• Center for Problem oriented policing

POP Center Tools Identifying and Defining Policing Problems Page 6

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Persuading Others to Give Problems Special Attention and to Apply Problem-Oriented Approaches

Although, as noted above, it makes sense to address policing problems in which there exists substantial community, political, and police department interest in doing so, it is equally true that you will probably need to make a persuasive argument to at least some key stakeholders that a particular policing problem warrants expending scarce police resources to analyze and address.

All systems—including the criminal justice system—are subject to the effects of inertia: the “resistance or disinclination to motion, action, or change.” It is nearly always perceived to be easier to continue doing what has been done than to invent and adopt a new way of doing it. This is so not only for practical reasons—change requires extra effort—but for principled reasons as well: the current response to most policing problems serves the interests of at least some key stakeholders in the problem. That is, some key stakeholders are benefiting from the current response to the problem, even if police think that response is ineffective or inefficient. As an illustration, the conventional police response to gasoline drive-offs is to have a police officer investigate and record all reported gasoline drive-offs, and make some effort to identify the thief and either compel payment or prepare a criminal case for prosecution. Police usually find this response to be both ineffective in preventing gasoline drive-offs and an inefficient use of scarce criminal justice resources. But the owners of gasoline service stations, many of which double as convenience stores, prefer this police response to one in which they require customers to pay for their gasoline before pumping it because the pay-first approach undermines customers’ impulse buying of other goods in the store, on which purchases the store’s profits heavily depend.*

* See Problem-Specific Guide No. 67, Gasoline Drive-offs, for further information. 

Mounting an argument for addressing a policing problem in a new way is principally about contrasting the harms and costs to the community of the current state of affairs with the harms and costs in a projected future state of affairs such that key stakeholders concur that the current state of affairs is no longer tolerable given future prospects.

Developing the argument for improving the current response entails the following:

  • Calculating and documenting the various types of harm the problem is creating
  • Determining the various interests at stake
  • Demonstrating the likely benefits of a new response to the problem in which the responsibilities and costs for addressing it are likely to be rearranged

Calculating and Documenting Harm

Each policing problem generates its own specific harms, but consider whether the specific problem you are addressing is also generating any of the following general types of harm:

  • Financial loss to victims or insurers from stolen or damaged property
  • Medical costs to victims and insurers for healing personal injury
  • Lost wages and productivity from victims unable to work due to their victimization
  • Lost tax revenues due to declining property values, or declining or unreported commercial sales 
  • Increased tax rates to pay for higher criminal justice system costs (including police) to respond to the problem (alternatively, even if criminal justice system costs do not increase, there will likely be so-called opportunity costs of having police and other criminal justice system officials deal with this problem rather than other problems) 
  • Increased insurance premiums to offset losses attributable to crimes or accidental injuries
  • Psychological harm due to victimization (e.g., stress, anger, fear, and trauma from experiencing or witnessing violence or experience a violation of one’s person or property, annoyance and frustration from nuisance sounds, sights, smells, and conduct) 
  • Diminishment of the reputation of a community attributable to crime and disorder

Not all harms generated by a policing problem are readily apparent; look to reveal harms that might otherwise be overlooked. Try to quantify all harms and specify who is experiencing the harms, both directly and indirectly.

Keep in mind that the calculations of harm that the problem is causing currently will serve as baseline measures for evaluating the effectiveness of your responses to the problem later on.

Prioritizing Problems

It’s hard to know how many public-safety problems exist in any community at a particular time because defining a problem is largely a matter of judgment. But it is probably safe to say that most police agencies lack the resources to simultaneously address all existing public-safety problems in the thorough fashion that problem-oriented policing contemplates. So your agency will likely need to prioritize from among the various problems that warrant special attention.

If your agency employs processes that routinely identify multiple policing problems, and there is need to prioritize from among them, you should consider, at a minimum, the following factors in setting priorities:

Impact of the Problem on the Community

Most important, consider the impact that each problem is having on the community in at least the following ways:

  • Take account of the severity of the harm: problems that are causing death or serious bodily injury to citizens should take precedence over those that are generating only minor annoyance 
  • Consider the frequency of incidents being generated by the problem: problems generating hundreds or thousands of incidents per year should take precedence over those generating only a few dozen
  • Consider also the level of fear in the community that the problem is generating: fear does not always manifest itself in a call for police service, meaning that fear could be high even if the volume of incidents is not*
  • Account for the financial costs attributable to each problem, including the costs of repairing the direct harm (repairing damaged property, replacing stolen goods, healing medical injuries, etc.), the costs of community fear (e.g., lost commerce from fearful shoppers, or lost tax revenue from reduced commerce and reduced property values), and the costs of the community response to the problem (e.g., police costs to respond to incidents, other criminal justice system costs to process cases, and other government agency costs to respond to incidents)

* See Reducing Fear of Crime: Strategies for Police, Cordner 2010, for further information. 

Police Department Interest in Addressing Particular Problems

Gauge what level of interest exists within your police agency for addressing the various problems identified. Below is a discussion of how police interests in problems can be calculated and articulated, but regardless of what interest your police agency ought to have in a problem, it is worth taking into consideration what problems people in the agency actually are interested in seeing addressed. Organizational interest in problems is influenced by a range of factors, including whether political pressure exists to motivate agency leaders to address a problem, a particular individual in the agency has taken a special professional interest in a problem, and the degree of aggravation officers feel about the current way in which a problem is being addressed (e.g., officers’ sense that the current response is futile, excessively time-consuming, unsafe to officers, or creating too much “paperwork” for them). Effective problem-oriented policing projects invariably require strong leadership, a critical aspect of which is persistence in seeing the project through to a satisfactory conclusion: a deep and genuine interest in addressing the problem fosters that persistence.

The problem of the drinking-driver was selected for study primarily because it was the almost unanimous choice of police officers from whom we solicited suggestions. They expressed great concern about the seriousness of the problem, the demands that it makes on police time, and the sense of futility in dealing with it.

Source: Goldstein and Susmilch 1982a, p. 14.

Prospects for Success

In the end, it makes sense to prioritize work on problems for which there is a reasonable likelihood of having some success in the short term. Making this judgment entails predicting whether:

  • There is sufficient community interest in addressing the problem
  • There are adequate resources available to analyze and respond to the problem
  • There exists a sufficient amount of general knowledge about how best to address the problem
  • There are few major political obstacles to adopting effective responses to the problem

Likelihood That the Problem Will Resolve Itself Soon

As noted earlier, one element of the very definition of a policing problem is that it is unlikely to abate without special police intervention. There are some public-safety problems that are serious and prevalent enough to warrant addressing with a problem-oriented approach, but which might well be abated in the near future even without special police intervention. As an illustration, a traffic-congestion or traffic-crash problem might soon be abated as a result of a major roadway improvement project scheduled for the near future. Or a widespread problem relating to theft or fraudulent cashing of payroll or government-benefit checks might soon be abated by a forthcoming plan to have payroll checks directly deposited into recipients’ bank accounts. The judgment to be made is whether the expenditure of police resources in the present exceeds the expected additional community harm from the problem in the period before the new, more effective fix is complete. Here again, proper statistical analysis can inform your judgment: understanding the normal historical variation in the problem can allow you to make reasonable predictions as to whether the troublesome situation is merely at a normal high fluctuation and will reduce without any special intervention (what statisticians refer to as “regressing to the mean”). 

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