Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Step 7: Be guided by SARA - but not led astray!

Within problem-oriented policing, the police are required to: (1) carefully define specific problems (see Step 14 for the definition of "problem"); (2) conduct in-depth analyses to understand their causes; (3) undertake broad searches for solutions to remove these causes and bring about lasting reductions in problems; and (4) evaluate how successful these activities have been. This is a form of action research, a well-established social science method in which researchers work alongside practitioners, helping to formulate and refine interventions until success is achieved. This can be contrasted with the usual role of researchers, in which they work apart from the practitioners, collect background information about problems, and conduct independent evaluations. In action research, however, the researcher is an integral member of the problem-solving team. This is the role of the crime analyst. Your analyses must inform and guide action at every stage.

You will find that SARA will help you and your team keep on track. This is the acronym formulated by John Eck and Bill Spelman to refer to the four problem-solving stages of Scanning, Analysis, Response and Assessment. This process is very similar to many other analytical processes, including the standard crime analysis process of collection, collation, analysis, dissemination, and feedback. By dividing the overall project into separate stages, SARA helps to ensure that the necessary steps are undertaken in proper sequence - for example, that solutions are not adopted before an analysis of the problem has been undertaken. This is a useful check on the natural tendency to jump straight to a final response, while skimping on definition of the problem and analysis and forgetting to assess their impact on the problem.

Problem-solving projects can be complex. In action research, the team is expected to persist until success is achieved, refining and improving an intervention in the light of what is learned from earlier experiences. The process is not necessarily completed once the assessment has been made. If the problem persists, or has changed its form, the team may have to start over. This is represented in the figure where the outer arrows describe the feedback between assessment and scanning.

However, the four problem-solving stages do not always follow one another in a strictly linear fashion. In fact, projects rarely follow a linear path from the initial scanning and analysis stages through the stages of response and assessment. Rather, the process often has loops, so that an unfolding analysis can result in refocusing of the project, and questions about possible responses can lead to the need for fresh analyses. The longer and more complicated the project, the more loops of this kind are likely to occur. The set of smaller inner arrows in the figure illustrate this dynamic process. For example, one might jump from scanning to the implementation of a short-term emergency response to stabilize the problem while further analysis is undertaken. An assessment of the short-term response could add to the analysis and contribute to the formulation of a new response, which is then assessed. This might lead back to scanning as new information forces a revision of the problem definition or the discovery of new problems. The important point is that analysis and evaluation are meaningfully incorporated into the sequence of events and one does not simply jump from scanning to response and declare victory.



One of us (Clarke) recently worked with Herman Goldstein on a project to reduce thefts of appliances from houses under construction in Charlotte, North Carolina. The housing developments were often in fairly isolated rural areas and were impossible to patrol effectively. They were difficult to secure because builders wanted to encourage prospective buyers to tour the sites in the evenings and on weekends. Because few offenders were ever caught, we knew little about them or how they disposed of the appliances. We considered a wide range of possible solutions including storing appliances in secure containers on site and the use of portable alarms and closed-circuit television cameras. Then we hit on a solution being used by some small builders - to delay installation of the appliances until the day that the buyer took possession.

Many builders were hostile at first to the idea. Sales staff believed that having the appliances installed made a home more saleable, and that the absence of appliances, if attributed to theft, might alarm purchasers about the area they were moving into. Site supervisors felt that delivering and installing appliances as houses were occupied would be more difficult than batch delivery and installation. Some erroneously believed that building inspectors would not certify the houses as suitable for occupancy unless appliances were in place. Others wrongly believed that this was a mortgage requirement. Finally, individual installation would mean that builders could no longer arrange for building inspectors to visit a site and issue certificates of occupancy wholesale.

Because the solution had so many advantages, we decided to return to the analysis stage to find answers to the builders' objections. Ultimately, this information was useful in persuading builders to adopt the solution and thus reduce the number of appliance thefts.

This shows how problem-oriented policing is a process in which the gradual acquisition of data and information informs the project, leading to more questions, to redefinition, and even to changes in focus as it moves along. As soon as a promising response is identified, its costs and benefits need to be analyzed in depth. The alternative of comprehensively exploring all available response options runs the risk that the project will lose momentum and the support of those involved.

Next Step

SARA and the "5 I's"

Paul Ekblom of the British Home Office has recently proposed a development of SARA consisting of: Intelligence, Intervention, Implementation, Involvement, and Impact and process evaluation. The "5 I's" are supported by a wealth of practical concepts and tools.

A summary can be found at:

Read More:

  • Clarke, Ronald and Herman Goldstein (2002). "Reducing Theft at Construction Sites: Lessons from a Problem-Oriented Project." Crime Prevention Studies, volume 13, edited by Nick Tilley. Monsey, New York: Criminal Justice Press. (accessible at:
  • Eck, John (2003). "Why Don't Problems Get Solved?" Community Policing: Can It Work?, edited by Wesley Skogan. Belmont, California: Wadsworth.