• Center for Problem oriented policing

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Using the Information You Have Found

Make a copy of any highly relevant material you find in the course of your search because you may want to consult it repeatedly. Highlight particularly relevant passages or, better still, stick a "post-it" label on the page with a brief note about the topic. You can then find the relevant passages without having to flip through the entire article or report, and you can easily remove these labels when you have finished dealing with the topic.

Understanding Your Problem

One of the principal objectives of conducting a literature search is to learn what others have discovered about the causes of the kind of problem you are tackling, particularly its "near" causes (those factors that most immediately contributed to the problem). Knowing what they have found will be useful to you in analyzing your own problem. Your analysis can check whether factors that have been implicated in the past also hold true in your situation.

It is only when you have achieved an understanding of your problem that you can expect to identify effective responses. You will know you have achieved this understanding when you are able to provide answers to the five "W" and one "H" questions:†

† For a fuller discussion of these questions, see Clarke and Eck (2003).

  • Who is involved? Are the offenders juveniles? Juvenile gangs? Organized criminals? Addicts? Opportunists? Ordinary members of the public?
  • What exactly do they do? The essence of problem-oriented policing is to focus on a very specific problem. This is because specific problems demand specific solutions. Answering this question helps you to identify the specific problem that you wish to focus on.
  • Why do they do this? For theft the motive will be obvious, but much can be learned about specific motivation from the nature of the goods stolen. Motives for many other expressive or violent crimes may be more obscure.
  • Where do they do this? Try to describe the usual setting. Sometimes the sequence of events takes place in several locations. For example, a car might be stolen from a parking lot, moved to a garage for stripping of valuable parts, and then dumped on wasteland. Understanding the physical setting in which problems occur often leads to opportunities to alter that physical setting.
  • When do they do this? Householders or car owners might know only that their car was stolen "sometime during the weekend." For many interpersonal crimes, however, the victim will be able to report precisely when the crime occurred, which may permit inferences about such matters as whether the streets were deserted.
  • How do they carry out the crime? Crime is a process, with several steps from initiation to completion. At each step the offender must make decisions about working with others and about employing specific knowledge and tools. These decisions are heavily influenced by the offender's need to complete the crime quickly, with minimum effort, and without being caught. The details of the situation are crucial to these decisions. To take a simple example, car thieves are more likely to avoid parking lots with strong lighting, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and full-time attendants than ones without these forms of security.

When you can answer these sorts of questions with reasonable certainty, you will have developed a hypothesis about your problem. A hypothesis is a statement that explains why the problem is occurring. The hypothesis points you in the direction of certain responses and away from others.

Identifying Responses

Keep a record of responses you identify by constructing a summary grid similar to that found at the end of each of the problem-specific guides in the Problem-Oriented Guides for Police Series. For each response, note the prime source and explain how the response works, the conditions under which it works best, and any special considerations, such as costs or legal requirements. Your grid should have one row for each response and five columns as below:

ResponseSourceHow It WorksWorks Best If...Considerations

This table will be a summary of the most valuable results of your search. You might need more detailed information for the responses you believe will be most effective in your situation. For example, if you think you might want to install CCTV cameras to improve surveillance, you might need information about the different CCTV systems on the market, their costs and their relative advantages and disadvantages.† Returning to your computer and the library one more time should help you find the facts you need and enable you to profit from the experience of others.

† The Problem-Oriented Guides for Police now include a Response Guide Series that presents detailed information about commonly used responses.

Ten Tips For Researching a Problem
  1. Check the Problem-Oriented Guides for Police Series.
  2. Browse www.popcenter.org, especially the Tilley and Goldstein awards.
  3. Browse the UK Crime Reduction Toolkit.
  4. Try to get access to Criminal Justice Abstracts.
  5. Visit your local library and speak to a librarian.
  6. Whenever possible, use a computer with a high-speed Internet connection.
  7. Make copies of the best articles and reports you find.
  8. Look for additional material to read in the reference lists of any useful article.
  9. Develop a hypothesis about the causes of your problem.
  10. Organize information about responses in a summary grid.


The Internet and the development of online social science databases have made it much easier for you to find research and best practice that can help with your problem-oriented project. A few hours spent at the computer, and time spent in a nearby public or college library, can unearth a wealth of relevant material. For some problems that are new or rare, the haul might be more meager. And it is sometimes difficult to find your way around the Internet or locate the material in libraries. But it is always worth seeking to profit from the labors of others. Learning what they have discovered could jump-start your efforts and save you valuable time later in your project.

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