The Key Elements of Problem-Oriented Policing

  • A problem is the basic unit of police work rather than a crime, a case, calls, or incidents.
  • A problem is something that concerns or causes harm to citizens, not just the police. Things that concern only police officers are important, but they are not problems in this sense of the term.
  • Addressing problems means more than quick fixes: it means dealing with conditions that create problems.
  • Police officers must routinely and systematically analyze problems before trying to solve them, just as they routinely and systematically investigate crimes before making an arrest. Individual officers and the department as a whole must develop routines and systems for analyzing problems.
  • The analysis of problems must be thorough even though it may not need to be complicated. This principle is as true for problem analysis as it is for criminal investigation.
  • Problems must be described precisely and accurately and broken down into specific aspects of the problem. Problems often aren't what they first appear to be.
  • Problems must be understood in terms of the various interests at stake. Individuals and groups of people are affected in different ways by a problem and have different ideas about what should be done about the problem.
  • The way the problem is currently being handled must be understood and the limits of effectiveness must be openly acknowledged in order to come up with a better response.
  • Initially, any and all possible responses to a problem should be considered so as not to cut short potentially effective responses. Suggested responses should follow from what is learned during the analysis. They should not be limited to, nor rule out, the use of arrest.
  • The police must pro-actively try to solve problems rather than just react to the harmful consequences of problems.
  • The police department must increase police officers' freedom to make or participate in important decisions. At the same time, officers must be accountable for their decision-making.
  • The effectiveness of new responses must be evaluated so these results can be shared with other police officers and so the department can systematically learn what does and does not work. (Michael Scott and Herman Goldstein 1988.)

The concept of problem-oriented policing can be illustrated by an example. Suppose police find themselves responding several times a day to calls about drug dealing and vandalism in a neighborhood park. The common approach of dispatching an officer to the scene and repeatedly arresting offenders may do little to resolve the long term crime and disorder problem. If, instead, police were to incorporate problem-oriented policing techniques into their approach, they would examine the conditions underlying the problem. This would likely include collecting additional information—perhaps by surveying neighborhood residents and park users, analyzing the time of day when incidents occur, determining who the offenders are and why they favor the park, and examining the particular areas of the park that are most conducive to the activity and evaluating their environmental design characteristics. The findings could form the basis of a response to the problem behaviors. While enforcement might be a component of the response, it would unlikely be the sole solution because, in this case, analysis would likely indicate the need to involve neighborhood residents, parks and recreation officials and others.

Problem-oriented policing can be applied at various levels of community problems and at various levels in the police organization. It can be applied to problems that affect an entire community, involving the highest level of police agency, government, and community resources. It can be applied at intermediate levels (for example, a neighborhood or a police district), involving an intermediate level of resources. Or it can be applied at a very localized level (for example, a single location or a small group of problem individuals), involving the resources of only a few police officers and other individuals.