Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Step 14: Use the CHEERS test when defining problems

A problem is a recurring set of related harmful events in a community that members of the public expect the police to address. This definition draws attention to the six required elements of a problem: Community; Harm; Expectation; Events; Recurring; and Similarity. These elements are captured by the acronym CHEERS:

  • Community. Members of the public must experience the harmful events. They include individuals, businesses, government agencies, and other groups. Only some not all or most - community members need experience the problem.
  • Harmful. People or institutions must suffer harm. The harm can involve property loss or damage, injury or death, serious mental anguish, or undermining the capacity of the police (as in repeat fraudulent calls for service). Illegality is not a defining characteristic of problems. Some problems involve legal behavior that the police must address. Noise complaints arising from the impact of legitimate commercial activity on neighboring residents is a common example. Some problems are first reported as involving illegal behavior, but on closer inspection do not involve illegalities. If such reports meet all the CHEERS criteria, they are problems.
  • Expectation. Some members of the community must expect the police to address the causes of the harm (their numbers do not have to be large). Expectation should never be presumed, but must be evident through processes such as citizen calls, community meetings, press reports, or other means. This element does not require the police to accept at face value the public's definition of the problem, their idea of its causes, or what should be done about it. The public may be mistaken as to its cause and characteristics. It is the role of analysis to uncover the causes.
  • Events. You must be able to describe the type of event that makes up the problem. Problems are made up of discrete events. Examples of events include a break-in at a home, one person striking another, two people exchanging money and sex, or a burst of noise. Most events are brief, though some may involve a great deal of time - some frauds, for example.
  • Recurring. These events must recur. Recurrence may be symptomatic of acute troubles or a chronic problem. Acute troubles suddenly appear, as in the case of a neighborhood with few vehicle break-ins suddenly having many such break-ins. Some acute troubles dissipate quickly, even if nothing is done. Others can become chronic problems if not addressed. For this reason, acute troubles should be investigated to determine if they signal something more entrenched. Chronic problems persist for a long time, as in the case of a prostitution stroll that has been located along one street for many years. Unless something is done, the events from chronic problems will continue to occur.
  • Similarity. The recurring events must have something in common. They may be committed by the same person, happen to the same type of victim, occur in the same types of locations, take place in similar circumstances, involve the same type of weapon, or have one or more other factors in common. Without common features, you have an arbitrary collection of events, not a problem. Common crime classifications - such as used by the Uniform Crime Reports - are not helpful. Vehicle theft, for example, includes joyriding, thefts for chop shops, thefts for export to other countries, thefts for use in other crimes, and a host of other dissimilar events. So a cluster of vehicle thefts may not be a single problem. More information is needed. With common features, we have a pattern of events that could indicate a problem for example, thefts of minivans in suburban neighborhoods to be used as gypsy cabs in the inner city.

Problems need to be examined with great specificity (see Steps 6 and 15) because small details can make a difference between a set of circumstances that gives rise to harmful events, and a set of circumstances producing harmless events. CHEERS suggests six basic questions you need to answer at the scanning stage:

  • Who in the community is affected by the problem?
  • What are the harms created by the problem?
  • What are the expectations for the police response?
  • What types of events contribute to the problem?
  • How often do these events recur?
  • How are the events similar?

Not everything the police are asked to address is a problem. CHEERS can help identify demands that are not problems. We are using the term "problem" in the technical, POP sense, not as we would in everyday speech. So things that are not problems may be troublesome and may require police attention. These are as follows:

  • Single events. A single event, regardless of how serious, is not a problem unless there is a reasonable prospect that another similar event will occur if nothing is done. A single event may deserve investigation or some other police action, but problem solving cannot be applied to isolated events because nothing can be prevented.
  • Neighborhoods. Small areas, such as city centers or particular residential apartment complexes, sometimes get reputations as problems, but these neighborhoods are seldom problems. Rather they are usually areas containing several problems. The individual problems might be related, but not always. Tackling an entire area as a single problem increases the complexity of the effort and reduces the chances you will find effective responses. Instead, you should identify specific problems within a neighborhood and tackle them individually. If the problems are linked (e.g., the street network contributes to several problems) then tackling the link might be helpful. Do not assume problems are linked just because they are near each other. In some cases, of course, there may be common solutions to distinct problems (see Step 6).
  • Status conditions. Truant schoolchildren, bored teenagers, vagrant adults, and convicted criminals are not problems because of their status of not being in school, having nothing to do, not being employed, or having been found guilty of an offense. A community might expect the police to do something about them, but status conditions lack the characteristics of harm and events. Some of these people may play a role in problems, as targets, offenders, or in some other capacity, but that does not make them a problem. Defining a problem by status conditions is evidence of lack of precision and a need to examine the issue in greater depth. Status conditions may point to pieces of a larger problem.

Always use the CHEERS test - does the possible problem have all six elements? If it does not, it is probably not a suitable focus for a problem-oriented policing project.