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Oct 19-21, 2015 Portland, OR

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Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems

Response Guide No. 3 (2005)

by Michael S. Scott & Herman Goldstein

Translation(s): Transferir e Partilhar Responsabilidades nos Problemas de Segurança Pública (Portuguese)


The public calls upon the police to respond to an astounding range of problems and to perform an extraordinary diversity of tasks, all the while assuming that police have the expertise and resources to do so. Many of these problems and tasks fall to the police through the default of others: from gaps in government services, to the abandonment of responsibility by private citizens, corporations, and other organizations. This has always been a concern. In recent years, through a more methodical approach to policing, police are increasingly pressing for a more rational distribution of responsibilities based upon a detailed examination of the differing facets of police business.

This guide details the ways in which police can persuade or coerce others to address crime and disorder problems. As such, it differs from other guides in the Response Guides series; whereas most Response Guides examine the kinds of responses that can be used to address common crime and disorder problems-crackdowns, street closings, publicity campaigns, video surveillance, and so forth-this guide examines how police can get others to respond to such problems, regardless of the form that such responses may take, provided they do not violate basic standards of propriety and legality.

Public safety problems are commonly addressed through a combination of responses; seldom is a single type of response sufficient. Of course, many public safety problems are adequately addressed by the police in the exercise of their normal authority and expertise. Increasingly, however, police and others are discovering that it is not only the police who have the authority and expertise to respond to many public safety problems; consequently, the police have come to depend heavily upon others to aid them in responding effectively to crime and disorder. There is growing evidence that by addressing the conditions that underlie crime and disorder problems, rather than merely looking to arrest offenders, police can more effectively prevent and control such problems.1

There is also growing evidence-much of it found in the literature on situational crime prevention-that demonstrates how public safety problems can be prevented, reduced, and controlled with little or no police involvement, a process by which police unquestionably benefit.

See the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing on-line library for further readings on situational crime prevention.

Indeed, the very process of producing the Problem-Oriented Guides for Police-particularly the review of police reports submitted to problem-oriented policing award programs

The two most prominent award programs are the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing (administered in the United States) and the Tilley Award (administered in the United Kingdom).

-reveals that police frequently conclude that they must somehow get others to respond to problems that would otherwise be inadequately addressed if the police were forced to act alone.

Once the problem and a remedial strategy have been identified, it is important to determine which of the various stakeholders is in the best position to implement and enforce the proposed solution. Depending on the situation, the police, private citizens, industry, or the government may all bear some responsibility for addressing a problem. In some instances, it is clear that the police are the best choice. For example, where a criminal investigation and arrests are necessary, the police are typically responsible, as most other individuals and organizations lack the authority and expertise to perform such tasks. In other instances, however, it is clear that someone other than the police should be responsible. For example, where changes in corporate policies or practices are necessary, it is the corporation, not the police, that has the authority to effectuate the necessary policy decisions. In still other instances, although the response is clear, there may be any number of viable actors who are able to accept responsibility for carrying the response to fruition. For example, where educating, warning, or advising citizens is called for, it is very much an open question whether the police or someone else should be responsible for developing and delivering the message.

There are few firm rules that dictate who is primarily responsible for addressing a particular public safety problem. What rules, for example, dictate who is responsible for preventing and controlling retail theft. Is it the police? The shop? The consumer? The insurance carrier? The difficulty arises because every problem stems from a variety of sources, each of which can plausibly be said to bear some responsibility for its remediation. Much depends on who possesses the skill, knowledge, authority, and resources to implement changes that will effectively reduce or control the problem. However, much also depends on who possesses the political power to avoid accepting responsibility-leaving to others, including the police, the responsibility for dealing with the problem. Although important, the full range of factors that determine legal and moral responsibility for public safety problems, as well as the processes and sources of authority under which such determinations are made, are beyond the scope of this guide.

How responsibility for addressing public safety problems is apportioned in society has more far reaching implications than can be discussed in this guide. For further exploration of those issues, see Scott (forthcoming). [Full text]

This guide focuses on problems that police accept as falling within their proper mandate and that they feel obliged to address-even though the acceptance of a measure of responsibility for dealing with a problem should not automatically burden the police with the sole responsibility for it. This guide does not address the problems and duties that police seek to transfer to others on the ground that they do not fall within the proper scope of police power and authority. Many police agencies find themselves performing a variety of duties that have little to do with their core functions. Some argue that tasks such as providing funeral and banking escorts, teaching moral values to schoolchildren, guarding construction sites, transporting probation violators to jail, investigating intrusion alarms, and the like, should not be police duties. To some degree, police have been the victims of their own success in advancing the principles of community policing because some outreach efforts have resulted in citizens bringing problems to the police that the police may not be best suited to address. And although police may encourage citizens to bring crime and disorder problems to their attention in the hope that other agencies will collaborate in addressing them, many problems that are brought forward result in little or no commitment to cooperation.

Although some individuals will not question the basis upon which the police ask others to assume responsibility for addressing a problem, the force of such requests can be greatly strengthened if police can explain persuasively the rationale for the request, including:

  • how compliance with the request will address the problem;
  • the basis for police knowledge about the effectiveness of the proposed response;
  • what measures police have already taken to resolve the problem;
  • the limitations of those measures; and
  • the benefits to all concerned if new practices are adopted voluntarily.

Police are increasingly seeking to shift and share responsibility for addressing public safety problems, largely because of several trends within and without the police profession, including:

  • an increased police emphasis on prevention and proactivity;
  • an increased emphasis on and capability for conducting detailed analysis of police workloads;
  • the recognition that incidents often cluster around concentrated sources-common places, offenders, victims, and times-which, if dealt with effectively, can greatly reduce the magnitude of the problem; and
  • an increased emphasis on efficiency, especially in times of tightened budgets and heightened fiscal awareness.

Determining and assigning responsibility for addressing public safety problems will become ever more important as the general understanding of what causes problems and what best addresses them improves. Until better arrangements are made within local communities and in society at large for determining and assigning such responsibilities, it will continue to fall to police to analyze public safety problems and to take the lead in apportioning responsibility for addressing them.

Problem-oriented policing depends heavily on strong, mutually trusting partnerships among police and other entities and constituencies, partnerships in which each party assumes its fair share of responsibility. The overriding goal of problem-oriented policing is to adopt responses to community problems that are more equitable and effective for the community as a whole than are current responses. Police should not set out merely to divest themselves of responsibility for various tasks. It is only after careful exploration and analysis that police should conclude that someone else should be doing something different to better control a particular crime or disorder problem.