Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Step 15: Know what kind of problem you have

Because local police have to deal with a wide range of problems that meet the CHEERS definition (Step 14) we have developed a classification for these problems. This classification scheme can help you precisely define the problem. It helps separate superficially similar problems that are really distinct. It also allows you to compare your problem to similar problems that have already been addressed, and it helps identify important features for examination. For example, an extensive set of guides to addressing common problems are available from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing websites (Step 19). Knowing the type of problem you are investigating can help you identify guides that might be helpful, even if they do not directly address your problem. The classification scheme is based on two criteria: the environments within which problems arise, and the behaviors of the participants. (The scheme is different from the wolf/duck/den classification in Step 8, which is a classification of persistent problems.)

Environments regulate the targets available, the activities people can engage in and who controls the location. Specifying an environment allows comparisons of environments with and without the problem. Environments have owners who can be important for solving the problem (see Step 44). There are 11 distinct environments for most common police problems:

  • Residential - Locations where people dwell. Houses, apartments, and hotel rooms are examples. Though most are in fixed locations, a few are mobile, such as recreational vehicles.

  • Recreational - Places where people go to have a good time. Bars, nightclubs, restaurants, movie theaters, playgrounds, marinas, and parks are examples.

  • Offices - Locations of white-collar work where there is little face-to-face interaction between the workers and the general public. Government and business facilities are often of this type. Access to these locations is often restricted.

  • Retail - Places for walk-in or drive-up customer traffic involving monetary transactions. Stores and banks are examples.

  • Industrial - Locations for processing of goods. Cash transactions are not important activities in these environments and the public is seldom invited. Factories, warehouses, package-sorting facilities are examples.

  • Agricultural - Locations for growing crops and raising animals.

  • Education - Places of learning or study, including day care centers, schools, universities, libraries, and place of worship.

  • Human services - Places where people go when something is wrong. Courts, jails, prisons, police stations, hospitals and drug treatment centers are examples.

  • Public ways - Routes connecting all other environments. Roads and highways, foot-paths and bike trails, and drives and parking facilities are examples.

  • Transport - Locations for the mass movement of people. These include buses, bus stations and bus stops, airplanes and airports, trains and train stations, ferries and ferry terminals, and ocean liners and piers.

  • Open/transitional - Areas without consistent or regular designated uses. These differ from parks in that they have not been designated for recreation, though people may use them for this. Transitional areas include abandoned properties and construction sites.

Behavior is the second dimension for classifying a problem. Specifying behaviors helps pinpoint important aspects of harm, intent, and offender-target relationships. There are six types of behavior:

  • Predatory - The offender is clearly distinct from the victim and the victim objects to the offender's actions. Most common crimes are of this type. Examples include robbery, child abuse, burglary, bullying, and theft.
  • Consensual - The parties involved knowingly and willingly interact. This typically involves some form of transaction. Examples include drug sales, prostitution, and stolen goods sales. Note, however, that assaults on prostitutes are predatory behaviors.
  • Conflicts - Violent interactions involving roughly coequal people who have some pre-existing relationship. Some forms of domestic violence among adults involve this type of behavior, though domestic violence against children and the elderly is classified as predatory because the parties involved are not coequal.
  • Incivilities - Offenders are distinguishable from victims but the victims are spread over a number of individuals and the harms are not serious. Many concerns that are annoying, unsightly, noisy, or disturbing, but do not involve serious property damage or injury fall into this category. Loud parties are an example. Whether vandalism fits in this category depends on the details. Some forms of vandalism are predatory. Some incivilities are troublesome regardless of the environment, while others are only troublesome in specific environments.
  • Endangerment - The offender and the victim are the same person or the offender had no intent to harm the victim. Suicide attempts, drug overdoses, and vehicle crashes are examples.
  • Misuse of police - A category reserved for unwarranted demands on the police service. False reporting of crimes and repeated calling about issues citizens can handle themselves are examples. This is a category of last resort -for use when the sole harm stemming from thebehavior is the expenditure of police resources andwhen none of the other categories fit.

The table shows the full classification. A problem is classified by putting it in the cell where the appropriate column intersects with the appropriate row. So, for example, the 2001 Tilley Award winner dealt with glass bottle injuries around pubs, a conflict-recreational problem (A). Officers in San Diego had to deal with repeat fraudulent calls of gang member threats at a convenience store (B). Notice how this differs from the 2003 Goldstein award runner-up, addressing stores selling alcohol to minors in Plano, Texas (C). The 2002 Goldstein Award winner dealt with motor vehicle accidents involving migrant farm workers, an endangerment-public ways problem (D). The 1999 Goldstein Award winner dealt with litter and vagrancy, a public way/incivility problem (E). Consider the difference between a problem of street corner drug sales (F) and a robbery-retaliatory shooting problem stemming from disputes between the dealers (G). These two problems overlap, but they are not the same.

Though most problems fit into a single cell, on occasion a problem might involve multiple behaviors or environments. For example, the Staffordshire Police (England) had a problem created when protesters occupied abandoned buildings along a construction right of way. These were open/transitional environments. The protests involved incivilities, but the tactics for occupying these buildings also posed a danger to the protesters. Thus, endangerment was another relevant behavior (H in the table). Though multiple types of behaviors or environments are sometimes needed, excessive use of multiple types can lead to imprecision.

By classifying problems, police agencies can compare separate problem-solving efforts that occur in the same environments and involve the same category of behavior. Are there common analysis issues or effective responses to these problems? Do analysis and response issues for problems of this type differ from other types of problems? Answering questions like these can improve problem solving as well as problem-solving training, and help us increase our understanding of what might work for different types of problems in different types of environments.

Next Step

A Classification Scheme for Common Problems Facing Local Police

Misuse of Police
Recreational  A   
Retail C   B
Human service      
Public waysGF ED 
Open / Transition   HH 

Read More

  • Eck, John and Ronald Clarke (2003). "Classifying Common Police Problems: A Routine Activity Approach." Crime Prevention Studies, volume 16, edited by Martha Smith and Derek Cornish. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.