• Center for Problem oriented policing

Step 36: Be sure to answer the five W and one H questions

When you have completed your analysis using the concepts discussed in the previous steps, you should ask whether it meets the test of a good newspaper story. Does it adequately answer the 5 W and one H questions: what, where, when, who, why, and how?

These same questions structure Barry Poyner's method of crime analysis by breaking up a larger problem into its constituent parts. For example, when he was asked by the Home Office to study "street attacks" in downtown Coventry and Birmingham (two large cities in England), he found that the police classified these as robberies and thefts from the person, but he found that the majority of incidents fell into a number of quite distinct problems:

  • Robbery from street vending booths
  • Robbery of drunks
  • Money snatched while being taken to the bank
  • Snatching women's purses
  • Wallets/money snatched from the victim's hand after a verbal ploy
  • Thefts from shopping bags
  • Pickpocketing at bus stops

This was a much more meaningful characterization of "street attacks" and was an important first step in understanding the events. He then began to sort through the incident reports, trying to arrive at a picture of each problem that would help him find a response.

Incident reports are quite variable in the information recorded, especially when the victim is not present and there are no witnesses. However, Poyner tries to piece the reports together to get a picture of the particular problem (see box). For each incident he tries to discover:

  • What happened? This entails spelling out the sequence of events and the actions of those involved (Step 35).
  • Where did it happen? Sometimes the sequence of events takes place in several locations. For example, a car might be stolen from a parking lot, moved to a garage for stripping of valuable parts, and then dumped on a piece of wasteland. Information may only be available about the first and last locations. Visiting these can help explain why the offender selected them.
  • When did it happen? Householders or car owners might know only that their car was stolen or their house burgled "sometime during the weekend." For many interpersonal crimes, however, the victim will be able to report precisely when the crime occurred, which may permit inferences about such matters as whether the streets were deserted.
  • Who was involved? There is always at least one offender; there may be one or more victims even if they have no direct contact with the offender; there may be witnesses and other third parties. Statements in police records made by witnesses and victims can provide much useful information, but it might sometimes be important to question a sample about the event.
  • Why did they act as they did? It is important to understand the specific benefits that a particular kind of crime brings to the offender. In many cases of theft, the motive will be obvious, but for interpersonal crimes and for vandalism the motives may only emerge from interviewing offenders (Step 10). Equally important for prevention may be to understand why victims and witnesses behaved as they did and to answer such questions as "What causes some victims to respond by attacking the offender?" and "Why do witnesses often fail to intervene?"
  • How did the offender carry out the crime? Crime can be thought of as a process, with several steps from initiation to completion, rather than a circumscribed act occurring at a specific point in time. At each step the offender must make decisions, might need to work with others, and might need to employ specific knowledge and tools. This is essentially the idea underlying Cornish's "script" approach discussed in Step 35. It may not always be possible to develop detailed scripts, but the analysis should give a clear picture of how the crime was accomplished.

Poyner's analysis of pickpocketing at bus stops illustrates the approach. He was able to construct a detailed description of the crime by supplementing the rather sketchy incident report with observations of the lines waiting for the bus. He found that the peak time for pickpocketing was the afternoon rush hour, particularly on Fridays when lines were long. Groups of three or four youths would hang about near the lines, looking in the windows of nearby stores to avoid arousing suspicion, while watching at the same time for suitable victims. These were invariably middle-aged or older men who kept their wallets in the back pockets of their trousers. (Younger men wore tighter-fitting trousers and did not keep their wallets in their back pockets.)

As their victims began to board the bus, which used a pay-as-you-enter system, the youths would run to the front of the line, jump on the boarding platform of the bus and jostle the riders. They would ask the driver some irrelevant question about the destination of the bus. Meanwhile one of the youths would pick the pocket of the victim. The victim would be irate at being jostled and would not realize what was happening. The driver would shout at the youths to get off his bus and other passengers would be complaining. The youths would step off the bus and slip away into the crowd. The youths were never caught. The victim would only find out later that his wallet was gone.

This analysis suggested four possible responses:

  • Instead of pay-as-you-enter, tickets might be sold in advance for use at these stops.
  • Bus stops might be re-sited away from main pavements and organized in bays more like a bus station. This would make it difficult for offenders to lie in wait.
  • Use a bus shelter to screen the waiting lines so the offenders would be unable to identify potential victims in advance.
  • Construct line-marshalling barriers at the boarding point so offenders could not jump onto the bus platform.

Note that all these solutions are outside the normal remit of the police. Officers rarely consider that their role involves, for example, redesigning bus stops. But as a problem-solving crime analyst your job is to cut crime, and you may need gently to persuade police colleagues that, in the widest sense, it is their job, too.

Next Step

Working Like an Archaeologist

"There is a further advantage of combining incidents. In some cases we may have much less detail than other cases but otherwise the facts we do know about are the same. It may be possible to reconstruct the missing data in these less well reported incidents in much the same way as the archaeologist reconstructs broken pottery from an excavation. He may only have a few pieces of the broken pot but from knowledge of other similar pots he can be reasonably sure about the form of the whole pot. This archaeological approach is quite helpful when, for example, we may have some detailed accounts of what offenders do in a few cases where they have been caught. It seems reasonable to believe that similar behaviour occurred in similar crimes even though the offenders were not caught."

Source: Poyner, Barry (1986). "A Model for Action." Situational Crime Prevention, Gloria Laycock and Kevin Heal. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.