Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
Section 5.1: Problem-oriented Policing
The article below was written by Joel B. Plant and Michael S. Scott.
Effective Policing and Crime Prevention
Establishing public safety is among local government’s fundamental obligations to its citizens. The safety of one’s person and security of one’s property are widely viewed as basic human rights and are essential to the community’s overall quality of life. When the citizenry is not, and does not feel, reasonably safe, other critical local government functions such as economic development, government finance, public education, stable housing, and basic local government services become that much more difficult to provide. In short, a community’s reputation for public safety heavily influences its appeal as a place to raise a family or open a business.
If you are a mayor or county executive voters directly elected, or a city or county manager elected officials appointed, you hardly need a guide to remind you of this: your constituents do so regularly. And yet, notwithstanding much popular rhetoric about the nature of crime and what should be done about it, establishing real and perceived public safety is one of local government’s more complex and challenging undertakings.
The Police Function Is Much Broader Than Crime Control
Citizens largely think of police as crimefighters. Certainly, Hollywood plays up this image. They know that audiences won’t be terribly interested in watching films and shows about police as service providers, traffic controllers, and conflict managers. Audiences want action and they want stories about the fight between good and evil. Police officers themselves like and perpetuate this crime-fighting self-image, even though they understand it represents but a partial truth about real policing. Real policing is, of course, at least partly about crime-fighting. But it is about much, much more, and it is inescapably complex.
In addition to dealing with such better-known crimes as murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, and theft—which combined comprise only about 10 percent of all police business—police are routinely expected to deal with other offenses such as drug dealing and prostitution; such nuisances as excessive noise and panhandling; and such safety hazards as traffic crashes and crowd control, to name but a few. By some counts, police routinely deal with hundreds of types of public safety problems, each one different from another, each calling for different and multifaceted responses.
Moreover, as the American Bar Association has stated so clearly below, the police have multiple objectives that sometimes must be balanced one against another. Police objectives include the following:
- Prevent and control conduct threatening to life and property, including serious crime.
- Aid crime victims and protect people in danger of physical harm.
- Protect constitutional guarantees, such as the right of free speech and assembly.
- Facilitate the movement of people and vehicles.
- Help those who cannot care for themselves, including the intoxicated, the addicted, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, the old, and the young.
- Resolve conflict between individuals, between groups, or between citizens and their government.
- Identify problems that have the potential for becoming more serious for individuals, the police, or the government.
- Create and maintain a feeling of community security
The police function’s complexity may well frustrate some citizens—as well as some police and government officials—who desire simple and straightforward police action, but it is a fact of life in a democracy. The reasons why police might not be able to take certain popularly supported actions might be because police simultaneously are obliged to try to achieve other objectives.
For example, with regard to public demonstrations and gatherings, police must balance the right of the public to assemble with the need to ensure that other citizens can move about freely. With regard to investigating crime, police must balance the search for evidence against citizens’ civil liberties. With regard to chronic inebriates on the street, police must balance the general public’s interest in safety and order against an obligation to provide care for incapacitated people. And so forth. Much of police work entails balancing and prioritizing objectives.
These competing objectives should not paralyze police into inaction, but good policing demands that the various objectives be reconciled. As a local government executive, you can help the police by reminding citizens of these challenges.
The Police Can and Should Do More Than Enforce the Law
In trying to achieve their multiple objectives, police have at their disposal a wide variety of tactics and strategies. Although many people think that the main way police achieve their public safety objectives is to enforce the law, in fact, police commonly do things other than just enforce the law. In most interactions with the public, police do not issue a citation or make an arrest. Indeed, even were it possible for police to fully enforce the law—which it is not—it is unlikely that most communities would tolerate such a thing. Sometimes strict law enforcement is neither fair nor effective; indeed, sometimes it is counterproductive to public safety, as, for instance, when it provokes such widespread public hostility as to engender even more widespread disorder and lawlessness.
Essential to fair and effective policing is the need to expand the range of viable alternatives to criminal law enforcement so that police have multiple tools from which to fashion effective responses to quite varied public safety problems.
Examples of alternatives to criminal law enforcement police commonly use to address particular public safety problems include the following:
- Mobilizing the community (as witnesses, to patrol the community, for advocacy)
- Requesting that citizens exercise informal social control over one another (e.g., parents over children, employers over employees, coaches over athletes, teachers over students, military commanders over soldiers, lenders over borrowers, landlords over tenants)
- Using mediation and negotiation skills to resolve disputes
- Conveying information (e.g., to reduce exaggerated fear, to generate public awareness, to elicit conformity with laws that are not known or understood, to show citizens how they contribute to problems and ways to avoid doing so, to educate the public about the limits of police authority, to build support for new approaches)
- Altering the physical environment to reduce opportunities for problems to occur
- Enforcing civil laws (e.g., nuisance abatement, injunctions, asset forfeiture)
- Recommending and enforcing special conditions of bail, probation, or parole
- Intervening short of arrest (e.g., issuing warnings, placing people in protective custody, temporarily seizing weapons, issuing dispersal orders)
- Advocating enactment of new laws or regulations to control conditions that create problems
- Concentrating attention on those people and circumstances that account for a disproportionate share of a problem (e.g., repeat offenders, repeat victims, repeat locations)
- Coordinating with other government and private services (e.g., drug treatment, youth recreation, social services)
When one views policing in light of the objectives and methods described above, it becomes more sensible to acknowledge that enforcing the law is not an end in itself, but rather is one means among several available to the police toward the objectives previously described.
The Criminal Justice System Is Not the Solution to All Public Safety Problems
When fear of crime is on the rise, the public reflexively turns to its police to “do something about it.” Commonly, the “something” the public demands is for police to crack down by boosting arrests. And while calls for police to crack down might satisfy citizens’ need to express their frustration and condemnation of a situation they perceive to be out of control, not all police crackdowns prove as effective as one might hope; occasionally, they create their own civic problems.
The criminal justice system lacks both the capacity and the expertise necessary to effectively address all public safety concerns. Its important safeguards designed to ensure due process and protect defendants’ civil liberties help render the criminal justice system ill-suited for high volume business. Relying too heavily on this expensive system designed primarily to deal with serious and habitual offenders creates several important public safety risks, including the following:
- It compromises the care and attention that it can give to the most serious offenses and offenders.
- It detracts resources and attention away from other institutions and systems that are equally essential to ensuring public safety. Properly resourced and accessible systems for mental health, substance abuse treatment, victim and witness protection, property code enforcement, consumer product design, school discipline, youth recreation, social services, civil law enforcement, and dispute resolution, to name a few, are as important to police effectiveness as is a well-functioning criminal justice system.
- It places undue pressure on police officers to distort and manipulate their authority in ways not intended under the law and that can lead to abuse allegations.
- It can strain police-community relations and erode public trust in local government generally. This has proven particularly true in some racial and ethnic minority communities.
The Police Exercise Substantial Discretion
Borne of practical limitations, a sense of justice, and the absence of close supervision and immediate review, the police exercise a tremendous amount of discretion at all levels of the police hierarchy, including at the line level, where police officers decide how to handle incidents. Police make discretionary decisions about all sorts of matters, such as where and on what public safety problems to concentrate resources, whether to formally enforce the law when they have legal grounds to do so, and what methods to use in performing their duties.
Although the law or policy might compel or constrain some police discretionary decisions, on most matters there are choices to be made from among a range of options. In some instances, police alone should make those choices, but in many instances, the considered views of citizens, community groups, and elected and appointed government officials should inform police choices. Bringing police discretionary decisions, particularly at the strategic level, out into the open where they can be publicly deliberated and reviewed strengthens democratic policing and can make the police more effective and fair.
Standard Police Responses to Crime and Disorder Are Limited
An abundance of research evidence has demonstrated that some of the common local government responses to crime and disorder, such as hiring more police officers and deploying them in conventional patrol and investigative modes, having police respond rapidly to all incidents, having police patrol the streets in random patterns, and assigning all criminal cases for follow-up investigation by detectives are of less certain value than commonly believed.
This is not to say that these responses are necessarily ineffective or unwarranted under all conditions, but only that local governments and citizens should have more realistic expectations about what public safety benefits such responses are likely to yield. Moreover, the standard responses are tremendously expensive for local governments, and you might reasonably expect a higher public-safety return on these investments.
As a local government executive, you and other elected officials might be under considerable public pressure to demonstrate your commitment to public safety by pressing for these responses, but you will leave yourself equally vulnerable to later criticism if these standard responses fail to achieve their promise.
Effective Policing Requires Collaboration
It might seem odd to say that, in spite of their authority, extensive training, and often considerable resources, the police require the support and assistance of others to fairly and effectively control and prevent crime and disorder, but it is true for the following reasons:
- The number of police officers available for duty at any time is far fewer than most citizens imagine, and they cannot possibly establish a physical presence in all places at all times in a community.
- Police authority, great as it is for certain tasks, is often relatively inadequate compared with what people expect of police.
- Police do not directly control most of the conditions that generate society’s crime and disorder opportunities.
- Police authority is founded in part, of course, on what the law grants, but the extent to which police can effectively use their legal authority heavily depends on the public’s support of and trust in the police, which police must constantly strive to cultivate and sustain.
For police to be effective, they must be able to work effectively not only within the operations of the criminal justice system with which they are most closely identified, but also within other social and governmental systems, such as the following:
- Community organizations
- Government agencies, including local, state, and federal regulatory systems and civil law enforcement systems
- Mental health systems
- Public health and emergency medical service systems
- Government and nongovernment social service agencies, including those for drug and alcohol treatment and detoxification
- School systems
- Corporate and business communities
- Juvenile justice systems
- Alternative dispute resolution systems.
Police must develop effective policies, protocols, and working relationships with all of these systems, as well as with the criminal justice system, to achieve their objectives. As the local government executive, you obviously have the greatest influence over the interdepartment working relationships and protocols, but you may well have influence with respect to other systems through which you can encourage or promote good relations with your police agency.
Police Should Be Rated by More Than Crime and Arrest Tallies and Response Times
It should logically follow that if policing is a varied and complex undertaking, one should assess police agencies as a whole, and police officers as individuals accordingly. No more than we would contemplate assessing other important government functions such as public finance, public health, or public education by crude and one dimensional performance indicators should we assess the policing function the same way. Yet, to a large extent, we commonly do.
We most commonly assess police agencies in terms of reported crime, arrest numbers, cases solved, and patrol response times, but these measures alone grossly distort the true picture of the quality of policing and public safety. For example, since the true aim of policing is to prevent crime and enhance the public’s sense of security, and not merely to enforce the law for its own sake, simply counting arrest numbers tells us rather little about police effectiveness.
Crime experts widely recognize that the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports data—the principal crime index—are an incomplete and flawed measure of both crime and police efficacy. Among the system’s more widely recognized limitations are the following:
- Based on what is known from crime victimization surveys, as much as one-half of all crimes committed are never reported to police. Even many serious crimes go unreported to police.
- Notwithstanding Uniform Crime Reports coding rules, police agencies vary considerably in how they classify incidents, thereby making comparisons across police agencies difficult.
- The Uniform Crime Reports make no claim to measure other important public safety indicators such as actual crime victimization, traffic safety, nuisance levels and many other forms of disorder, citizen perceptions of their safety and security, or citizen perceptions of police fairness.
There is a need to refine and improve the macro-level measures of policing and public safety. The FBI’s new National Incident-Based Reporting System is an important step toward improving measures of reported crime insofar as it provides much greater detail about many more crime types than the Uniform Crime Reports.5 But other macro measures of policing and public safety are also important, such as:
- The local community’s sense of safety, security, and peace of mind
- Its confidence in the local police
- Traffic safety
- The safety and welfare of its most vulnerable citizens (e.g., the elderly, young, mentally ill, suicidal, drug- and alcohol-addicted, or physically handicapped).
In addition, local governments should also improve micro-measures of how well the local government, police included, is addressing specific public safety problems. Each type of public safety problem will warrant a special set of performance measures tailored to that problem type. For example, the measures for how local government and police are responding to child abuse will differ considerably from measures for how they are responding to retail theft.
Crime and Disorder Are Heavily Concentrated
Crime and disorder are not evenly distributed across your community. Rather, they are heavily concentrated: among relatively few offenders, happening to relatively few victims, occurring in relatively few places, and involving relatively few target types. Investing in the data collection and analysis tools necessary to identify the repeat offenders, repeat victims, hot spots, and products most likely to be stolen can greatly help police and local government focus their attention where it is most needed.
Source: COPS Office. Effective Policing and Crime Prevention A Problem-Oriented Guide for Mayors, City Managers, and County Executives.
Modification History File Created: 08/10/2019 Last Modified: 08/10/2019
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.