Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Step 4: Become a POP expert

When a serious crime occurs, the police are expected to react immediately. They must provide help and reassurance to victims and move fast to arrest offenders. Yet we have seen that many times the police are not able to arrest the culprits and may not be able to secure a conviction when they do. We have also seen that random patrolling, which the public expects, is not an efficient way to apprehend criminals. This means that much police work that is carried out to meet public expectations is of limited value in controlling crime.

If they knew these facts, people would not be content for police to abandon patrol or down-grade their response to serious crimes. Rather, they would expect the police to find new and better ways to control crime, while continuing their traditional work. In fact, this is what the police leadership has been trying to do by experimenting with CompStat, zero tolerance, community policing, and problem-oriented policing (or problem-solving as it is often called). While crime analysts have a role in all these innovations, problem-oriented policing (POP) thrusts them into the limelight and gives them an important team function. That's why you should learn about it.

Herman Goldstein originated the concept of problem-oriented policing in a paper published in 1979. His idea was simple. It is that policing should fundamentally be about changing the conditions that give rise to recurring crime problems and should not simply be about responding to incidents as they occur or trying to forestall them through preventive patrols. Police find it demoralizing to return repeatedly to the same place or to deal repeatedly with problems caused by the same small group of offenders. They feel overwhelmed by the volume of calls and rush around in a futile effort to deal with them all. To escape from this trap, Goldstein said the police must adopt a problem-solving approach in which they work through the following four stages:

  1. Scan data to identify patterns in the incidents they routinely handle.
  2. Subject these patterns (or problems) to indepth analysis of causes.
  3. Find new ways of intervening earlier in the causal chain so that these problems are less likely to occur in the future. These new strategies are not limited to efforts to identify, arrest, and prosecute offenders. Rather, without abandoning the use of the criminal law when it is likely to be the most effective response, problem-oriented policing seeks to find other potentially effective responses (that might require partnership with others) with a high priority on prevention.
  4. Assess the impact of the interventions and, if they have not worked, start the process all over again.

SARA is the acronym used to refer to these four stages of problem solving - Scanning, Analysis, Response and Assessment. Later sections of this manual will discuss these in detail, but you can already see why you have a central role in problem-oriented policing. You are the person most familiar with police data and you know how best to analyze and map that data to identify underlying patterns. You may know better than anyone else in the department how to use data in evaluating new initiatives. If you make it your business to become the local crime expert, you will also know where to find other relevant information about problems; where to find information on the Internet and in specialist literature about successful responses used elsewhere; how to use insights from environmental criminology in developing a problem analysis; and how to anticipate and measure any possible displacement. Without your day-to-day involvement at all four stages, the POP project will not achieve a substantial and sustained reduction in the problem.

Problem solving can be difficult. The greatest difficulties are found at analysis and assessment, precisely where you could make your greatest contribution. Indeed, from the very first, Goldstein has argued that problem-oriented policing depends crucially on the availability of high-level analytic capacity in the department; an argument repeated in his most recent publications. In fact, he has been very supportive of the idea of writing this manual, which is addressed directly to the role of the crime analyst in problem-oriented policing.

You might agree that you have a substantial role in problem-oriented projects, but you might ask how you could ever succeed in that role given the realities of your job. How could you devote the time needed for the kind of careful analyses required? How could you make a long-term commitment to a project, when you are continually being asked to produce statistical reports and maps immediately, if not before? How would you ever be accepted as an equal member of the team, especially if you are a mere civilian? How could you function as an equal member when your boss wants to approve every analysis you suggest and wants to see all your work before it leaves the unit? How could you restrain the natural impatience of officers to move to a solution before the analysis is complete? How could you persuade them to consider solutions other than identifying and arresting offenders? How would you deal with criticisms that you are more interested in research than practical action? In short, you may be wondering what planet we are living on because it certainly resembles nothing you have seen.

These are good questions, but we believe that policing is changing and that you can help speed up these changes. There is slow but increasing pressure on police to become more effective and the time is long past when chiefs could say they would cut crime if only they had more resources. Now, at least in larger departments, they must make a detailed evidence-based case for these resources and must explain precisely how they would use them. Their performance is being watched more closely every day, and the crime reductions that police in many cities claim to have achieved have undermined excuses for failure.

In short, there is no doubt that police will become increasingly reliant on data to acquire resources and manage them effectively. By providing these data, you can ride this tide of change to a more rewarding career in policing, though you will have to work patiently to supply timely information in a form that is helpful to the organization. If you do this, and you remain firmly focused on crime reduction, you and your profession will gradually move into a more central policing role - and problem-oriented policing provides you with the perfect vehicle. We all know that policing is beset by new fads that follow hot upon one another and almost as quickly disappear when something new arrives. Many seasoned officers play along for a while, waiting for management to lose interest so that they can get back to business as usual. But problem-oriented policing is not just a fad. It delivers results and is here to stay.

Read More:

  • Goldstein, Herman (1979). "Improving Policing: A Problem-Oriented Approach." Crime & Delinquency April: 234-58.
  • Goldstein, Herman (1990). Problem-Oriented Policing. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Goldstein, Herman (2003). "On Further Developing Problem-Oriented Policing. In Problem-Oriented Policing. From Innovation to Mainstream." Crime Prevention Studies, Volume 15, edited by Johannes Knutsson. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.