• Center for Problem oriented policing

POP Center Tools Identifying and Defining Policing Problems Page 4

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Verifying That Problems Are Real and Warrant Police Attention

Many troublesome situations are presented to the police for resolution. As has been noted, not all such situations fit within the definition of a problem, as distinct from an incident or a pattern of incidents. But it is also the case that some perceived problems prove, upon closer examination, not to be real, or not to be serious. Gather factual data to help you verify whether a perceived problem is real and serious. The sections below describe common circumstances under which perceived real policing problems prove to be otherwise.

Inaccurate Perceptions

There’s nothing wrong with citizens or police officers nominating a potential public-safety problem for special attention on the basis of anecdotal experiences or rough perceptions: those experiences and perceptions could be well-founded. It’s important, however, that you be open to the possibility that they are not real, that they are not widely perceived to be problems, or that they are not as serious as first imagined. For example, people often overestimate the speed of vehicles, imploring police to enforce speed laws when drivers are not exceeding speed limits. The real problem might be speed limits that are set too high for conditions, or the problem might be unrealistic perceptions and exaggerated fears by complainants, but the problem would decidedly not be one of speeding vehicles. Similarly, some people fear that certain individuals—such as mentally ill people, transients, residents of half-way houses, or teenagers—threaten their safety, and accordingly want police to remove those individuals from the area, yet those fears are sometimes unfounded or exaggerated. Certain behaviors that some citizens find troublesome, such as political protest, loitering, noise, vulgarity or rudeness, or public begging or entertaining for money, might be lawful, even constitutionally protected, and thereby not constitute legitimate problems for police intervention. In such cases, the police role might be limited to explaining this to complainants. Some who complain to police about troublesome situations might imply or claim that their complaints are shared by many others in the community, when in fact they are not. In some cases, the complainant has a personal stake in getting police to address the troublesome situation, while there is no wider community stake in the situation.

Amorphous (or ‘Fuzzy’) Problems

Some problems are notoriously difficult to define precisely and accurately. Gang problems are often one such problem. Citizens and police alike can usually recognize when crime and disorder problems have some gang element to them, but the precise contribution that gang membership makes to the problem is often harder to determine. Defining problems as “gang problems” often implies that the solution is to be found in breaking up the gangs through some combination of punishment and re-socialization of gang members. But, the gang-relatedness of the gang members’ harmful activities can vary considerably. For instance, assaults by one gang member against a member of another gang might be in furtherance of the gangs’ purpose, or it might be a straightforward interpersonal conflict between two individuals who happen to be gang members. Moreover, in many youth gangs, a relatively small percentage of members are deeply committed to the gang, with others being more loosely affiliated. It is usually more productive for police to address the specific problems that are related to gangs in a community—the graffiti, witness intimidation, drive-by shootings, gun assaults, drug dealing, and other ancillary crimes committed by gang members.*

* See the cluster of gang-related Problem-Oriented Guides for Police at www.popcenter.org (sorting the listing of Problem-Specific Guides by “Category”).

Normal Variation

Alternatively, some problems which might be real enough simply are not serious enough to warrant special police responses. Some crime incidents, while serious and alarming in their own right, generate exaggerated public concern about the likelihood of similar incidents occurring again. Consider applying statistical analyses of the frequency of incidents to inform your judgments about whether an incident or pattern of incidents ought to be defined and addressed as a problem. Statistical analysis can reveal the normal range of variation in the incidence of crime types, with the implication that the incidence will randomly fluctuate up or down within that range regardless of any special action or inaction. Calculating that normal variation and then setting a threshold tolerance level is an objective method of determining when special police attention to the problem is warranted.*

* See Clarke and Eck n.d. (Step 22, “Examine your data distributions”) and Vellani 2010 (Step 25, “Ring the bell”) for further detailed discussion of calculating normal variation.

Police discussions of “normal variation” in crime and disorder might, of course, not be especially well received by citizens, elected officials, or journalists not well-versed in statistics and who are concerned about a notorious crime or a sudden crime pattern. Here again is why it is important for you to know whether you are dealing with an incident, an incident pattern, or a problem. It might be necessary and appropriate to give some special police attention to a critical incident or to a pattern of incidents, if only to alleviate public fear and concern. But it might also be unwise to launch a full-blown problem-oriented policing project to address a situation that you deem to be within the parameters of normal variation.

Non-Police Problems

Some problems might be real, well-defined, serious, and chronic, and yet fall outside the broad, but not unlimited, police mandate. However troublesome these situations might be to the community, they might diverge from the realm of police expertise, capacity, or responsibility. The most that police might properly do is refer these problems to other government agencies, private entities, or non-government organizations to address.

As an illustration, police are often called upon to deal with school truancy problems. Unless truant students are committing crimes, causing public nuisances, or experiencing some form of victimization due to their being out of school, police might reasonably assert that they lack any policing interest in the problem, and thereby lack responsibility for addressing it. Even though there may be a legitimate public interest or government interest in controlling school truancy, it does not necessarily follow that there is a legitimate police interest in it.

Although police will not always be able to resist community or political pressure to address non-police problems, it will help your agency if you clearly articulate what are and are not legitimate policing interests. The statement of the major police responsibilities in the text box below is a useful starting point for identifying and articulating police interests in the wide range of community problems. Unless your agency learns to refuse to assume responsibility for some community problems on principled grounds, you risk having your agency’s resources drained, or credibility undermined, by attempting to solve all community problems. That said, if your agency is unable to resist community or political pressure to address a non-police problem, or if your agency has ample resources to take one on, a problem-solving approach has as much merit for addressing non-police problems as it does for addressing legitimate police problems.

Major Responsibilities of Police
  • To prevent and control conduct threatening to life and property (including serious crime)
  • To aid victims of criminal attack and protect individuals in danger of physical harm
  • To protect constitutional guarantees, such as the right of free speech and assembly
  • To facilitate the movement of people and vehicles
  • To assist those who cannot care for themselves, including the intoxicated, the addicted, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, the elderly, and the young
  • To resolve conflict between individuals, groups, or between citizens and their government
  • To identify problems that have the potential for becoming more serious problems for individuals, the police, or the government
  • To create and maintain a feeling of security in the community

Sources: American Bar Association 1980; Goldstein 1977.

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