• Center for Problem oriented policing

Step 44: Find the owner of the problem

Many problems arise through the failure of some institution - business, government agency, or other organization - to conduct its affairs in ways that prevent crime rather than cause it. In short, many problems occur because one or more institutions are unable or unwilling to undertake a preventive strategy, or because these institutions have intentionally established a circumstance that stimulates crimes or disorder. This creates risky facilities (Step 28) and other concentrations of crime.

Solving problems usually requires the active cooperation of the people and institutions that have failed to take responsibility for the conditions that lead to the problem. These problem owners have shifted responsibility for the problem from their shoulders to the shoulders of the public and the police. Consequently, an important objective of any problem-solving process is to get them to assume responsibility. So for any problem, you need to answer three ownership questions:

  • Who owns the problem?
  • Why has the owner allowed the problem to develop?
  • What is required to get the owner to undertake prevention?

Who owns the problem? When a problem is located at a specific place, it is usually easy to identify who is responsible. The owner of the problem is the owner of the location. A problem in a park, for example, is the body with the responsibility for operating the park - usually a local government or some private agency.

It is more difficult to identify those responsible for problems that are spread over larger areas. If a widespread problem is focused on a specific location, then that location may be the source for the events in the surrounding area, and the owner of the central location may be responsible. A real estate speculator, who owns many derelict properties in a neighborhood, owns the crime associated with these properties.

If there is a special group of individuals - the elderly, children with special needs, or victims of domestic violence - and these individuals are targets of crime or disorder, then potential owners of the problem are family members. If there are agencies charged with seeing to the well-being of these special groups, these service agencies are possible co-owners of the problems. While trying to reduce the highway deaths of migrant workers, the California Highway Patrol identified businesses that specialized in the transportation of migrant workers. They owned the problem but were not being responsible. Fixing responsibility entailed stepped up regulation of these businesses, including vehicle inspections, requiring seats and seat belts for certain types of migrant transport vehicles, and greater enforcement of safety violations. The result was a large reduction in fatal accidents involving migrant farm workers. This effort received the Goldstein Award for Problem-Solving Excellence in 2002.

Why has the owner allowed the problem to develop? There are four generic explanations that alone or in combination fit most problems:

  1. An institution may be unable to prevent crime. This might be due to ignorance as to the effect of its operations on crime or ignorance as to how to prevent crime. Or this may be due to lack of resources, even when the institution knows its operations help create crime. It is also important to recognize the importance of institutionalized procedures. Changing procedures can be time consuming and costly in both monetary resources and staffing. A new inventory control procedure to prevent shoplifting and internal theft may be difficult to implement because it requires disruptive changes in the ways employees conduct their normal business.
  2. Some institutions may be unwilling to prevent crime facilitated by their operations because they believe that fixing crime is the exclusive responsibility of the police (e.g., gas stations with a high rate of gasoline drive-offs may see gas thieves as the problem rather than their lack of a pre-pay policy). Rather than recognize the role of opportunity in creating crime, some people dwell exclusively on the role of offenders. From this perspective, it is the function of police to reduce crime by stricter enforcement. The limitations of this approach have been noted in Step 3. Another source of unwillingness is the belief that the police are intruding on the property owner's rights. A retailer might claim that he has the right to display goods any way he wants, and that the police should not compel, or even suggest, alternative displays that might reduce shoplifting.
  3. Some institutions are unwilling because of the costs of addressing the problem; they gain more by ignoring crime than they lose. They may perceive that the costs of prevention outweigh any benefits to them. Security personnel at an entertainment venue are costly, and quality security personnel are more costly. If the costs of the problem are not borne by the facility, then there is little perceived need to bear the costs of prevention. In essence, such facilities are exporting the costs of crime and prevention onto others, and thereby reducing their own costs.
  4. Some institutions may profit from the crimes, as can happen when a used goods shop does little to verify legitimate ownership of the merchandise they display. Auto repair garages can purchase stolen car parts cheaper than legal car parts, thus increasing their profit margin.

What is required to get the owner to undertake prevention? Herman Goldstein has outlined a rough hierarchy of interventions designed to shift responsibility for problems from the police back to the institutions that own them (see box).

Moving from the bottom to the top of Goldstein's list, interventions become less cooperative and increasingly coercive. Because of this, the difficulty of intervention increases, along with the costs of failure to the police, as one moves up the list. Consequently, the value of information and thorough analysis increases from the bottom to the top. As Goldstein notes, this hierarchy is a rough indicator of these trends rather than an exact description. Nevertheless, it is useful for planning a layered set of responses to a problem - beginning with the most cooperative and working upward only if needed and only when supported by information.

Shifting responsibility back to the owner of the problem can create legal and political conflicts. Institutions that had gained from the problem, or foresee a cost in taking responsibility for it, are unlikely to simply agree to a suggestion that they do something about it. The problem of false alarms has been a plague for over two decades, but in many jurisdictions it is difficult to overcome the political and financial clout of the alarm industry who are principally responsible for the high level of false alarms. Clearly, the least costly and intrusive prevention measures will meet the least resistance (Step 45). But if these responses turn out to be ineffective, then the police often face a difficult choice: demand greater responsibility from problem owners and risk a political conflict, or continue to spend the public's money on a problem created by a few individuals. In the abstract the answer seems clear, but in practice it is often a difficult decision.

Next Step

Herman Goldstein's Hierarchy of Ways to Shift Ownership

Least cooperative/ Most difficultBringing a Civil Action
Legislation Mandating Adoption of Prevention
Charging a Fee for Police Service
Withdrawing Police Service
Public Shaming
Creation of a New Organization to Assume Ownership
Engaging Another Existing Organization
Targeted Confrontational Requests
Straightforward Informal Requests
Most cooperative/ Least difficultEducational Programs

Read More

  • Scott, Michael (2005). "Policing for Prevention: Shifting and Sharing the Responsibility to Address Public Safety Problems." Handbook of Crime Prevention and Community Safety, Nick Tilley. Cullompton U.K.: Willan.