Policing | Section 6.4

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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Community Problem Solving

Problem-solving is an essential substantive component of community policing. While partnerships and good police-community relations are invaluable in their own right, they also make it possible for police to do their work more effectively. In the most traditional sense, police can handle emergencies, quell disorders, and solve crimes most successfully when they have the cooperation and confidence of the public. Taking that one step further, when police and citizens collaborate in identifying and solving ongoing crime and disorder problems, evidence shows that crime control, public safety, fear reduction, and public trust are achieved to a greater extent than with any other policing strategies.

The Case for Problem Solving

“Community policing emphasizes proactive problem solving in a systematic and routine fashion. Rather than responding to crime only after it occurs, community policing encourages agencies to proactively develop solutions to the immediate underlying conditions contributing to public safety problems. Problem solving must be infused into all police operations and guide decision-making efforts. Agencies are encouraged to think innovatively about their responses and view making arrests as only one of a wide array of potential responses. A major conceptual vehicle for helping officers to think about problem solving in a structured and disciplined way is the SARA (scanning, analysis, response, and assessment) problem-solving model.”

Source:  Cops Office.  (2014). Community Policing Defined.  Available:  https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=766797

In the 1970s, policing in the United States was in crisis mode.  Public opinions about the police and confidence in government was at a staggering low.  Researchers across a broad spectrum of academic disciplines turned their attention to the problems facing police departments across the nation.  In 1979, Herman Goldstein noted that the traditional “toolbox” of police officers—arrest, citation, and summons—was too limited to accomplish broader social objectives.  Police calls for service tended to originate at the same places at the same times by the same people. These repeated and unending calls for service were so persistent because the underlying problems were not solved.  The problem with police, as Goldstein saw it, was how that police saw for themselves in society, and how society superficially viewed the police. At that time, the popular conception of police was as crime fighters.

It is also important to understand that calls for service by citizens usually do not fit with how citizens think of the police.  Most calls for service revolve around order maintenance and service functions. However, citizens largely think of police as crime fighters. Hollywood (as with many incorrect perceptions in criminal justice!) is largely to blame.  Entertainment producers understand that audiences will not be especially interested in watching shows about police as service suppliers, traffic regulators, and conflict resolution experts. Audiences want fast-paced action, and they want stories about epic battles between good and evil. Police officers themselves like and maintain this crime-fighter image, even though they understand it represents only a partial truth about real police work. Of course, real policing is, in part, about crime-fighting. But police work is about much, much more, and it is undeniably complex.

The Real Police Job

Goldstein advanced the idea that fighting crime was actually only a small (if important) fraction of what society actually expects police to do.  The real nature of police work, he espoused, was to deal with “the residual problems of society.” If police were to be effective in achieving this much, much broader goal, then they would have to acknowledge the goal of problem-solving and start attacking the root causes of problems.  Importantly, Goldstein noted that the traditional, legalistic tools of policing were largely reactive.

From these basic ideas, Goldstein developed the idea of Problem-Oriented Policing (POP).  POP encouraged police to think differently about their purpose and how the business of policing was done.  Goldstein developed the POP model during an unprecedented wave of academic research into policing. The value of traditional random patrol was seriously questions, and alternatives began to be considered.  

An important study conducted by the Rand Corporation brought the usefulness of detectives into the mix, and it was concluded that patrol officers should play a much larger role in criminal investigations.  This was based on the finding that most criminal cases were resolved based on information obtained by patrol officers. The basic recommendation was that patrol officers should be given responsibility and training for dealing with cases that could be solved quickly, freeing detectives up to work on cases that were more multifaceted and complex.           

These research findings led progressive law enforcement agencies and municipalities to seek alternatives to the status quo.  Goldstein offered a new way of doing things at a time where that information was most wanted. Perhaps Goldstein’s most important innovation was the explicit acknowledgement that police problem solving was much broader than the prevention of crime (largely by random patrol) and capture of criminals.  His work emphasized that the immediate social and physical characteristics of a geographic area were critical to the explanation and control of crime. Goldstein reasoned that those social and physical characteristics—problems—could be manipulated by police with dramatic results.

His simple thesis was this:  “Underlying conditions create problems.  These conditions might include the characteristics of the people involved (offenders, potential victims, and others), the social setting in which these people interact, the physical environment, and the way the public deals with these conditions.”  An important characteristic of these underlying problems is that they can generate many different incidents. Such incidents, while stemming from a common source, often appear different.

A commonly cited example of this is the array of problems that stem from physical conditions in inner-city public housing projects.  Burglaries may be common, as well as acts of vandalism, and the intimidation of residents by rowdy youths among other things. Goldstein would argue that these seemingly unrelated incidents which may result in calls for police service are all merely symptoms of poorly designed and managed physical conditions.  If police focus on a single symptom (such as burglaries) and the underlying problems are not addressed, there will continue to be a high volume of calls for service from those addresses.

A key element of POP that ties it closely to community policing is the need to take community concerns seriously.  A high potential for disagreement between citizens and police exist when the public does not understand that police are attempting to eliminate seemingly more pressing concerns by eliminating the proximate causes of many different concerns.  Police must help citizens to “connect the dots” of POP is to be received positively. Police often prioritize around the statutory “seriousness” of offenses without regard for public sentiment. Police departments do not have the resources to take on all community problems, and the concerns of residents should be the most important factor in the process of problem prioritization.

In addition, many problems that are of critical concern to community members may not be problems that officers view as “real police work.”  Community policing, when properly implemented, provides the lines of communication between citizens and the police that are necessary to properly “triage” community problems.  Another key aspect of community policing that augments the power of POP is the idea of police-community partnerships. Not all problems are police problems. Community policing allows community problems to be solved by officers acting as liaisons between community members and community institutions and agencies that do have responsibility for those problems that are beyond the scope of police responsibility.  Under the auspices of community policing infused with community problem solving, the police toolbox is greatly expanded. It properly included all of the resources available to the public via private organizations, businesses, religious organizations, charitable organizations, as well as local, state, and federal public agencies.

The very nature of community problems suggests that many different incidents will involve an overlapping set of factors including time, geography, victim groups, and perpetrator groups.  Problems will range widely in their geographic scope: some will be limited to a particular address, some will be limited to a particular block, and others will impact the entire police jurisdiction.

While the specifics of particular community problems will require customized solutions that are unique to a particular place and time, there are some commonalities to modern social life that mean that officers do not have to constantly “reinvent the wheel.”  Some examples of common problems are as follows:

      • Prostitutes soliciting on busy streets anger citizens and impede traffic.
      • Panhandling creates fear in a shopping district, and business owners fear a loss of business.
      • A particular individual constantly harasses and intimidates citizens in a particular neighborhood.
      • Disorderly youths frequently congregate in the parking lots of local businesses after hours, leaving trash and broken glass behind.
      • A rash of residential burglaries in a particular neighborhood have alarmed citizens.

Community problems solving is not an all or nothing proposition.  How well a particular intervention works will vary. Some interventions can be extremely effective, and the problem can be completely solved.  More often, interventions will reduce but not completely eliminate community problems. When problems do not completely vanish when a potential solution is initiated, then the problem-solving cycle should continue and improvements should be made.  Police should also recognize that not all incidents can be prevented even by the best problem-solving efforts. Consideration should be given to how the police handle particular incidents, and how damage can be controlled and harms to people mitigated.

Obviously, a complete catalog of common community problems and proposed solutions is beyond the scope of this book.  For the reader looking for such a valuable resource, it has been developed by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing (http://www.popcenter.org/).  This organization maintains an impressive website that contains a library of 73 problem guides, many of which have been updated several times.

Obviously, there are as many solutions to community problems as there are problems.  Some solutions are ingenious, simple fixes that can be quickly implemented at a very low cost.  Other problem solutions will be complex, time-consuming, and expensive in terms of both human and financial resources.  Problem-solving is about determination, tenacity, and creativity. In the context of community policing, it is about massively multiplying police resources through leveraging community partnerships.  In today’s cultural and political climate, it is safe to say that the best solutions are the ones that satisfy the concerns of the community, respect the dignity of all citizens, and are the least coercive possible.

Perhaps the most important contributors to the success of community problem solving are patrol officers.  Patrol officers are directly involved with community member on a daily basis, are aware of local problems on their beats, and understand the social dynamics of the neighborhoods they are responsible for safeguarding.  If community policing has truly been implemented, these officers will have direct lines of communication with community members, have a surplus of trust, and will be in the best position to help community members articulate their concerns about neighborhood problems.  In fact, many community problems can be solved by industrious patrol officers as part of their routine activities. Such ad hoc solutions require that officers be given a large degree of autonomy, and are in direct contrast to the close supervision required by the professional model of policing.

While the front line problem solvers will be patrol, all levels of a police organization must be dedicated to the philosophy and practice of community policing and problem-solving.  The scope of departmental involvement should be directly related to the scope of the problem. For example, if analysis of calls for service data reveals a high level of relationship violence across the jurisdiction, then the efforts of an individual officer, no matter how well conceived and executed, will be successful.  City-wide problems will require department-wide participation in the problem-solving process.

As previously stated, a major goal of POP is to greatly expand the toolbox of police.  By leveraging positive relationships with other public and private groups and individuals, the full strength of a community can be brought to bear on a wide array of community problems. At the senior command level, there should be a focus on policy formulation that facilitates cooperation and joint efforts with other agencies.  For example, command staff can work with municipal zoning agencies to board up or demolish crack houses. Relationship violence, for example, can be better handled by a team consisting of police officers, victim advocates, shelter care providers, and mental health professionals and other healthcare providers.

While much can often be done at the command level to facilitate cooperative actions within communities to reduce or eliminate problems, perhaps the most important role of command is to facilitate officer led problem-solving on the grassroots level.  This requires a significant amount of time for officers to interact with community members at both the group and individual level. Effort should be made to create dispatch policies and procedures that substantially reduce the number of calls processed by the 911 system.  Nonemergency calls should be handled through other means whenever possible, especially when the caller’s concerns can be handled by a phone call, through the mail, or by electronic communication. Of course, alternative responses must be carefully explained to callers so that they understand the process, and are not made to feel that their concerns are being ignored by police.

The S.A.R.A. Model                

Goldstein said the police must adopt a problem-solving approach in which they work through the following four stages:

      1.      Scan data to identify patterns in the incidents they routinely handle.
      1.      Subject these patterns (or problems) to in-depth analysis of causes.
      1.  Find new ways of intervening earlier in the causal chain so that these problems are less likely to occur in the future. These new strategies are not limited to efforts to identify, arrest, and prosecute offenders. Rather, without abandoning the use of the criminal law when it is likely to be the most effective response, problem-oriented policing seeks to find other potentially effective responses (that might require partnership with others) with a high priority on prevention.
      1.      Assess the impact of the interventions and, if they have not worked, start the process all over again.

Practical research in POP led to the development of the SARA model of problem-solving.  SARA is an acronym used to refer to these four stages of problem-solving—Scanning, Analysis, Response and Assessment.

For these methods to be employed successfully, officers must be dedicated to and become experts in community problem-solving.  This further entails becoming an expert on crime and crime prevention. This career-long learning is greatly assisted by the efforts of researchers, theorists, and federal agencies.  Many, many documents have been prepared, and many problem solution strategies have been evaluated. This wealth of knowledge has been made freely available via the internet.

Problem-solving can be difficult. The greatest difficulties are found at analysis and assessment; adequate performance of these tasks requires a working knowledge of research methods and statistical analysis (and why quality university criminal justice programs require these decidedly unpopular courses). From the inception of POP, Goldstein argued that the success of problem-oriented policing depends on the availability of high-level analytic capacity within police departments.  

You might agree that you have a substantial role in problem-oriented projects, but you might ask how you could ever succeed in that role given the realities of your job. How could you devote the time needed for the kind of careful analyses required? How could you make a long-term commitment to a project, when you are continually being asked to produce statistical reports and maps immediately, if not before? How would you ever be accepted as an equal member of the team, especially if you are a mere civilian? How could you function as an equal member when your boss wants to approve every analysis you suggest and wants to see all your work before it leaves the unit? How could you restrain the natural impatience of officers to move to a solution before the analysis is complete? How could you persuade them to consider solutions other than identifying and arresting offenders? How would you deal with criticisms that you are more interested in research than practical action? In short, you may be wondering what planet we are living on because it certainly resembles nothing you have seen.

These are good questions, but we believe that policing is changing and that you can help speed up these changes. There is slow but increasing pressure on police to become more effective and the time is long past when chiefs could say they would cut crime if only they had more resources. Now, at least in larger departments, they must make a detailed evidence-based case for these resources and must explain precisely how they would use them. Their performance is being watched more closely every day, and the crime reductions that police in many cities claim to have achieved have undermined excuses for failure.

In short, there is no doubt that the police will become increasingly reliant on data to acquire resources and manage them effectively. By providing these data, you can ride this tide of change to a more rewarding career in policing, though you will have to work patiently to supply timely information in a form that is helpful to the organization. If you do this, and you remain firmly focused on crime reduction, you and your profession will gradually move into a more central policing role – and problem-oriented policing provides you with the perfect vehicle. We all know that policing is beset by new fads that follow hot upon one another and almost as quickly disappear when something new arrives. Many seasoned officers play along for a while, waiting for management to lose interest so that they can get back to business as usual. But problem-oriented policing is not just a fad. It delivers results and is here to stay.  

Key Terms

References and Further Reading


Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  08/15/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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