Problem-Oriented Policing in Depth

“Problem-oriented policing is an approach to policing in which discrete pieces of police business (each consisting of a cluster of similar incidents that the police are expected to handle, whether crime or acts of disorder) are subject to microscopic examination (drawing on the especially honed skills of crime analysts and the accumulated experience of operating field personnel) in hopes that what is freshly learned about each problem will lead to discovering a new and more effective strategy for dealing with it.”

– Goldstein, 2001

“. . . people all too often use poor problem-solving practices. . . . One poor approach that we are all familiar with is to stay only at the level of thought . . . (a) sense a problem; (b) dither—waste time on intermural squabbling; (c) declare a solution—usually by someone in a position of authority; (d) forget about it—nothing changes. Another poor approach we are all familiar with is to stay only at the level of experience . . . (a) people are working hard, typically fighting fires; (b) some sort of new emergency arises, interrupting what is happening already; (c) heroic efforts take place to deal with the new emergency; (d) people go back to what they were doing before.”

– Shiba and Walden, 2002, p. 1

Problem-oriented policing (POP) is perhaps the most aptly named policing strategy—it means resolving problems that are increasing crime risks, typically in areas that are seeing comparatively high levels of crime (e.g., “hot spots”). What types of problems are solved and the strategies for solving them vary widely, depending on the situation. The most common model for identifying problems and identifying and implementing solutions is the SARA Model—scanning to identify problems, analysis to characterize the problems, response to those problems (designing, selecting, and implementing solutions), and assessment of how well the solution worked and what further changes are needed.

In reviewing past cases of POP, two major complications have emerged. The first is the sheer generality of the strategy—identifying problems of virtually any type that are generating crime risks and then fixing those problems. That said, there are a few well-traveled and established paths for POP that will be covered here, providing a useful starting place.

The second complication is that POP requires carrying out a strategy to identify locally specific problems and resolve those problems effectively. The specific processes, methods, and training employed to do this have tended to be weak spots. The problem-solving and analysis skills and the actual process have often been downplayed. The quotation above from Shiba and Walden (2002) points out just a few of the major common pitfalls when attempting to solve problems in the field. To help, this guide presents a problem-solving method that is more detailed than SARA (Shiba and Walden’s “WV Model,”12002), along with key things to do and to avoid.

Established Methods for Problem-Oriented Policing

After reviewing 30 prior experiments for POP in crime hot spots, we identified several key themes on what sorts of POP practices appear to work best. The top takeaways: The intervention needs to be done well and without major fidelity problems (i.e., the department was able to implement what it planned to do), and the process needs to include talking with community members to get tips on crime problems, followed by concerted actions to address those tips.

From our review of the initiatives, we did not identify any specific tactic that should take top priority. Statistical testing of different types of problem-oriented strategies did not identify any specific technique that was highly effective in and of itself. The partial exception was “providing services to the community and its residents,” but those “services” varied much too widely to provide much general prescription. Instead, agencies will need to use what is appropriate for their crime problems.

Tip: Specific POP interventions should be thought of as “tools in a 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. Doing so requires talking with community members and otherwise developing a good understanding of the local situation.

In this paper, we provide some lessons learned on ways to communicate with residents that help in finding out what a community's problems really are. Then, we go through various types of POP interventions that can be adapted to specific situations.

Get Information from Community Members About Crimes, Potential Perpetrators, and Problems Driving Crime Risk—and Then Act on That Information

This element appears straightforward, if not obvious. Furthermore, it was the factor most directly related to crime reductions. However, it was striking how few of the intervention descriptions included well-defined techniques for getting tips from community members. Much more common (at least as described in the studies) was assuming what the problem was, what tactics were the solution, and then doing not much more than informing the community about it (and sometimes not even that). Examples of effective information-gathering include the following:

Gather Information in the Field

While out in the field, officers can ask local residents about any crime and disorder problems they are having, as well as any information they might have on perpetrators of prior crimes

Tip: While out on patrol and while striking up conversations with passersby, officers can also provide residents 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.

While talking with business and property owners, officers can also encourage the use of a private, anonymous line to provide tips, as well as suggestions for improvement.

Regularly Solicit Ideas from Colleagues and the Community

Law enforcement can ask about crime problems and ideas to resolve them at regular (e.g., monthly) community or interagency meetings.

Tip: One agency had meetings in which residents pointed out crime problems with flags on a map of the community.

Use Surveys

Community and business-owner surveys can be distributed that ask respondents to identify specific crime problems, in addition to responding general satisfaction and fear-of-crime questions.

Act on Information

After collecting information on crime-generating problems, it is then incumbent on agencies to act on the information. This presumes having processes in place for the following activities:

Tip: Agencies should track and process the tips as they come in.

  • Some tips (“I saw a person with what looked like stolen property walk down the street five minutes ago”) will need to be acted on immediately.
  • Other tips will be less time-sensitive, especially those that are more about a need to change the environment.

Tips should be managed and distributed to those who need them, and action should be taken.

Follow-through and accountability are important: Ensure that the tips have been acted on.

Help Provide Services to the Community and Community Members

Examples in the studies included officers and agencies working either directly or with other agencies and 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 people 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 (one part of the larger focused deterrence strategy).

We emphasize that all these examples were 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

Techniques here are also known as “situational crime prevention” or “crime prevention through environmental design.” Our review identified two broad types of approaches: working with city and/or county services to make public environments (streets, parks, etc.) less hospitable to crime and working with private-property owners to make individual locations less hospitable to crime (residential buildings, parking lots, commercial establishments, etc.). The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing has prepared a chart on “25 Techniques for Situational [Crime] Prevention” (undated), divided into five categories. We have summarized these five categories in a way that reflects the types of approaches more commonly seen in the reviewed articles.

Increase the Effort Needed by Criminals to Commit a Crime

This largely relates to adding defenses that harden properties and vehicles against break-ins through such measures as fencing, locks, and alarm systems.

Increase the Risks That Criminals Will Be Caught If They Attempt a Crime

This can be done using both passive and active measures. Passive measures include such things as providing additional lighting and restricting and securing points of entry to buildings and building complexes. Active measures involve adding surveillance systems and persons to monitor areas (whether officers, security guards, or paid staff who can act as monitors). The best-known active measure is conducting visible policing patrols in hot spots in an attempt to deter would-be criminals.

Reduce the Rewards That Criminals Will Receive If They Carry Out a Crime

  • These efforts include helping residents and business owners conceal or remove property to reduce the payoffs from break-ins.
  • Action can also be taken in terms of tracking property (e.g., initiatives to record serial numbers) and tracking secondary goods markets (e.g., pawn shops and cell phone traders).
  • Another approach is to take steps to deny emotional rewards (e.g., painting over graffiti and fixing vandalism quickly).

Reduce Provocations That May Trigger People to Become Violent or Commit Other Crimes

  • Crowd control measures are one example of actions in this category.
  • These actions would also include policing of disputes and of disorderly conduct. (See also the crack down on disorder lesson learned.)

Remove Excuses by Making It Easier to Follow the Law and Providing Reminders for People to Follow It

Techniques in this category include removing litter, fixing broken windows, repairing 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.

Crack Down on Disorder

Several POP interventions associated with large drops in crime included crackdowns (e.g., aggressive order maintenance) on specific activities causing problems for the community. Note that these were not generalized zero tolerance and aggressive policing efforts to maximize the number of stops, frisks, and low-level arrests. Instead, the crackdowns focused on specific targeted behaviors that were causing problems for the community, including activities that

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

For more on the risks of and alternatives to zero tolerance, see our quick quide to that strategy.

Improving the Process for Carrying Out Problem-Oriented Policing

POP strategies inherently require identifying crime-generating problems specific to the local area and then developing and implementing specific solutions. The evaluations support what one would suspect: Interventions with severe implementation problems that prevented them from being enacted as intended generally had substantially worse outcomes than interventions that were enacted mostly as intended.

The process for carrying out POP needs to be robust, generally applicable to a wide range of situations, and likely to produce good results. Here, we extend the standard SARA model to adapt the “WV model” from Shiba and Walden (2002) into a new design that emphasizes the problem analysis process and the use of quantitative evidence and reasoning. This approach aligns with novel situations where there are substantial unknowns and multiple sources of uncertainty.

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

Shiba and Walden (2002) further notes that there are three kinds of “resources” that agencies need to supply as inputs for successful problem-solving efforts: skill-building, analysis, and implementation support.

Inputs to the Problem-Oriented Policing Process
Skill-building, analysis, and execution support are the three inputs to successful problem-oriented policing.

Our review of POP evaluations found that Shiba and Walden’s framework is consistent with what needs to happen to avoid major implementation problems. We provide a checklist for each of the three inputs in the process.

Building Skills Within the Agency

Example: All participating staff need to be able to organize a community meeting and run it in a professional, confident, collaborative fashion; all officers are expected to work with local bars to clean up the environmental factors around the bar.

Example: Perhaps one officer has experience and training in helping drinking establishments clean up their back alleys and has attended a seminar on communication skills; another has had a number of training sessions on effective communication and has led more than a dozen community workshops.

One officer will need more communication training and experience, while another officer will need to gain some experience in working with store owners before doing so during the target project.

  • Officers might be expected to do additional or different paperwork, hold meetings, and engage with community members. Do the officers have the skills to do this effectively? Do adequate guides and manuals exist that will help them in the daily tasks?
  • Specific languages might dominate in a certain area. Are the officers fluent in the languages they will encounter?
  • Management might also need training in the POP methods, as well as how to manage a POP effort and how to integrate the activities within the department or unit.
  • Community leaders might need training—not just meetings to discuss the POP details, but actual training and practice sessions before the POP strategy officially begins.
  • Other units and staff that might encounter or support the POP effort in their daily duties (e.g., crime analysts) will also need training and education.
  • Overall, sufficient training and practice is performed before implementing the problem-solving approach.

Tip: We recognize that agencies will likely have very limited time and resources to conduct the needed skill-building. Triage in terms of what skills to tackle and how much training to provide is desirable. The key is to plan ahead, identify the most important gaps in skills, and make reasonable efforts to address them first.

Improving Analysis

The following checklist covers items both on the planning phase of the POP process (exploring the situation, identifying and selecting problems, and developing solutions) and on general analysis capacity (an input to the process). Much of this data collection and analysis is typically done by crime analysts. For more information on crime analysis, see the International Association of Crime Analysts website and the Police Foundation’s Crime Mapping and Analysis News.

This means calculating baselines of crime rates, disorder incidents, and other potential problems.

Examples of such data include five bars, 50 broken windows, 12 areas where problem groups are gathering, and where the different types of crimes are occurring (frequency, severity).

Examples of data to collect include information about actions (e.g., number of windows fixed, where they are, the type of dialogue with the business owner) and about the number of crimes (e.g., via service calls, criminal reports).

Tip: A good rule of thumb is to listen to everyone and completely believe no one until confirming the information from several sources.

Factors to account for include social, economic, and cultural issues, past and present—what is happening, what the dynamics are, and what barriers need to be addressed.

Examples of whom to talk to include local church and community leaders, social workers, officers who have been on the beat for a long time, individuals from businesses, and residents (as already discussed). Parole officers and community volunteers are also excellent sources.

One concern is making sure that the right problems are tackled. Participants must think through whether fixing X will affect Y and whether Y is a big enough problem to warrant the effort of fixing X.

Tip: We found several examples of interventions in which the result was what the designers of the intervention targeted but not necessarily what they wanted. These examples include several interventions that were targeted at reducing disorder or drug-dealing activity and were associated with reduced disorder or drug-dealing activity; however, the interventions were not associated with changes in more-serious crimes. Such results are great if the objective is to reduce disorder or drug-dealing but not if the objective is to reduce violence indirectly through reducing disorder or drug-dealing.

Another concern is making sure that the right number and kind of problems are tackled to have a positive effect. Agencies can do this by listing the core problems believed to be responsible for most of the crime, then listing which of the proposed crime-reduction tactics address those problems. Unaddressed problems will require additional or modified interventions.

Improving Implementation Support

The following checklist covers items relating both to the implementation phase of the POP process (testing, evaluating, and broadly implementing the solution) and to general implementation support to the process.

  • be involved, trained, and part of the POP process
  • use their knowledge and background to help advise on the activity design, preparation, and execution
  • know what is happening — review the plans, progress, and outcomes
  • provide feedback during the activity, help guide the activity, and participate in post-audits and reviews.

The community must be able to respect the officers involved and believe that any statements and insights come from experience, wisdom, and knowledge; in other words, the officers need to be credible. The department must also take the situation seriously and assign its most-appropriate resources (e.g., sworn officers with authority) to the activity.

For the first POP initiatives, dedicated resources and support teams are necessary.

Tip: Although it is not necessary for initiative participants to devote full-time effort, they must have dedicated time allotments and agency commanders must make clear that the initiative is the top priority during those times.

What happens if not enough resources exist to provide the necessary coverage at the necessary intensity—e.g., around-the-clock coverage, concurrent demands, frequency of service? There is little point in starting a project that is designed to fail. If resources are insufficient to do the activity at a realistic level, decisionmakers should choose a different project that can be implemented with the available resources. The project might be smaller than desired, but it is better to have a project that will make a difference than to spread available resources too thinly.

Other Observations

Most of these observations address the solution planning, implementation, and sustainment phases of the POP process.

A Balance Is Needed Between Goals and Methods

Vague goals and objectives will create confusion throughout the process, so they need to be specific and detailed; think of writing “recipes” for the strategy. At the same time, too-rigid rules for those involved will have an impact on the flexibility and interpretation needed on the street. It is recommended that the objectives be reasonably specific while allowing the front line sufficient flexibility in how the goals are achieved.

Short Surges or Minimal Activity Will Not Be Enough to Make Sustained Change

The activities should be measured in years, not months. In many cases, it has taken years to get to the point where intervention and POP activity are needed. The problem will not be fixed overnight.

Tip: For successful interventions to be sustained, the activities need to be integrated into the regular routine for the area and funded appropriately. Performance evaluation criteria also need to be adjusted accordingly.

When we reviewed the studies, few (if any) discussed long-term support and evaluation for improved policing strategies; the norm was a short-term experiment with no follow-up. The lack of collected data on long-term sustainability is a general problem for the field.

If Personnel Are Rotated in and out at Too High a Frequency, the Result Will Be a Lack of Consistency

Do not use the POP activity as a training exercise where personnel will be endlessly rotated in and out on short assignments. Make the assignments long enough for the individuals to develop a relationship with the community and long enough for the officers to see the results of their actions.

Failing to Follow Up with the Community, Providing No Feedback, and Not Closing the Loop Will Affect the Long-Term Success and Sustainability of the Activity

Tip: Officers and commanders need feedback on their problem-solving, analysis, and solutions if they are to improve.

Community members and agency personnel who give suggestions, tips, or other assistance need to know that something has happened with their input, and they need to know that it is worth their time to help in the future.


  1. The model is called “WV” because the steps in the original process diagram alternated between an upper “thought” and lower “experience” line, thus looking like a W next to a V. This report contains a simplified diagram. Return to content
  2. This coding scheme reflects strictly what was reported in the descriptions about the interventions; we would not be able to detect whether the authors omitted a key feature or mistakenly reported its presence. However, assuming the authors usually captured the interventions’ key features and their implementation, we believe the results are reasonable for an initial pilot project. The results are probably somewhat conservative because the coding is “1” only if the feature was unambiguously present, and because we compare pools of studies in which the feature was unambiguously reported with pools of studies in which the feature might have been present but not reported. Return to content
  3. Nonsignificant crime reductions (or increases) were coded as "0." Percentage-point crime reductions are for jurisdictional areas, such as entire districts; for evaluations reporting only crime drops within targeted hot spots, these values were reduced by 50 percent, reflecting a rough approximation that about 50 percent of crime tends to be in readily actionable hot spots. Return to content
  4. For a reference on hierarchical clustering, see Manning, Raghavan, and Schütze (2008). Wessa (2017) was used to run hierarchical clustering. Return to content
  5. The clustering divisions collectively are statistically significant with a p-value of 0.0004, using a one-way ANOVA test. Comparing individual groups, the group including community tips and services has significantly greater crime reductions than either of the others, with p-values of less than 0.01 for each. The difference in crime reductions between the other two groups was not statistically significant (based on Lowry, undated). Return to content


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