• Center for Problem oriented policing

POP Center Tools Identifying and Defining Policing Problems Page 7

Determining the Appropriate Level of Aggregation at Which to Examine and Address the Problem                        previous page next page

Having identified a public-safety problem, you will need to make an important judgment at what level of aggregation the problem is best addressed. For instance, imagine that crime analysis detects an abnormally high number of burglaries reported in one large apartment complex in a large city, and further analysis confirms that this is indeed a significant problem (and not just a short-term pattern of burglary incidents). At some point, a decision must be made whether to analyze and address the burglary problem only in this apartment complex, treating it as a highly localized problem; or in other apartment complexes in that police district experiencing high burglary rates, treating it as an intermediate-sized problem; or in apartment complexes across the entire jurisdiction experiencing high burglary rates, treating it as large, jurisdictional problem.*

* There is some debate among scholars as to whether highly localized problem solving—such as addressing repeat calls for police service at a single house or business—really constitutes problem-oriented policing at all, but for practical purposes, it doesn’t much matter: police should apply problem-solving principles and methods to any recurring policing problem, regardless of its scope or severity. The important point is that you shouldn’t limit your agency to only addressing small, highly localized problems; problem-oriented policing can and should also have more ambitious aims to address classes of larger, serious, and complex problems. 

Alternatively or additionally, the choice might be whether to limit the scope of the inquiry to apartment-complex burglaries or to expand it to include all apartment burglaries, all residential burglaries, or all burglaries, in whichever geographical area is selected for inquiry. Many policing problems could be either expanded or contracted in scope across any or all of the four major dimensions of problems (behavior, people, location, and time). That is, problems could be expanded to incorporate more than one type of troublesome behavior, more than one group of people affected, more than one location, or more than one time period.

One can easily think of problems as coming in three sizes—small, medium, and large (or beat-size, intermediate-size, and jurisdiction-size)—but, in fact, they can be aggregated in more than three sizes. Imagine the possibilities in a large metropolitan jurisdiction such as New York City. Problems could conceivably be addressed at the address-level, block-level, neighborhood-level, precinct-level, borough-level, city-level, or even at the extra-jurisdictional level (as the New York City Police Department has done in addressing its terrorism problem). 

In making this judgment as to the appropriate level of aggregation at which to analyze and address the problem, there are two main considerations: 1) the similarity of problems across behavior, people, location, and time; and 2) the level of resources available to conduct the analysis and respond to the problem.

Similarity of Problems

Some policing problems are highly contextual, especially as to the physical environment in which they occur, and therefore usually require quite different responses, customized to the particular setting. Drug- and prostitution-market problems often are like this: the specific layout and operation of each market differs enough across markets that they are best addressed separately. For these kinds of problems it probably does not make sense to aggregate specific problems into a single larger problem. Other problems are less dependent on the particular setting in which they occur. Family-violence problems often are like this: the violence occurs in a variety of physical settings, so it makes sense to address family-violence problems across an entire jurisdiction, if possible. That said, there can be variations of family violence problems—such as family violence among certain cultural groups that differ substantially from the predominant culture—that warrant separate treatment. Be open to the possibility that some seemingly disparate problems are actually similar enough to warrant addressing simultaneously. For example, a range of troublesome activity in which offenders need to drive around an area in order to engage in the illegal activity—drug dealing, street prostitution, cruising, drive-by shootings—might all be controlled by altering the traffic patterns and rules to make it more difficult for offenders to engage in the activity.

Availability of Resources

Even though problem solving holds the potential to reduce the expenditure of police and community resources in the long term, it usually requires an up-front investment of resources to realize those later benefits. The most important resources necessary for effective problem solving are time, information, expertise, and authority.


Analyzing and responding to problems does take time; how much obviously depends upon the nature and complexity of the problem. But however much total time is required, in nearly all cases, police will require some uninterrupted blocks of time that they can dedicate to accomplishing specific problem-solving tasks. In the normal course of police patrol work, finding such uninterrupted blocks of time is difficult because urgent incidents pull officers away somewhat unpredictably. This means that patrol supervisors and managers must find ways to manage their patrol resources such that officers can accomplish problem-solving tasks without undue interruptions. There are a variety of ways to do so without compromising the public’s safety, but most require some supervisory or managerial authorization.* Police supervisors should acknowledge that officers working on problems that do not call for intensive law enforcement activity might then not produce the level of arrests or citations that are ordinarily expected of them.

* See Scott and Kirby 2012, “Manage officers’ time to facilitate problem-solving” Section 18; Goldstein 1990, “Managing the Use of Time” pp. 151–52; and Townsley, Johnson, and Pease 2003, for further information.


For some policing problems a great deal of the information police might need in order to analyze the problem is contained within police records systems and other criminal-justice system records systems which are readily accessible to police. For other policing problems much of the important information is contained within records systems which are not readily accessible to police, such as records kept by hospitals and other medical and psychological service providers, insurance companies, banks and other financial institutions, corporations and their loss-prevention branches, and social-service providers. The difficulty of accessing some of this information might be too great to justify the effort if one is working on a highly localized problem that affects only a few people or places. Yet other types of information are not accessible anywhere: police need to generate the information anew, such as is often the case in systematically gathering opinions from a large number of citizens.

The other type of information important to police problem solving is research knowledge and other police agencies’ experiences about effective methods of addressing public-safety problems. For some policing problems, there is a fair amount of reliable information available that can and should inform how your agency addresses a problem. For other policing problems, there is little research or police experience available to guide and inform local practice. The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing website is designed to facilitate your finding this type of information, but obviously it won’t contain every bit of information you might want.*

* See Problem-Solving Tool Guide No. 2, Researching a Problem, for further information.


Beyond the data and knowledge discussed above, problem solving requires various skills, most especially those related to research sources, research methodology, statistics, project management, and public speaking and audio-visual presentations.† If those skills aren’t possessed by police agency staff, consider retaining outside expertise (such as research expertise from a local university).‡

† See Clarke and Eck n.d. for further information.
‡ See Goldstein and Susmilch 1982b, pp. 51-62, and Kennedy 1999 for further discussions of the police-researcher relationship in a problem-oriented policing framework.


Authority is essential to various aspects of police problem solving. It is necessary that police have some authority over the subject matter of the attendant problem. For example, police clearly have authority over crime and disorder matters, but only shared authority over traffic-related matters and school-safety matters, and rather limited authority over religious, medical, and political matters. Authority is also required to allocate the time and other resources needed for problem-solving activity. Line personnel often lack this unilateral authority and must secure it from their supervisors and managers. Authority is required to access certain kinds of information. Even within police records, authority to access juvenile records is restricted. Police authority to access medical, educational, business, and many other government records is likewise restricted, requiring police to obtain that authority either from those who control the records or from a court authority.

Having worked through all of the issues discussed in this guidebook in identifying and defining policing problems, the final task in the Scanning phase of the SARA problem-solving model is to decide who will assume primary responsibility for carrying the work forward to its next phase—problem analysis.


The police profession has only just begun the painstaking process of identifying, classifying, and diagnosing the many substantive problems that constitute its core business.9 Police agencies are likewise developing and enhancing their capacity to identify chronic problems in a timely fashion, rigorously analyze them to understand their causes, and develop customized responses to each local problem. This process will mature and become more sophisticated over time.

Although there is a heavy scientific and analytic element to police-problem identification and definition, there is also a political and subjective element to them. How policing problems are defined necessarily entails judgment. A judgment must be made as to when a level of crime or disorder has become so intolerable that a wholly new approach to addressing the problem needs to be considered. Because so many policing problems entail conflicting opinions within the community about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior, when a problem is defined, it often prioritizes one group’s desires and interests over those of other groups. Merely acknowledging the subjective element of problem identification and definition should prompt decision-makers to carefully consider the core community, government, and police values that will inform which community problems receive careful police attention and how those problems are defined in terms of the conflicting interests at stake. To every extent possible, the process of identifying and defining policing problems should be open and transparent, taking account of the full range of interests at stake. In sum, rigorous statistical analysis to identify policing problems should be complemented by careful and wise judgments about how to define them.

previous page next page