Problem-Oriented Policing


Problem-oriented policing (POP) means diagnosing and solving problems that are increasing crime risks, usually in areas that are seeing comparatively high levels of crime (e.g., “hot spots”). POP is challenging in that agencies need to diagnose and solve what could be any of a wide range of crime-causing problems. Fortunately, there are some established paths for doing this, as well as common types of solutions.

How Effective Is Problem-Oriented Policing for Different Kinds of Problems?

  • POP is effective for reducing crime in places at elevated risk.
  • POP is potentially effective for improving relations with the community if done in partnership with communities.
  • Parts of POP that involve collecting and following up on tips from the community potentially lead to solving more-serious crimes.

Diagnosing Problems

To Diagnose Problems, Talk to the Local Community

Getting information from community members about crimes, potential perpetrators, and environmental problems that increase crime risk — and acting on that information — is strongly associated with having greater crime reductions in our analyses. Here are some examples of ways to do this:

  • While out in the field, ask residents about any crime and disorder problems they see, as well as information they might have on perpetrators of prior crimes.
  • Officers can provide residents and property owners with a business card that advertises a private phone line. On this line, residents can leave tips and concerns anonymously if they do not feel like talking to an officer in public.
  • Officers can ask about crime problems and ideas to resolve them at regular (e.g., monthly) community or interagency meetings. One agency has had residents point out crime problems with flags on a map of the community.
  • Agencies can use community and business-owner surveys that ask respondents to identify specific crime problems, in addition to responding to traditional general satisfaction and fear-of-crime questions.

Follow a Step-by-Step Process for Diagnosing Problems and Developing Solutions

This process emphasizes understanding problems and their causes, developing and testing solutions, and learning from the experience.

An Expanded Process for Problem-Oriented Policing

  1. Explore the situation
  2. Formulate problems
  3. Select a specific problem for action
  4. Collect and process data
  5. Analyze causes for the problem
  6. Develop a solution plan
  7. Test the solution
  8. Evaluate the test results
  9. Put the solution into wide implementation
  10. Reflect on the process, then move on to the next problem

This process is drawn from Shiba and Walden (2002), which notes three kinds of “resources” agencies need to supply for successful problem-solving efforts: skill-building, analysis, and implementation support. The checklists that follow address each resource.

Checklist for Skill-Building

Checklist for Analysis

Checklist for Implementation Support

Different Types of Solutions for Crime Problems

The following are tips on common types of POP interventions. These should be thought of as tools in a larger toolkit. Much as one would not use a hammer when a screwdriver is needed, one would not try to choose crime-reducing solutions without determining what the crime-generating problems are and what the surrounding situation is. Generating this knowledge requires talking with community members, analyzing the available data, and developing a good understanding of the local situation.

Help Provide Services to the Community and Community Members

Examples in studies we reviewed included officers and agencies working with community partners to provide or facilitate the following:

  • recreational opportunities for youth
  • youth outreach and counseling
  • mental health support for those who need it
  • housing for homeless in the area
  • charitable support (e.g., gift drives, “adopt a resident” programs by local businesses)
  • services specifically for those at high risk of being involved in violent crime, as either a perpetrator or a victim (which is one part of focused deterrence).

These examples were all selected because officers identified the needs for these services to address specific crime-generating problems in their jurisdictions. They were not chosen based on general principles.

Change the Environment to Make It Less Hospitable to Crime

This strategy is also known as “situational crime prevention” or “crime prevention through environmental design.” The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing has prepared a chart on “Twenty-Five Techniques for Situational [Crime] Prevention” (undated), divided into five categories. We have summarized these five categories in a way that reflects the types of actions more commonly seen in past articles.

An Overview of Situational Crime Prevention

Increase the effort…

needed by criminals to commit a crime. This would include adding defenses to properties and vehicles against break-ins via fencing, locks, and alarm systems.

Increase the risks…

that criminals will be caught if they attempt a crime. This refers to both passive and active measures. Passive measures include, for example, adding lighting and restricting and securing points of entry to buildings and building complexes. Active measures involve adding surveillance systems and persons (officers, security guards, etc.) to monitor areas. For example, conducting visible policing patrols in hot spots to deter would-be criminals is an active measure.

Reduce the rewards...

that criminals will receive if they carry out a crime. Measures to prevent criminals from benefiting include

  • helping residents and business owners conceal or remove property to reduce the payoffs from break-ins
  • tracking stolen property (e.g., initiatives to record serial numbers) and secondary goods markets (e.g., pawn shops and cell phone traders)
  • taking steps to deny emotional rewards (e.g., painting over graffiti and fixing vandalism quickly).
Reduce provocations…

that might trigger people to become violent or commit other crimes. Such steps include crowd control, policing of disputes, and policing of disorderly conduct.

Remove excuses…

by making it easier to follow the law and providing reminders for people to follow it. This includes removing litter, fixing broken windows, cleaning up vandalism and other visible signs of disorder, and adding signs to remind pedestrians of acceptable conduct.

For additional ideas for problem-resolving interventions, see the website of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing (undated), which maintains a large library of candidate problem diagnosis and solution guides and tools.

Crackdowns on Disorder

Several POP interventions associated with large drops in crime included crackdowns on disorder (e.g., aggressive order maintenance) on specific targeted behaviors that were causing problems for the community, including activities that

  • generate fear in the community, such as selling drugs in an open-air market and aggressively accosting and threatening pedestrians (whether by juveniles, panhandlers, the mentally ill, “squeegee artists,” etc.)
  • enable lethal violence, such as carrying firearms and other weapons.

Critically, this category does not include zero tolerance or aggressive policing efforts to maximize the number of stops, frisks, and low-level arrests. For more on the risks of and alternatives to zero tolerance, see our quick guide to that strategy.