Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Step 54: Tell a clear story

The purpose of your work is to help people make better decisions. To assist decision-makers, you must tell a clear story that leads from an important question to possible answers and then to effective actions. To communicate effectively you need to know who your audience is and the questions they want answered. Your story has to address their particular needs. This story can be told in a written report or in an oral presentation (see Step 58).

Do not simply recount what you did to detect, analyze, respond, or assess. This is tedious and does not help people make actionable decisions from your work. You must translate your analytical work into a story that addresses the needs of your audience.

Your work can help answer four basic questions. These questions correspond to the stages of the SARA process:

  1. What is the nature of the problem? (Scanning)
  2. What causes the problem? (Analysis)
  3. What should be done about the problem? (Response)
  4. Has the response brought about a reduction in the problem? (Assessment)

Clearly, these questions must be made more specific based on the facts of the problem being examined. Local residents, for example, might complain about late night noise and finding litter along their street. Instead of the general scanning question, you could develop a set of specific questions, based on the CHEERS test (Step 14):

  • What is the nature of the noise incidents? (Events)
  • In what ways are these incidents similar? (Similarity)
  • Are there recurring instances of late-night noise and litter that disturb residents? (Recurring)
  • Who, when, and where do these incidents occur? (Community)
  • How do these incidents disturb people? (Harm)
  • Who expects the police to address the problem? (Expectation)

Answering the general question - What is the nature of the problem? - requires you to answer a set of more specific questions.

Your first task in telling a coherent story is to decide which kind of question you are seeking to answer. Next, you should try to structure your account around the basic theories and approaches described in this manual (e.g., the CHEERS test, the crime triangle, or the 80-20 rule). These are frameworks. A framework is a general "story shell" linking multiple interacting factors and that can be applied to a variety of problems. Your choice of frameworks depends on the problem, your findings, and the needs of decision-makers. Be sure there is a logical flow from the basic question, through the framework and findings, to the answers. Check for gaps in logic. Now outline your story. There are four basic story outlines that can guide your work. The details of the story will depend on the specifics of your problem.

Do not stick religiously to these outlines; we provide them as a starting point to prompt ideas. Instead, tailor them to the amount of time you have and, above all, to the concerns of the people whom you are addressing. Try to anticipate their questions, and modify the appropriate outline accordingly. Though we have used technical terms from this manual in these outlines, you may need to use a common vocabulary in your presentation. If your audience is not already familiar with the terminology of problem analysis, you probably should use it sparingly, or not at all.

Four Story Outlines

  1. What is the nature of the problem?
    1. Organizing framework - e.g., CHEERS elements.
    2. Systematic description of evidence about problem type and existence:
      • What is the nature of the events?
      • In what ways are these events similar?
      • How often do these events recur?
      • When and where do these events occur?
      • Who is harmed by these events, and how?
      • Who expects the police to address the problem?
    3. Implications for analysis and collaborative problem solving:
      • Questions that need answering.
      • Definitional and measurement issues.
      • Partners who need to become involved.
    4. Summary.
  2. What causes the problem?
    1. Organizing framework for problem - e.g., problem analysis triangle.
    2. Systematic description of problem answering the following questions:
      • Who are the offenders?
      • Who or what are the targets?
      • At what places and times does the problem occur?
      • What brings the offenders and targets together at the same places?
      • Why don't others step in to prevent these encounters?
      • What facilitates or inhibits the problem?
    3. Implications for general form of responses that fit the information:
      • Offender access or control.
      • Victim/target behaviors or protection.
      • Facility access or management.
    4. Summary.
  3. What should be done about this problem?
    1. Organizing framework for response - e.g., situational crime prevention:
      • Offenders
      • Targets/victims.
      • Places.
    2. Systematic description of response strategy:
      • Increasing risk or effort.
      • Decreasing reward, excuses, or provocations.
      • Who will carry out actions, when, and where?
      • Additional resources required.
    3. Implications and anticipated outcomes:
      • Direct results.
      • Displacement.
      • Diffusion.
      • Other side effects.
      • How evaluation should be conducted.
    4. Summary.
  4. Has the response reduced the problem?
    1. Organizing framework - e.g., principles of evaluation.
    2. Systematic description of evaluation:
      • Was the response implemented as planned?
      • Did the problem change?
      • Why it is likely that the response was a direct cause of change.
      • The magnitude of displacement, diffusion and other side effects.
    3. Implications for further action:
      • Is this problem solving effort complete?
      • What further actions are necessary?
      • Should further analysis be conducted?
      • Should the response be changed?
    4. Summary.