but for the time being was satisfied with the officers’ inspection. Fran later recalled hearing several other assignments to that same address in the past. She checked the C.A.D. system and found records of 188 police calls to 5876 Kennerly. This address was listed as the tenth highest call location in the Seventh District. Over the past three years, police were dispatched to this address nearly 300 times for either “burglars in the building” or “disturbances.” Fran also discovered that no police reports had ever been completed on these calls—they had all been coded.

Talking with other officers who handled calls at this location, Fran heard the same story over and over—an elderly female calls the police because she hears noises coming from her basement. In all cases, the call was unfounded and coded.

The police department had already spent an estimated 240 staff hours handling the previous calls and it was obvious that if something wasn’t done, these calls for service would continue.

Source: St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department 1994

Consider developing and employing the following systems and routines for scanning the policing environment in search of problems.*

* See Scott and Kirby 2012, pp. 34–37 for further information.

Reviewing Police Records

Routinely review the major records systems that document various aspects of a police agency’s workload. The most common methods are computer-aided dispatch (CAD) records, and incident reports and investigation case files maintained in a records management system (RMS).

CAD records have the advantage of including many more incidents than do incident/case reports because many police agencies do not require officers to complete a full incident report on some calls: they are permitted to simply report a disposition code in the CAD system. A disadvantage of relying on CAD records to identify problems is that, typically, the information captured in each CAD record is limited and not always accurate. CAD information is typically limited to that information a responding officer needs to have to know where to go and what general type of incident is occurring. Another disadvantage of CAD records is that the incident types are often so general that it makes it difficult to distinguish among widely varying forms of troublesome situations. For example, CAD records might contain many “check man” calls, but those could include everything from an intoxicated person, to a prowler, to a robber casing a robbery target.

Incident or case reports have the advantage of capturing far greater information about each incident than do CAD records. When properly completed, incident reports are also likely to be more accurate because the responding officer has been able to verify facts. But incident/case reports carry the same risk as do CAD records of making it difficult to determine from the report titles or classifications precisely what the incident was about. For example, reports titled as “robbery”—which suffices for describing the crime committed—would not permit one to readily distinguish among bank robberies, street robberies, and home invasion robberies, each of which are quite different in a problem-solving context.

Other police record systems can also be useful for identifying potential problems. Citizen tip lines often generate a lot of information—although not always accurate—about troublesome situations. If your agency converts the reported tips (whether reported on telephone lines or e-mail) to a database, the database can readily be reviewed to detect trends and patterns from among the tips. Because anonymous tips report conditions or conduct that otherwise might not result in a police call-for-service, they can greatly supplement CAD and RMS records for the purpose of identifying potential problems.

In reviewing any police record system, be alert to patterns in the data that suggest repeat call locations or times, repeat incident types, and repeat offenders and victims.* If the software programs that your agency uses to store and analyze these data don’t make it easy to sort the data by the frequency with which specific locations, times, people appear in reports, either work with your software vendor to program the software to do so or purchase software that does. Ideally, you should be able to easily sort your CAD or RMS data such that it is easy to discern the most frequent call locations, offenders, victims, and times of occurrence. Likewise, it would be enormously helpful if standard police reports could easily be sorted by the various major contributing factors to the underlying incident, such as incidents that are deemed to be “alcohol-related,” “drug-related,” “gang-related,” “mental illness-related,” and so forth.

* See Problem-Solving Tool Guides No. 4, Analyzing Repeat Victimization; No. 6, Understanding Risky Facilities; No. 11, Analyzing and Responding to Repeat Offending; and No. 12, Understanding Theft of ‘Hot’ Products for further information. |17|

Figure 2. The Problem Analysis Triangle is a useful framework for identifying repeat offender, repeat victim, or repeat location problems. See www.popcenter.org/about/?p=triangle for further detail.

A diagram was produced to represent the hierarchical status and position of each [organized crime] group member. It was noted by police officers that the most influential family members were “reluctant to get their hands dirty.” As such, a more detailed assessment was conducted of the number and types of convictions for each of the core members. As the Pareto principle (80/20 rule)* predicts, these 90 prior convictions were not randomly assigned in terms of offenders or types of offences. In fact one offender accounted for the most offences (39 percent) across the group and the three most involved offenders accounted for approximately two-thirds of the total crimes committed. One offender had no convictions or impending prosecutions.

Source: Durham Constabulary 2011

* Editor’s note: The “80/20 rule” is a statistical rule of thumb that holds that approximately 20 percent of things account for about 80 percent of results. See Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers In 60 Small Steps, step 18, for further discussion of this rule in the crime prevention context.

Mapping Incidents

Spatial mapping software facilitates mapping incident locations. At a minimum, this might allow you to spot potential problem locations simply by looking at the map to detect dense clusters of incidents. More sophisticated mapping software uses advanced mathematics to determine statistically significant incident clusters (or hot spots) that might indicate a problem at that location.* Use incident maps with care, though. Maps do not speak for themselves: apparent hot spots might not be all that unusual or they might reflect different, unrelated problems at a location.3 Most importantly, not all policing problems cluster by location, so an incident cluster map might not be helpful at all in identifying problems involving similar behavior, time, or people, but which occur in different locations.† Problems such as child abuse or domestic violence, for example, might not cluster geographically.

* See Kaplan 2010 for further information.

† See Townsley and Pease 2002 for a detailed discussion of statistical analysis to identify “hot spots,” “hot groups,” and “hot times.”

Crime mapping has been documented as being useful in identifying problems such as arson, residential burglary, traffic crashes, thefts from garages, and drug dealing.4

Figure 3. This map depicts areas with high numbers of reported burglaries in Tucson, Arizona.

Source: Tucson Police Department 2006

Canvassing People Knowledgeable About the Problem

Although most CAD and RMS records originate by citizens communicating to police that a troublesome situation exists, recognize that citizens quite often opt not to call police even when they notice or experience a troublesome situation, including some serious crimes. Only about half of violent crimes are reported to police and even fewer property crimes get reported.5 Likewise, many hazardous conditions and nuisances are not reported to police and thus are not dispatched as calls for police service, yet citizens know about and are affected by them. Consequently, reviewing police records will never suffice for knowing about all of a community’s problems.

Actively canvas various groups of people who are likely to have knowledge about public-safety problems, but whose knowledge might not be captured in official police records. Canvassing might be done on an informal or anecdotal basis, such as by attending community meetings and listening to citizens’ concerns or interviewing key community members. Canvassing might also be done formally by administering methodologically sound surveys.*

* See A Police Guide to Surveying Citizens and Their Environment (Bureau of Justice Assistance, 1993) and Conducting Community Surveys: A Practical Guide for Law Enforcement Agencies (Weisel, 1999) for further information.

Community Members

Obviously, different community members are likely to have knowledge about different public-safety problems.* Community members and the types of public-safety problems about which they are likely to have knowledge include the following:

  • Residents: problems that occur in public places near their residences such as disorderly youth, speeding vehicles, drug dealing in open-air markets or out of residences, loud parties or vehicles (but not problems that occur inside one another’s residences such aschild or elder abuse and neglect, domestic violence, or Internet crimes).
  • Merchants: problems occurring in and around their businesses such as retail and employee theft, panhandling and other street disorder, or check and credit card fraud.
  • Tourists: problems that directly affect them such as street robbery, thefts from hotel rooms, pick-pocketing, or prostitution.
  • Non-government organization staff: problems pertaining to their organization’s work such as domestic violence, child abuse, drug abuse, or mental illness. Hospital staff are an especially rich source of information about trends and patterns relating to assault,substance abuse, and accidental injury, much of which goes unreported to police.
  • School and church officials: problems occurring in and around their facilities, or being experienced by their students/congregation members and staff, such as child or elder abuse and neglect, school bullying, gang activity, or assaults on staff. 

* See Leigh, Read, and Tilley 1998; Eck and Spelman 1987; and Higdon and Huber 1987 for analyses of the various sources of information police used to identify problems and the type of problems typically reported by these various sources.

Source: Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, “Plantation Mobile Home Park: A Snapshot of Success,” Submission to the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing (2009).

Figure 4. Community survey: Big problems in the Clairemont neighborhood.

Source: San Diego Police Department, “VARDA Car,” Submission to the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing (1995).

Other Government Officials

Police regularly work with other government agencies to address public-safety problems, so it makes sense to also routinely confer with them to learn about emerging problems that might be more apparent to those agencies than to police. By way of example, parks departments might first learn of security concerns in public parks; child protective service agencies might first learn of child neglect or endangerment patterns; fire officials might learn about arson trends; public health officials might first learn about prostitution or drug-abuse problems; and so forth.

Elected government officials commonly receive complaints about chronic nuisances that citizens feel are either too trivial to justify calling the police or for which past responses to the nuisances have proven ineffective.

Some jurisdictions have formal systems for referring matters across different government agencies while other jurisdictions do so in less structured ways, such as via phone calls to the police chief’s or district commander’s office.

Police Line Personnel

Police line personnel—patrol officers, detectives, and civilian staff who deal directly with the public—are often among the first to discern patterns and trends from among their routine handling of incidents, cases, and service requests. Sometimes individuals bring to the attention of police managers emerging public-safety problems that beg for closer attention. But oftentimes, line personnel do not see it as their role or know how to apply that extra attention. If you are a police supervisor or manager, periodically reach out to line personnel—particularly those who work steady beats or neighborhoods—to ask what problems they are seeing and what priorities ought to be attached to addressing them as problems. As with the public, this canvassing can be done on an informal basis, such as through roll-call communications or hallway conversations, or on a more formal basis, such as through departmental surveys.

Crime Analysts, Police Records Staff, and Police Communications Staff

If your agency employs professional crime analysts, police records staff, or police communications staff, consult them regularly for any trends and patterns they discern while processing and analyzing police records. These support staff personnel should be trained to recognize behavior, person, place, and time patterns that might indicate the presence of a chronic policing problem. Unless they are directly asked, many such support staff members might not bring trends and patterns they spot to the attention of operations personnel, perhaps assuming that operations personnel are already aware of them. Bear in mind that these support staff, free from the demands of responding to policing incidents, are in especially good positions to spot and reflect upon trends and patterns within the mass of police calls for service and reports.

Officials from Other Law Enforcement Agencies

Monitor the crime problems affecting other law enforcement agencies in your area. Police in neighboring jurisdictions might be experiencing problems that affect (or will affect) your jurisdiction, and a collaborative approach to addressing them might prove more effective than independent efforts. Likewise, state, university, school, or federal law enforcement agencies operating within your jurisdiction might also have useful information about problems that mutually affect your jurisdictions. School and university problems, for example, invariably affect both the school property and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Monitoring Mass Media Stories

Although it is unlikely that journalists will know about public-safety problems before police do, good investigative journalists often undertake substantial research into policing problems, research that can be of great value both in calling public and official attention to the problem and in documenting its scope, harm, and potential causes and contributing factors. Obviously, any police official can read the local newspaper and watch the local newscasts to learn about these news stories, but it is also helpful to develop a departmental routine for doing so and a system for referring such stories to the appropriate operations personnel for further inquiry.

Consider monitoring social media—such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr—as well as mainstream mass media outlets. Users may describe crime or disorder problems through these media that they have not otherwise reported to police.

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