Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Step 6: Be very crime specific

Your department will sometimes mount a crackdown on a particular crime such as auto crime or burglary, and you might be asked to map these offenses or provide other data to support the operation. But these categories are too broad for problem-oriented policing. They include too many different kinds of crimes, all of which need to be separately analyzed. For example, "auto crime" could include:

  • Stealing hubcaps for resale or badges for collections.
  • Breaking into cars to steal items left inside.
  • Breaking into cars and stealing radios and other fittings.
  • Joyriding by juveniles.
  • Taking a car for temporary transport.
  • Stealing a car for use in another crime.
  • Stealing and keeping a car.
  • Stealing cars for "chopping" and sale of the parts.
  • Stealing cars for resale.
  • Stealing cars for export overseas.
  • Carjacking.

You can see these crimes are committed for a variety of motives, by different offenders, with varying degrees of organization, knowledge and skills. Stealing hubcaps is the least difficult and daring and is committed by juvenile wanabees. Joyriding requires more courage and some basic knowledge about starting and driving cars. Stealing cars for export is a much more complicated crime requiring high levels of organization, with many more stages and people involved. The offenders are as likely to be dishonest businessmen as career criminals. More ruthless, hardened criminals commit carjacking.

These differences between crimes explain why the solutions to each cannot be the same. Joyriding can be reduced by better built-in security, which explains why immobilizers are now bringing down overall levels of car theft. However, immobilizers cannot prevent carjacking because victims can be forced to hand over the keys if these are not already in the ignition. In fact, some commentators believe that carjacking has increased because newer cars with ignition immobilizers are difficult to steal in the usual way. Immobilizers can also be overcome by those with sufficient technical skill and they may do little to reduce theft of cars for export. The solution to this problem may lie in better port and border controls and documents that are harder to forge.

Breaking down a larger problem of crime into smaller categories is merely the first step in tightening the focus of a POP project. For example, a recent POP project in Charlotte, NC, originally focused on downtown thefts from cars, became progressively more specific as the analysis of the problem unfolded. First, it became clear that the problem was concentrated in the car parks. Only 17% involved cars parked in residences or on the streets. Then it was found after counting parking spaces that cars in surface lots were six times more at risk than those in parking garages, which were generally more secure (see Step 27). This meant the project could focus on improving security in the surface lots through better lighting and fencing, and more supervision by attendants. This would be much easier than trying to reduce the already low levels of theft in the parking garages. Tightening the focus of a POP project in this way increases the probability of success and uses resources effectively.

There are few rules for determining precisely the level of specificity needed for a successful POP project. Tightening the focus too much could result in too few crimes being addressed to justify the expenditure of resources, though this depends on the nature and seriousness of the crimes. If only a few hubcaps are being stolen, then this problem would not merit a full-blown POP project. On the other hand, a POP project to reduce corner store robberies could be worth undertaking, even if only a few such robberies occur each year, because these can escalate into worse crimes such as murder, and because they increase public fear.

"Because so much effort has been concentrated on crude groupings of crime types, such as burglary, robbery or auto theft, it has been virtually impossible to find truly common facts about the conditions which lead to each of these groups of crimes. This implies that we have to be very patient and try to solve the problems of crime gradually and progressively, piece by piece."

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

Being More Specific about Residential Burglary

Barry Poyner and Barry Webb have argued that preventing residential burglaries targeted on electronic goods requires quite different measures from those to prevent burglaries targeted on cash or jewelry. This is because they found many differences between these two sorts of burglaries in the city they studied. When the targets were cash or jewelry, burglaries occurred mostly in older homes near to the downtown area and were apparently committed by offenders on foot. When the targets were electronic goods such as TVs and VCRs, the burglaries generally took place in newer, more distant suburbs and were committed by offenders with cars. The cars were needed to transport the stolen goods and had to be parked near to the house, but not so close as to attract attention. The layout of housing in the newer suburbs allowed these conditions to be met, and Poyner and Webb's preventive suggestions consisted principally of means to counter the lack of natural surveillance of parking places and roadways. Their suggestions to prevent inner city burglaries focused more on improving security and surveillance at the point of entry.

Source: Poyner, Barry and Barry Webb (1991). Crime Free Housing. Oxford: Butterworth-Architecture.

Some serious crimes, such as school shootings, are so rare that they cannot be properly addressed at the local level by problem-oriented policing. This is because the methodology depends upon a certain level of repetition to permit underlying causes to be identified. For these kinds of crimes, police forces must ensure that routine security measures are in place and that they have a well-worked out plan for responding to incidents.

While one should avoid beginning with a solution, some solutions for specific crimes are so promising that they might help define the focus of a POP project. To return to the example of robbery at corner stores, there is good research showing that having at least two members of staff on duty can reduce late night robberies of these stores. You could therefore take a look at how many corner store robberies occur late at night in your area. If there were enough of them, you might persuade your department to mount a POP project focused on these late night robberies simply because you know that an effective solution exists.

Finally, as you learn more about a problem in the analysis stage, you might decide that it is so similar to a related problem that it is worth addressing the two together. For instance, when working on a problem of assaults on taxi drivers, you might discover that many of these are related to robbery attempts and that it would be more economical to focus your project on both robberies and assaults. In this way you may identify a package of measures that would reduce the two problems together.

Next Step

Separate Problems, Common Solutions

Specific problems in a dilapidated neighborhood or apartment complex should always be separately analyzed, but, for cost-effectiveness reasons, solutions ought to be considered together. In the hypothetical example below, the last identified solution, a gatekeeper and closed circuit television (CCTV) system, is the most costly of all those listed. But it is also predicted to be the most effective solution for each problem. It might therefore be chosen as a solution to all three problems when costs might have ruled out its selection for just one of the problems.

Trim bushes to improve surveillance ($) ****
Block watch scheme ($)*****
Alarms for elevators ($$)****  
Electronic access to parking lot ($$) ********
Installation of entry phone ($$$)**  
Security patrol ($$$$)   
Window locks and strengthened doors for apartments ($$$$)*****
Gatekeeper and complex-wide CCTV cameras ($$$$$)************
$ Predicted costs* Predicted effectiveness