The Use and Effectiveness of Problem-Oriented Policing

By Dan Brandon
2015, Vol. 7 No. 04 | pg. 1/2 |

The question of how to lower crime rates has baffled criminologists and law enforcement officials for decades. Over the years, many different models were developed to attempt to lower crime rates. In 1979, Herman Goldstein published an article outlining a revolutionary crime fighting model. This new method was called problem-oriented policing (POP) (Cordner & Biebel, 2005, p. 155). Goldstein described problem-oriented policing as a new approach to policing focused on end results, such as lower rates of a particular crime (Eisenberg & Glasscock, 2001, p. 1). Initially, problem-oriented policing was met with support and success. However, as it was put into practice in multiple cities and nations, the effectiveness and strength of problem-oriented policing came into question (History of problem-oriented policing, 2014).

The quintessential component of problem-oriented policing is the concept of problem solving (Eisenberg & Glasscock, 2001, p. 2). To effectively solve the problems lying before law enforcement, several methods have been introduced, studied, and practiced in the field. Aiden Sidebottom and Nick Tilley (2010) presented an analysis of the popular methods that have been used by law enforcement. One of the first models, and arguably the most popular, is the SARA method. SARA, which refers to scanning, analysis, response, and assessment, was created from the initial project for problem-oriented policing in Newport News, Virginia (Sidebottom & Tilley, 2010, p. 3).

SARA is based around common sense and is well-suited for the everyday police officer. This method breaks down problem solving into four basic steps: scanning, analysis, response, and assessment. Scanning refers to the identification of a problem or problems. This is conducted through calls for service or detection by officers. The analysis aspect calls for officials to examine the problem presented and what plan of action should be taken. Next during the response, a solution is put into action. After the response, the assessment phase studies the effectiveness of the solution. Solutions, whether they have been shown to be successful or futile, require constant monitoring and evaluation (Eisenberg & Glasscock, 2001, pp. 2-3).

Proponents of SARA have stated that its simplicity and lack of complexity make it user friendly. However, critics have noted that it tends to oversimplify large crime problems. Many times in the scanning and analysis phases, officials will overlook the significance of problems or exaggerate others (Sidebottom & Tilley, 2010, pp. 4-5). As a result of the critiques, other methods have been developed to perform the same function as SARA. The first method introduced by Sidebottom and Tilley is PROCTOR. PROCTOR was developed and is practiced by various agencies in the United Kingdom. The acronym stands for problem, cause, tactic or treatment, output, and result (2010, p.5).

In PROCTOR, there is an emphasis on constant analysis throughout the whole process. Paul Ekblom, an English criminologist and developer of PROCTOR, stated, “SARA gave practitioners an excellent start to problem solving, but it has insufficient depth of detail (Sidebottom & Tilley, 2010, p. 5). Despite the many similarities with SARA, this method has not been accepted by many agencies. A second method, titled the 5Is, was developed to address the simplicity of SARA. The 5Is are intelligence, intervention, implementation, involvement, and impact. These components help supplement the SARA model and deal with the true complexity of problem-oriented policing (Sidebottom & Tilley, 2010, pp. 6-7).

When presented with these three models, SARA, PROCTOR, and 5Is, officials and criminologists must decide which one is best suited for the current crime setting. Sidebottom and Tilley (2010) conducted a survey among practitioners who had attended a UK conference addressing problem-oriented policing. The sample, consisting of 158 individuals, answered a questionnaire concerning their use of problem-oriented policing and the problem solving methods used.

Upon analysis of the results, 84% of the practitioners stated that SARA was the preferred method to use in problem-oriented policing. Nearly 60% of those who chose SARA believed that it did not over simplify problem-oriented policing and 30% believed that there are no issues with this model (Sidebottom & Tilley, 2010, pp. 11-13). The results from the study conducted by Sidebottom and Tilley show that those U.K. agencies that adopted problem-oriented policing prefer the SARA problem solving model over any other available options (Sidebottom & Tilley, 2010, pp. 17-18).

As previously mentioned, the last element of SARA is assessment, which must be an ongoing process (Eisenberg & Glasscock, 2001, p. 1). Noticing a lack of evidence and conclusive studies of problem-oriented policing initiatives, David Weisburd led a contingent of criminologists and sociologists to study this issue. Their main objective was to figure out whether or not problem-oriented policing was an effective deterrent of crime.

Instead of simply analyzing one department or agency, they selected several projects to provide diversity and to possibly gain a better image of problem-oriented policing. Prior to conducting the study, parameters were outlined for each sample. In order for a study to be eligible, it must meet the basic tenets SARA, have a control group, and concentrate on a problem crime or group. A total of ten studies were gathered and, soon after, an analysis was conducted (Weisburd, Telep, Hinkle, & Eck, 2010, pp. 147-149).

The experiments studied came from a variety of situations and backgrounds. A majority of them were conducted in the United States, while a few were from the United Kingdom. The experiments also dealt with several different issues. Some of the problems were parolee and probationer recidivism, drug use, and vandalism (Weisburd et al., 2010, pp: 149-150). A cursory review of the results showed that in most of the cases, there was a reduction of the targeted problem. For example, a study was conducted on how the Knoxville Police Department handled individuals on parole. Officers from the department helped those under supervision reintegrate into the community. They would help with the parolees’ social services needs and employment prospects.

Upon completion of the study, 29% of those in the program completed their parole without any violations. This may seem low and insignificant, but when compared to the control group, which had an 11% success rate, it can be hypothesized that the problem-oriented policing methods and SARA model had some positive effect on the parolees (Weisburd et al, 2010, p.151). Other studies displayed decreases in crime and other desired outcomes. After assessing all of the results from the studies, Weisburd et al. (2010, p.153) were able to conclude that problem-oriented policing systems did have an effect on crime.

However, does this method of policing produce a significant effect on crime? If one were to simply adhere to the numbers produced, it would show that the average result of the studies analyzed is not statistically significant. It is evident that problem-oriented policing did affect crime, but the drops in crime were not significant enough to rule out coincidence and any other factors. When Weisburd et al. conducted follow up studies and further assessed the problem-oriented policing initiatives, they discovered that there was a statistical significance in the declines of crime and other problems (2010,p.164). Upon further review, the group discovered that there was a 44.5% average decrease among the studies. It is because of the data collected in the post-study time frame that Weisburd et al. were able to conclude that problem-oriented policing initiatives and tactics did have a statistical significant impact on targeted crimes (2010, pp.159-164).

In order for a new system to be seen as valid among the law enforcement community, large urban areas are expected to test it out. The Boston Police Department utilized problem-oriented policing in the early 1990s to combat a growing trend in youth violence. Known as Operation Ceasefire, this project targeted the inner city gangs who were constantly recruiting juveniles to commit petty crimes and small acts of violence (Braga, Hureau, & Papachristos, 2014, pp. 114-115). The Boston Police Department, along with help from Harvard University researchers, designed the experiment based on the notion that a few, isolated groups of juveniles were responsible for the large spike in youth crime.

In 1996, when Operation Ceasefire commenced, Boston authorities developed a specific deterrence strategy for these groups (Braga et al., 2014, p.115). This strategy included reaching out to known gang affiliates and making them aware of the zero tolerance policy that had been put in place. According to the policy, officers would enforce low level offenses, conduct aggressive drug activity patrols, and focus on gun possession and violence. In addition, these gangs would be held accountable as a group instead of as individuals. If an individual was affiliated with a gang, but did not commit the offense, he or she would still be held responsible for its commission (Braga et al., 2014, p.115).

The obvious desired goal of Operation Ceasefire was to drastically decrease the youth violence rate in the city of Boston. Shortly after the project’s implementation, the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a thorough review of the progress. According the Department of Justice, there was an overall decline in many categories. Braga et al. stated (2014):

A U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)-sponsored evaluation of Operation Ceasefire revealed that the intervention was associated with a 63% decrease in the monthly number of Boston youth homicides, a 32% decrease in the monthly number of shots-fired calls, a 25% decrease in the monthly number of gun assaults, and in one high-risk police district given special attention in the evaluation, a 44% decrease in the monthly number of youth gun assault incidents. (p.117)

The above numbers clearly display that Operation Ceasefire was achieving what it was designed to do. The evaluation also revealed that Boston’s trends in youth homicide rates were noteworthy when compared to the rising rates in surrounding cities (Braga et al., 2014, p.117). Despite the success of the program, many researchers questioned the validity of the data. Braga et al. (2014) noted that many skeptics raised the issue of the small number of youth homicides prior to Operation Ceasefire. There were also several concerns with the methodology utilized in the study.

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