• Center for Problem oriented policing

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Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of sexual assault of women by strangers. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Carefully analyzing the local problem will help you design a more effective response strategy.


In addition to criminal justice agencies, the following groups may have an interest in the sexual assault problem, and you should consider them for the contribution they might make to gathering information about the problem and responding to it.

  • Rape crisis centers, support groups, and other organizations that provide counseling to sexual assault victims. These agencies can be instrumental in providing details about risky locations, offender behavior and characteristics, and victim vulnerabilities in assaults not reported to police. They can also provide information on the barriers to reporting sexual assaults in your jurisdiction.
  • Hospitals, women's clinics, and urgent care clinics. Forensic medical evidence is crucial to successfully prosecute sexual assault cases. Not only can these agencies provide information on the types of injuries that occur during sexual assaults, but also they are critical partners in interagency sexual assault-prevention efforts. They can also help to assess the need for and benefits of dedicated forensic medical staff.
  • Women's advocacy groups. Groups with established credibility among women may best implement responses that require access to potential victims.
  • Private security forces in downtown areas, malls, or other places where sexual assaults occur. These agencies can contribute information on suspicious people who frequent particular areas that could benefit from improved safety features.
  • Public transportation agencies. If sexual assaults occur on or near public transportation, these agencies may be able to implement specific environmental strategies to fortify the locations in which potential victims are vulnerable.
  • Military officials. Communities with military bases may benefit from input from military police or other officials involved in handling cases of sexual assault by strangers that occur on base.
  • Downtown business associations. These agencies have an interest in ensuring that women, including tourists and other potential customers, consider the areas safe.
  • Bar and nightclub associations. These organizations can help to support responses that target intoxication in public places as a contributing factor to sexual assault.
  • Neighborhood Watch programs. These programs can support police efforts to increase surveillance of risky locations.
  • Homeowners' associations. Active associations may be able to contribute information on risky locations and other factors that contribute to the problem.
  • School districts and local colleges and universities. Not only are these institutions' students potential victims, but also the schedule of night classes and the lack of safe transportation may contribute to the problem.

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some critical questions you should ask when analyzing your particular sexual assault problem, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.


  • How many sexual assaults occur in your community? (Do not limit your inquiry to only those offenses charged as sexual assaults. Other offenses, such as homicides, kidnappings, and burglaries, may subsume sexual assault charges, even though the offenses included forced sexual acts. You should train department research staff to ensure that each distinct offense is tallied, rather than subsumed by other offenses occurring in a single incident.)
  • How many sexual assaults are committed by a stranger versus someone the victim knows?
  • How many attempted sexual assaults occur in your community? What stops these assaults (e.g., the attacker flees when the victim resists, a bystander intervenes)?
  • How many reports do police receive? Why do some women choose not to report they have been attacked?


  • What are sexual assault victims' characteristics in terms of age, marital status, ethnicity, education level, activity involvement, occupation, etc.?
  • Are there repeat sexual assault victims? Do their characteristics differ from one-time victims? (Separate adult and childhood victimizations, as they will lead to different outcomes.)
  • What are victims doing just before they are attacked? What is their distraction level? Are they intoxicated?
  • To what extent do victims resist the attack, and how do they do so (e.g., verbally, physically, with a weapon)? What types of weapons do victims use (e.g., guns, knives, pepper spray, rocks)?
  • Do offenders injure victims during the attack? How severely? What percentage of victims seek medical treatment? For what types of issues (e.g., injuries, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy)?
  • Whom do the victims tell about the attack?
  • How often do victims use rape crisis centers' services?
  • How many victims have had self-defense training? How many victims carry a self-protection item (e.g., whistle, pepper spray, gun)?


  • What characteristics do offenders who commit sexual assault have [e.g., age, ethnicity, marital status, education level, occupation, group affiliations (e.g., university fraternities, the military, gangs)]?
  • How far from the attack scene do offenders live? How well do they know the area? If offenders are not local, how do they become familiar with the area?
  • How long have offenders lived in the community?
  • What percentage of offenders are under the influence of alcohol or drugs during the assault?
  • What motivates the offenders to attack?
  • What percentage of offenders take something from the victim (e.g., an item with monetary or sentimental value, a seemingly insignificant item)?
  • What percentage of offenders have criminal records? For what types of offenses? What percentage of offenders are on probation or parole when they attack?
  • What patterns exist in how offenders approach and control their victims?
  • What percentage of sexual assaults involve more physical force than needed to gain and maintain control of the victim?
  • What percentage of offenders use a weapon? What type of weapon?

Locations and Times

  • Where do sexual assaults occur? Do obvious hotspots exist?
  • Where are victims traveling to or from when offenders attack them?
  • Do the places where sexual assaults occur have obvious safety flaws (e.g., poor lighting, poorly maintained shrubbery, abandoned buildings, no surveillance cameras)?
  • What businesses, high-traffic areas, or other places where people congregate are nearby?
  • At what time of day do most sexual assaults occur? On what days of the week? At what times of the year?
  • Does the incidence of sexual assault increase during certain community events (e.g., community festivals, sporting events, holiday celebrations)?

Current Responses

  • What community programs are available to reduce men's propensity to commit sexual assaults? Has anyone assessed their effectiveness?
  • What community programs are available to help women avoid sexual assault? Has anyone assessed their effectiveness?
  • What initiatives has anyone taken to increase community awareness of the sexual assault problem?
  • What strategies has anyone used to enhance the safety of locations where sexual assaults occur? Has anyone assessed their effectiveness?
  • What initiatives has anyone taken to increase victims' likelihood to report crime to the police? Has anyone assessed their effectiveness?
  • How well do reporting victims say they were treated by police during the investigation?
  • What percentage of reported sexual assaults do police clear by arrest?
  • What percentage of reported sexual offenders do prosecutors take to court?
  • What percentage of offenders accused of sexual assault are convicted? Incarcerated?
  • What types of sentences do convicted offenders receive? Do offenders comply with their sentences' terms?

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine how much your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. You should take all measures in both the target area and the surrounding area. For more-detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 1, Assessing Responses to Problems, and Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 10, Analyzing Crime Displacement and Diffusion.

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to sexual assaults of women by strangers. Process indicators show the extent to which the police properly implemented the responses. Outcome indicators show the extent to which the responses reduced the level or severity of the problem.

Process Indicators

You should use the following process indicators in your assessment:

  • Increased compatibility between the number of women who report sexual assaults to police and the number who report them to rape crisis centers or in victimization surveys
  • Increased number of women who feel prepared to defend themselves against an attacker
  • Increased number of community members who know the problem's severity and will intervene to prevent an attack
  • Improved safety features at locations where sexual assaults could potentially occur
  • Increased number of sexual assaults cleared by arrest
  • Increased number of sexual assaults successfully investigated and prosecuted

Outcome Indicators

You should use the following outcome indicators in your assessment:

  • Reduced number of sexual assaults by strangers
  • Reduced number and severity of injuries women suffer during sexual assaults
  • Increased proportion of attempted rapes compared with completed rapes
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