• Center for Problem oriented policing

Step 8: Use the problem analysis triangle

Most criminological theories focus on what makes people "criminal". They find causes in distant factors, such as child-rearing practices, genetic makeup, and psychological or social processes. These theories are very difficult to test; are of varying and unknown scientific validity; and yield ambiguous policy implications that are mostly beyond the reach of police practice. But you will find that the theories and concepts of environmental criminology (and of the new discipline of crime science) are very helpful in everyday police work. This is because they deal with the immediate situational causes of crime events, including temptations and opportunities and inadequate protection of targets. You will be a stronger member of the problem-oriented team if you are familiar with these concepts.The problem analysis triangle (also known as the crime triangle) comes from one of the main theories of environmental criminology - routine activity theory. This theory, originally formulated by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson, states that predatory crime occurs when a likely offender and suitable target come together in time and place, without a capable guardian present. It takes the existence of a likely offender for granted since normal human greed and selfishness are sufficient explanations of most criminal motivation. It makes no distinction between a human victim and an inanimate target since both can meet the offender's purpose. And it defines a capable guardian in terms of both human actors and security devices. This formulation led to the original problem analysis triangle with the three sides representing the offender, the target, and the location, or place (see inner triangle of the figure).By directing attention to the three major components of any problem, the inner triangle helps to ensure that your analysis covers all three. Police are used to thinking about a problem in terms of the offenders involved - indeed, the usual focus is almost exclusively on how to identify and arrest them. But POP requires that you explore a broader range of factors and this requires information about the victims and the places involved.The latest formulation of the problem analysis triangle adds an outer triangle of "controllers" for each of the three original elements (see figure):
  • For the target/victim, this is the capable guardian of the original formulation of routine activity theory - usually people protecting themselves, their own belongings or those of family members, friends, and co-workers. Guardians also include public police and private security.
  • For the offender, this is the handler, someone who knows the offender well and who is in a position to exert some control over his or her actions. Handlers include parents, siblings, teachers, friends and spouses. Probation and parole authorities often augment or substitute for normal handlers.
  • For the place, the controller is the manager, the owner or designee who has some responsibility for controlling behavior in the specific location such as a bus driver or teacher in a school, bar owners in drinking establishments, landlords in rental housing, or flight attendants on commercial airliners.

Problem Analysis Triangle

Problem Analysis Triangle
The problem analysis triangle is the basis for another useful analytic tool - a classification of the three main kinds of problems that confront police and a theory about how these problems arise. John Eck and William Spelman have proposed classifying such problems as "wolf," "duck" and "den" problems:
  1. Repeat offending problems involve offenders attacking different targets at different places. These are ravenous WOLF problems. An armed robber who attacks a series of different banks is an example of a pure wolf problem. Wolf problems occur when offenders are able to locate temporarily vulnerable targets and places. The controllers for these targets and places may act to prevent future attacks, but the offenders move on to other targets and places. It is the lack of control by handlers that facilitates wolf problems.
  2. Repeat victimization problems involve victims repeatedly attacked by different offenders. These are sitting DUCK problems. Taxi drivers repeatedly robbed in different locations by different people is an example of a pure duck problem. Duck problems occur when victims continually interact with potential offenders at different places, but the victims do not increase their precautionary measures and their guardians are either absent or ineffective.
  3. Repeat location problems involve different offenders and different targets interacting at the same place. These are DEN of iniquity problems. A drinking establishment that has many fights, but always among different people, is an example of a pure den problem. Den problems occur when new potential offenders and new potential targets encounter each other in a place where management is ineffective. The setting continues to facilitate the problem events.
Note that pure wolf, duck, and den problems are rare. Most problems involve a mixture. The question is, which is most dominant in a given problem: wolves, ducks, or dens?


When crime is occurring, all inner elements of the triangle must be present and all outer elements weak or absent. If potential offenders are constantly present, for example, but crimes occur only when guardians are absent, then rescheduling guardians might be a useful solution. Ask yourself, "What does the problem analysis triangle look like before, during, and after crimes?"

Understanding how problems are created by opportunities will help you think about what might be done to: prevent offenders from reoffending by making better use of handlers; help victims reduce their probabilities of being targets; and to change places where problems occur, be these schools, taverns, or parking lots. In short, right from the beginning, it helps you to focus data collection on those six aspects most likely to lead to practical solutions.

What is Crime Science?

Traditional criminology seeks to improve understanding of the psychological and social forces that cause people to become criminals in the hope of finding ways to change these causes. Crime science takes a radically different approach. It focuses not on the reasons why criminals are born or made, but on the act of committing crime. It seeks ways to reduce the opportunities and temptations for crime and increase the risks of detection. In doing so, it seeks contributions from a wide range of disciplines, including psychology, geography, medicine, town planning, and architecture. Crime science explicitly seeks to be judged by the extent to which it helps to reduce crime on our streets, and in our homes and businesses.

Source: Jill Dando Institute for Crime Science. (2004). www.jdi.ucl.ac.uk

 Next Step