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Considerations for Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems

Making the Case for Shifting Responsibility

The process leading up to police efforts to shift or share responsibility typically involves:

  • Documenting the magnitude of a specific problem
  • Identifying the conditions that contribute to the problem
  • Establishing a link between those conditions and the individual, business, or organization deemed responsible for them

Thus, gathering detailed information, including statistical data, is an integral part of the process before it moves forward. Because the police are using gradually increasing degrees of government power, such studies must be carried out meticulously to assure accuracy and fairness, and, when resulting in a proposal, to present the strongest possible case.†

† For guidance on conducting good problem analysis, see Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers in 60 Small Steps and Problem-Solving Tips: A Guide to Reducing Crime and Disorder Through Problem-Solving Partnerships [PDF].

Much of the body of knowledge that police rely upon to argue for shifting and sharing responsibility for addressing problems is based upon insights they have acquired through years of experience and, less commonly, upon rigorous research. The value of police expertise is sometimes underestimated by those who rely only upon the highest standards of social science and policy analysis to inform policy decisions; conversely, such expertise is sometimes overestimated by those who believe that "street smarts" outweigh research-based knowledge. Much police knowledge about the prevention and control of crime and disorder is largely untested. That does not totally diminish its value, and there remains a critical need to capture, test, and refine police expertise, thereby contributing to a more formal body of knowledge to support police practices.

Measuring the Effectiveness of New Responses

Quantifying claims of effectiveness can be tricky, because police often apply several different responses to a problem, some involving direct action (police enforcement, police presence) and others involving indirect action (persuasion and coercion of the type described earlier). Determining the effect of each response in isolation can be methodologically challenging. For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide in the Problem-Solving Tools series, Assessing Responses to Problems.

Some people may feel uncomfortable about the police dealing with citizens in so heavy-handed a manner. Such concerns are certainly justifiable where requests and threats are made without supporting facts. Thus, a high standard of care in gathering and examining the facts can be an effective protection against abuse. In addition, in-depth inquiry into a specific problem may isolate its cause and may even identify specific measures that have the potential to effectively prevent it. Collecting hard data about a specific problem can play a central role in convincing others of the seriousness of the situation and can also serve as evidence where the preventive strategy involves legal action. Police should realize that efforts to shift responsibility can become an adversarial process in which they had best be prepared to document thoroughly both the conditions being exposed and the evidence that the person named is indeed responsible for them. And they should be confident that the measures they are proposing are likely to be effective. This is particularly true where the proposed shift in responsibility has the potential for a major economic impact, because in such cases police can anticipate that their activities will be challenged in the courts, where judges will weigh the adequacy of the evidence offered in support of the proposed regulation.

Determining the Appropriate Degree of Pressure to Shift Responsibility

Much of the art of policing consists of determining and applying the degree of pressure or coercion that is appropriate to a particular situation. Police officials who seek to shift or share responsibility for public safety problems should consider, among other factors:

  • The justification for the pressure in the first instance, including the cost to the police and to the community of maintaining the status quo
  • The reasonableness of police requests, including the standards of proof police must carry to establish such reasonableness
  • The probability that a new set of responses to the problem will have long-term preventive value
  • The likelihood that key constituents will endorse or accept the new proposals, which is influenced by the complexity of the issue at hand
  • The nature, degree, and consequences of resisting police attempts to share or shift responsibility, including the potential risks and costs to the police organization and its officials for pressing controversial proposals†

† See Buerger (1998) for an interesting discussion of the new political landscape that police will find themselves in as they press for indirect action to control crime and disorder. [Full text]

No single factor will dictate which method or degree of coercion should be employed. Rather, the decision should be based upon a comprehensive analysis of the breadth and seriousness of the problem, the likely effectiveness of the proposed solution, and the probability both of cooperation from the various stakeholders and of support from the general public.


As police come to better understand the conditions, practices, and behaviors that give rise to specific public safety problems and can determine with greater certainty the responses that are most effective in preventing and controlling them, they will be in a better position to shift and share the responsibility for dealing with such problems. Doing so will strengthen the police as an institution by increasing their capacity to perform the functions that are legitimately within their mandate and expertise and will also reduce the need for police to attempt to solve problems that are beyond the limits of their experience and resources. Most importantly perhaps, it will move society toward a style of policing that is more effective, efficient, and equitable.

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