The Use and Effectiveness of Problem-Oriented Policing

By Dan Brandon
2015, Vol. 7 No. 04 | pg. 2/2 |

In spite of criticism, Operation Ceasefire continued to run until 2000. During the final year of Operation Ceasefire, there were a total of five gang-related homicides in the city of Boston. Seven years later in 2006, the total number of gang-associated homicides increased to a total of thirty-seven. The alternatives to Operation Ceasefire were shown to be ineffective during this time period (Braga et al., 2014, pp.117-118).

In December of 2006, Edward F. Davis was sworn in as the new Commissioner of the Boston Police Department. One of Commissioner Davis’ priorities was to lower the gun violence within Boston. In order to achieve this objective, he reinstated Operation Ceasefire and the pulling levers aspect of problem-oriented policing. Pulling levers refers to the zero tolerance message that was delivered to gang members. Between January 2007 and December 2010, Operation Ceasefire focused on sixteen Boston street gangs and decreasing gun violence among them (Braga et al, 2014, pp.117-119).

Operation Ceasefire’s effect on gang related shootings was studied for a period of four years. In total, there were a total of fifty-three gangs analyzed. There were sixteen targeted gangs and thirty-seven control gangs. The raw data collected initially showed that gang-related gun violence had decreased 57.3% during the period of 2006 through 2010 (Braga et al., 2014, p.127). The year 2006 was used as a baseline for non-Operation Ceasefire data. Braga et al. (2014) only observed a 20% decrease in gang-related gun violence in the control group of thirty-seven gangs (p.127). The methods employed in Operation Ceasefire, such as pulling levers and targeted patrols, were shown to be effective in reducing gang-related gun violence. Due to the success of Operation Ceasefire, many large cities, such as Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles, all developed problem-oriented policing programs similar to that of Boston (Braga et al., 2014, 133-134).

Despite the successes of the Boston Police Department and Operation Ceasefire (Braga et al., 2014, p.134), not all problem-oriented policing initiatives were as fruitful. Gary Cordner and Elizabeth Perkins Biebel (2005) conducted a review of the San Diego Police Department and its problem-oriented policing practices.

The San Diego Police Department began using problem-oriented policing in the 1980s and has a rich history in its practices. These practices were preceded by Neighborhood Policing Teams. These teams were placed in high crime areas and were tasked with lowering crime rates. As problem-oriented policing developed, the Department was at the forefront of the advancements. Using the SARA model, a committee dedicated to problem-oriented policing gathered monthly to monitor, using the SARA model (Eisenberg & Glasscock, 2001, p. 1), any problems that have been reported by the public or observed by officers (Cordner & Biebel, 2005, p. 161).

However, many officers were concerned with the way the Department was handling the program. Many believed that there was a paradigm shift from traditional policing to complete problem-oriented policing. They wanted to see a balance between the two views. To get to the root of the concerns of the officers, Cordner and Biebel conducted a survey of 320 members of the San Diego Police Department. The questions proposed to the officers were designed to gauge their attitudes and views on the practice of problem-oriented policing. Upon completion of the timeframe, a total of 267 surveys were returned and subsequently analyzed (Cordner & Biebel, 2005, pp. 163-164).

The survey covered the officers’ views on the type of problems encountered in the community and their opinions on the SARA problem solving model. Officers were first asked about the scope of the problems they most often faced in problem-oriented policing roles. A majority, over 50% (Cordner & Biebel, 2005, p. 164), of officers stated that the problems they encountered were small-scale and did not require much problem solving. When questioned about the types of problems they dealt with on POP patrol, nearly 75% of officers answered with drug and public nuisance issues (Cordner & Biebel, 2005, p. 164). As previously mentioned, the use of the SARA model was questioned. Many officers noted that during the scanning phase, the problems were often presented to them by concerned citizens and were very rarely issued by management in the Department.

When in the analysis phase, officers were more likely, roughly 60%, to analyze the problem through personal observation. The top answers in this portion of the survey reflected traditional police methods, such as field interviews and speaking with community members (Cordner & Biebel, 2005, p. 166). Approximately 10% of officers utilized crime analysis while 20% made use of interagency communications. The officers were questioned about how they responded to the problems. In most cases, a recorded 62%, officers relied upon personal experience. In addition, officers were asked which method of response they favored. The leading answer, an estimated 46%, was to target the problem with increased uniform patrols (Cordner & Biebel, 2005, p. 168). Lastly, the officers were questioned about the assessment phase of SARA. The majority of officers, roughly 51%, stated that their personal observation of the problem was enough of an assessment (Cordner & Biebel, 2005, p. 170).

Despite the implementation of problem-oriented policing in the San Diego Police Department, Cordner and Biebel note that many officers use it for the wrong reasons. Officers on patrol would utilize POP methods for everyday crimes and violations instead of using it for complex and specified crimes. Officers also noted that many of the POP labeled initiatives are simply traditional police methods. Cordner and Biebel believe that the overuse of problem-oriented policing leads to its simplification as many critics have stated in other studies (2005, p.177-178; Sidebottom & Tilley, 2010, p.3). There is no question that the San Diego Police Department has been proactive with problem-oriented policing; however, a change may be needed in order to get the full, unwavering support of the personnel.

As is evident by the provided studies and analysis of problem-oriented policing programs, there is favorable inclination to believe that these initiatives are effective in reducing targeted crimes. As was seen in the Boston Police Department’s Operation Ceasefire, problem-oriented policing was a key factor in the drastic decline in gang-related firearm incidents (Braga et al, 2014, p.127). On an international level, Weisburd et al. (2010) showed that problem-oriented policing has also been effective in the United Kingdom. Despite these success stories of problem-oriented policing, many argue that there should be a higher level of scrutiny in these studies and programs. Anthony Braga notes that scholars have called it a “moral imperative” for more thorough evaluations (2010, p. 173). However, Braga continues by explaining that if a higher form of scrutiny is implemented, many departments would be hesitant to allow outsiders to study their programs (2010, p.175).

Allowing outsiders, such as academics, to thoroughly evaluate a department’s program would help them further understand the difficulties of dealing with crime trends and police practices (Braga, 2010, p.177). Whether or not there will be a higher standard for problem-oriented policing programs remains to be seen. However, when one looks through the various case studies provided from a diverse selection, it can be inferred that problem-oriented policing measures and techniques, including the SARA model, are effective tools in reducing crime. When Herman Goldstein introduced the concept of problem-oriented policing in 1979 (Cordner & Biebel, 2005, p. 155), one can assume that he did not imagine his idea would take off the way it has over the almost thirty-five year period.


History of problem-oriented policing. (2014). Retrieved from Center for Problem-Oriented Policing :

Braga, A. A. (2010). Setting a higher standard for evaluation of problem-oriented policing initiatives. Criminology and Public Policy, 173-182.

Braga, A. A., Hureau, D. M., & Papachristos, A. V. (2014). Deterring gang-ivolved gun violence: Measuring the impact of Boston's operation ceasefire on street gang behavior. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 113-139.

Cordner, G., & Biebel, E. P. (2005). Problem-oriented policing in practice. Criminology and Public Policy, 155-180.

Eisenberg, T., & Glasscock, B. (2001). Looking inward with problem-oriented policing. F.B.I. Bulletin, 1-5.

Sidebottom, A., & Tilley, N. (2010). Improving problem-oriented policing: The need for a new model? Crime Prevention and Community Safety, 1-23.

Weisburd, D., Telep, C. W., Hinkle, J. C., & Eck, J. E. (2010). Is problem-oriented policing effective in reducing crime and disorder? Criminology and Public Policy, 139-172.

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