• Center for Problem oriented policing

Step 19: Research your problem

Other police agencies might already have dealt with the problem you are tackling or researchers might have studied it. You could save a lot of time by finding out how they analyzed it and what they did, in particular which responses seemed to be effective and which not. Studying the efforts of others can provide you with useful hypotheses to test on your problem (Step 20).

Begin with the Problem-Oriented Guides for Police (POP Guides) available online at www.cops.usdoj.gov and www.popcenter.org. Each guide summarizes the research on a particular problem and discusses ways of responding to it. (The website versions of the guides include links to source materials that are not available with the print versions.) New guides are continually being produced, but if there is not one on your problem, look for related guides. For example, there is presently no guide on drug dealing in public housing, which might be the problem you are tackling. However, guides are available on "Drug dealing in privately-owned apartment complexes" and "Open-air drug markets," and reading them could be helpful.

Useful Websites

To expand your search, visit the websites listed below. Don't be tempted to skip those from Australia and the U.K. because problem-oriented policing is widely practiced in those countries and the crime problems are similar to those here. In fact, crime in San Francisco may be more like that in Sydney, Australia, than in a small town in Louisiana or Tennessee.

  • Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

    (www.popcenter.org). Apart from the POP Guides, the website also contains hundreds of reports of problem-oriented projects submitted over the years for the Goldstein and Tilley Awards. The website's search engine allows you search these projects by topic and you can read and download them.

  • NCJRS Abstracts Database

    (abstractsdb.ncjrs.gov). Only a small proportion of the abstracts on this huge database deal directly with policing, but it might contain material useful to you. Abstracts are sometimes linked to the full text of the article or report, which you can download. In other cases, you can ask to borrow a copy. This service is free and efficient - it generally takes no more than 2 to three weeks to receive the material.

  • The Home Office, United Kingdom

    (www.homeoffice.gov.uk). The Home Office, roughly equivalent to the U.S. Department of Justice, undertakes and sponsors excellent research on police topics. Start with a "quick search" using the search box on the home page. A summary is given for each entry. Clicking on this will take you to the full text.

  • Crime Reduction Website, Home Office

    (www.crimereduction.gov.uk). Browse the "toolkits" and "mini-sites," which provide practical guidance in dealing with many crimes including robbery, residential burglary, domestic violence, street crime, and victimization of college students.

  • Australian Institute of Criminology

    (www.aic.government.au). Begin searching this website from the opening page. A short description is provided of each entry yielded by the search. You can get a fuller description by clicking on the title. Full text downloads are available of many of the documents.

Other Useful Resources

  • Google. If the websites yield little of value, try "googling" the problem. Google is considered the premier search tool on the Internet. To enter a query, just type in a few descriptive words and click on the search button for a list of relevant web pages. These are listed in order of importance as calculated by the number of links to the site. Narrowing your search is as simple as adding more words to the search terms that you have already entered. Your new query will return a smaller subset of the pages found for your original "too-broad" query.

  • Other police departments. If you find that other police departments have tackled the same problem as yours, try calling them. Try to speak to the crime analysts or officers originally involved in the project. Unless a report is available, do not rely too heavily on what you are told because memory is notoriously unreliable.

  • Local faculty. Particularly when your local college has a criminal justice program, you might obtain useful advice from a faculty member. Learn about faculty interests from the college website before attempting to contact anyone. For anything more than an hour or so of consultation, the faculty member might expect compensation, although some state universities consider assistance to government agencies as part of their faculty's regular service mission.

  • National experts. If you repeatedly see an expert's name during your search, try e-mailing that person for advice. Ask only for specific information that the expert can provide quickly. When asking for references, list those that you have already found, which will let the expert see whether you have missed anything important.

  • Interlibrary Loan. Most large public libraries and college libraries subscribe to this service, which allows them to obtain books and articles that you might need from other libraries. You must complete a form that the library will supply, and expect to wait about 2 weeks for the material to arrive.

  • Criminal Justice Abstracts (CJA). Online access to CJA is a vital resource that you will usually find only at colleges with a criminal justice program. Try to persuade your department to subscribe to it. It covers the major journals, books and reports in the field. It provides greater coverage of the academic literature than NCJRS Abstracts, though the latter provides more coverage of government research and professional magazines.

Limitations of the Information

Your best sources of information are likely to be (1) articles by researchers who have studied the problem you are facing and, (2) reports of police projects dealing with the problem. However, both have their limitations, as follows:

  • Most criminologists are more interested in crime and delinquency in general than in specific forms of crime. They are also more interested in distant causes of crime, such as social disadvantage and dysfunctional families, than the near causes of a problem, such as poor security or lack of surveillance. So even when you find academic articles dealing with your problem, you might find the causes they identify help little in developing an effective response.

  • Unless your problem is very common, do not expect to find many relevant police projects. Be skeptical about claims of success unless supported by evaluative data. Even projects that have received Goldstein or Tilley awards may not have been well evaluated. Be warned also that a response that worked in a particular town or neighborhood might not work in yours because of specific circumstances that make your situation different. However, past police experience of dealing with the problem is always an important source of ideas about what might be helpful in your situation.

Scanning Academic Articles

Most academic articles begin with a short Abstract. If this looks interesting, read the Summary, Discussion and/or Conclusions. If these also seem useful, scan the literature review at the beginning of the article. You can usually skip the methods sections dealing with data, analysis, and results. Even if the article is not directly relevant, you might still find useful material listed in the References.

If you need more detailed information for a response (for example, CCTV surveillance), returning to your computer and the library again should let you find the facts you need and enable you to profit from the experience of others.

Identifying responses

Summarize the responses you identify by constructing a table like that found in the POP Guides, with one row for each response and five columns as below:

 ResponseSourceHow It WorksWorks Best If...Consideration

Footnote text here

Next Step

Read More:

  • Clarke, Ronald and Phyllis Schultze (2004). Researching a Problem. Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Problem-Solving Tool Series No. 2.Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. (accessible at www.popcenter.org and www.cops.usdoj.gov).