Problem-oriented policing seeks to identify the underlying causes of crime problems and to frame appropriate responses using a wide variety of innovative approaches (Goldstein 1979). Using a basic iterative approach of problem identification, analysis, response, assessment, and adjustment of the response, this adaptable and dynamic analytic approach provides an appropriate framework to uncover the complex mechanisms at play in crime problems and to develop tailor-made interventions to address the underlying conditions that cause crime problems (Goldstein 1990; Eck and Spelman 1987). Researchers have found problem-oriented policing to be effective in controlling a wide range of specific crime and disorder problems, such as convenience store robberies (Hunter and Jeffrey 1992), prostitution (Matthews 1990), street-level drug markets (Hope 1994), and gang violence (Braga et al. 2001). Indeed, there is very promising evidence of the effectiveness of the approach (Skogan and Frydl 2004; Weisburd and Eck 2004; Braga 2002).

The Problem-Oriented Approach to Crime Prevention

Until recently, most police departments engaged in incident-driven crime prevention strategies. Such departments resolve individual incidents instead of solving recurring crime problems (Eck and Spelman 1987). Officers respond to repeated calls and never look for the underlying conditions that may be causing similar groups of incidents. Officers become frustrated because they answer similar calls and seemingly make no real progress. Citizens become dissatisfied because the problems that generate their repeated calls still exist (Eck and Spelman 1987). In 1979, Herman Goldstein proposed an alternative; he felt that police should go further than answering call after call and should instead search for solutions to recurring problems that generate the repeated calls. Goldstein described this strategy as the ”problem-oriented approach” and envisioned it as a department-wide activity.

His proposition was simple and straightforward. Behind every recurring problem are underlying conditions that create it. Incident-driven policing never addresses these conditions; therefore, incidents are likely to recur. Answering calls for service is an important task and still must be done, but police officers should respond systematically to recurring calls for the same problem. In order for the police to be more efficient and effective, they must gather information about incidents and design an appropriate response based on the nature of the underlying conditions that cause the problem(s) (Goldstein 1990). As summarized by Eck and Spelman (1987):

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. A problem created by these conditions may generate one or more incidents. These incidents, while stemming from a common source, may appear to be different. For example, social and physical conditions in a deteriorated apartment complex may generate burglaries, acts of vandalism, intimidation of pedestrians by rowdy teenagers, and other incidents. These incidents, some of which come to police attention, are symptoms of the problem. The incidents will continue as long as the problem that creates them persists. (xvi)

And in Goldstein’s (1979) words, the problem-solving process requires:

Identifying these problems in more precise terms, researching each problem, documenting the nature of the current police response, assessing its adequacy and the adequacy of existing authority and resources, engaging in a broad exploration of alternatives to present responses, weighing the merits of these alternatives, and choosing among them. (p. 236)

The Practice of Problem-Oriented Policing

The problem-oriented policing approach was given an operational structure in Newport News, Virginia. Researchers from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and a group of officers selected from the various ranks of the Newport News Police Department crystallized the philosophy into a set of steps known as the SARA model (Eck and Spelman 1987). The SARA model consists of these stages:

• Scanning: the identification of an issue and determining whether it is a problem

• Analysis: data collection on the problem to determine its scope, nature, and causes

• Response: use of information from the analysis to design an appropriate response, which can involve other agencies outside the normal police arena

• Assessment: evaluating the response and using the results to reexamine the problem and change responses or maintain positive conditions (Eck and Spelman 1987)

In practice, it is important to recognize that the development and implementation of problem-oriented responses do not always follow the linear, distinct steps of the SARA model (Capowich and Roehl 1994; Braga 2002). Rather, depending on the complexity of the problems to be addressed, the process can be characterized as a series of disjointed and often simultaneous activities. A wide variety of issues can cause deviations from the SARA model, including identified problems that need to be reanalyzed because initial responses were ineffective and implemented responses that sometimes reveal new problems (Braga 2002).


Scanning involves the identification of problems that are worth looking at because they are important and amenable to solution. Herman Goldstein (1990) suggests that the definition of problems be at the street level of analysis and not be restricted by preconceived typologies. As he suggests, It is not yet clear what significance, if any, there may be to the way in which problems are naturally defined. Nor is it clear if, for the purposes of analysis, one way of defining problems is preferable to another. It may be that none of this matters: that the primary concern ought to be to define the problem in terms that have meaning to both the community and the police. (Goldstein 1990, 68) Goldstein (1990, 66) further clarifies what is meant by a problem by specifying the term as ”a cluster of similar, related, or recurring incidents rather than a single incident; a substantive community concern; or a unit of police business.”

There are many ways a problem might be nominated for police attention. A police officer may rely on his or her informal knowledge of a community to identify a problem that he or she thinks is important to the well-being of the community. Another possibility is to identify problems from the examination of citizen calls for service coming into a police department. This approach is implicitly recommended by those who advocate ”repeat call analysis” or the identification of ”hot spots” (Sherman, Gartin, and Buerger 1989). The notion is that citizens will let the police know what problems are concerning them by making calls as individuals. By analyzing these calls, and grouping them in ways that point to common causes or common solutions, the police may be able to develop a response that ameliorates the problem that is generating the calls. With the recent proliferation of computerized mapping technology in police departments, there has been a strong movement in police departments to use these techniques in the identification of crime problems (Weisburd and McEwen 1997).

Another approach to identifying problems is through consultation with community groups of different kinds, including other government agencies. This differs from analyzing individual calls for service because the demands come from groups, rather than individuals. If the police are interested in forging partnerships with groups as well as individuals, then it is important to open up channels through which groups can express their concerns such as community advisory councils or regular meetings held by the police to which all members of a community are invited (Skogan and Hartnett 1997). This approach has the advantage of allowing the community’s views about what is important to shape police views about what is important rather than leaving the nomination of problems to police analysts. The best approach to identifying problems would be to combine these efforts.


The analysis phase challenges police officers to analyze the causes of problems behind a string of crime incidents or substantive community concern. Once the underlying conditions that give rise to crime problems are known, police officers develop and implement appropriate responses. The challenge to police officers is to go beyond the analysis that naturally occurs to them; namely, to find the places and times where particular offenses are likely to occur, and to identify the offenders who are likely to be responsible for the crimes.

Although these approaches have had some operational success, this type of analysis usually produces directed patrol operations or a focus on repeat offenders. The idea of analysis for problem solving was intended to go beyond this. Goldstein (1990) describes this as the problem of ”ensuring adequate depth” in the analysis and offers the following as an example of what he means:

A study of the problem of theft from merchants by shoppers illustrates the need. It is easy, accepting how we have commonly responded to shoplifting to become enmeshed in exploring new ways in which to increase the number of arrests—including more efficient processing by the police. If one digs deeper, however, it becomes apparent that shoplifting is heavily influenced by how the merchandise is displayed and the means used to safeguard it. The police often accept these merchandising decisions as givens and are resigned to processing as many shoplifters as a store chooses to apprehend and deliver into their hands. More in-depth probing raises questions about the effectiveness of arrests as the primary means to reduce shoplifting and the propriety of delegating to private interests the judgment of who is to be arrested. The police may then focus on ways to curtail theft and on use to be made of arrest, including criteria to be employed in deciding who to arrest. If the analysis of the shoplifting problem had been superficial, limited to exploring ways to increase the number of arrests, the whole purpose of the enterprise would have been lost. (pp. 98-99)


After a problem has been clearly defined and analyzed, police officers confront the challenge of developing a plausibly effective response. The development of appropriate responses is closely linked with the analysis that is performed. The analysis reveals the potential targets for an intervention, and it is at least partly the idea about what form the intervention might take that suggests important lines of analysis. As such, the reason police often look at places and times where crimes are committed is that they are already imagining that an effective way to prevent the crimes would be to get officers on the scene through directed patrols. The reason they often look for the likely offender is that they think that the most effective and just response to a crime problem would be to arrest and incapacitate the offender. However, the concept of problem-oriented policing as envisioned by Herman Goldstein (1990) calls on the police to make a much more ”uninhibited” search for possible responses and not to limit themselves to getting officers in the right places at the right times, or identifying and arresting the offender (although both may be valuable responses). Effective responses often depend on getting other people to take actions that reduce the opportunities for criminal offending, or to mobilize informal social control to drive offenders away from certain locations.

The responses that problem-oriented police officers develop may be close to current police practices or, in some instances, quite different. Goldstein (1990, 102-47) offers the following suggestive list of general alternatives police may consider in developing responses to neighborhood crime problems:

• Concentrating attention on those individuals who account for a disproportionate share of the problem

• Connecting with other government and private services through referral to another agency, coordinating police responses with other agencies, correcting inadequacies in municipal services, and pressing for new services

• Using mediation and negotiation skills to resolve disputes

• Conveying information to reduce anxiety and fear, to enable citizens to solve their own problems, to elicit conformity with laws and regulations that are not known or understood, to warn potential victims about their vulnerability and warn them of ways to protect themselves, to demonstrate to individuals how they unwittingly contribute to problems, to develop support for addressing a problem, and to acquaint the community with the limitations on the police and to define realistically what may be expected of the police

• Mobilizing the community and making use of existing forms of social control in addition to the community

• Altering the physical environment to reduce opportunities for problems to recur

• Increasing regulation, through statutes or ordinances, of conditions that contribute to problems

• Developing new forms of limited authority to intervene and detain

• Using civil law to control public nuisances, offensive behavior, and conditions contributing to crime


The crucial last step in the practice of problem-oriented policing is to assess the impact the intervention has had on the problem it was supposed to solve. Assessment is important for at least two different reasons. The first is to ensure that police remain accountable for their performance and for their use of resources. Citizens and their representatives want to know how the money and freedom they surrendered to the police are being used, and whether important results in the form of less crime, enhanced security, or increased citizen satisfaction with the police have been achieved. A second reason assessment is important is to allow the police to learn about what methods are effective in dealing with particular problems. Unless the police check to see whether their efforts produced a result, it will be hard for them to improve their practices.

The assessment of responses is key in facilitating an active exchange of ”what works” in crime prevention among police departments. As Clarke (1998, 319) suggests, ”If law enforcement agencies do not have a mechanism to learn from others’ mistakes and assist others to learn from their experiences, they will always be reinventing the wheel.” The degree of rigor applied to the assessment of problem-oriented initiatives will necessarily vary across the size and overall importance of the problems addressed. Serious, large, and recurrent problems such as controlling gang violence or handling domestic disputes deserve highly rigorous examinations. Other problems that are less serious, or common, such as a lonely elderly person making repeated calls to the police for companionship, are obviously not worth such close examination. To meet the demands of measuring accountability and performance, problem-oriented police should, at a minimum, describe the scanning, response, and assessment phases by measuring inputs, activities, outputs, and whatever can be said about the outcomes of their initiatives.

In general, problem-oriented police should strive to conduct more rigorous assessments of their responses with due consideration to time and resource constraints. Depending on the availability of funds, police departments should consider partnering up with independent researchers to conduct systematic evaluations of their efforts. In the absence of such a partnership, Clarke (1998) suggests that police should take care to relate any observed results to specific actions taken, develop assessment plans while outlining the project, present control data when available and reasonably comparable to the subject(s) of the intervention, and, as will be discussed further, measure crime displacement. While the degree of rigor applied to the assessment of responses may vary, what must not be sacrificed is the goal of measuring results. This will keep the police focused on results rather than means, and that is one of the most important contributions of the idea of problem-oriented policing.

Current Issues in the Substance and Implementation of Problem-Oriented Policing

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices concluded that problem-oriented policing is a promising approach to deal with crime, disorder, and fear and recommended that additional research was necessary to understand the organizational arrangements that foster effective problem solving (Skogan and Frydl 2004). Several recently published volumes on problem-oriented case studies provide a good sense for the work being done as well as the strengths and weaknesses of some of the better problem-oriented efforts (see, for example, O’Connor Shelly and Grant 1998; Sole Brito and Allan 1999; Sole Brito and Gratto, 2000; Sampson and Scott 2000). The concept seems to have survived what Gary Cordner (1998, 305) has identified as first-generation issues:

• The view that problem-oriented policing was not ”real” police work

• The view that problem-oriented policing was a fine idea but not practical because of limited resources (for example, time and personnel)

• The question of whether ordinary police officers had the analytic ability to conduct sophisticated problem-solving projects

• The question of whether other government agencies had the capacity to meet police halfway in solving chronic community problems

• The danger of falsely raising the community’s expectations

Although these issues have not been completely resolved, the implementation of the concept went forward as more police officers grew more and more intrigued by the approach (Cordner 1998).

Although the problem-oriented approach has demonstrated much potential value in preventing crime and improving police practices, research has also documented that it is very difficult for police officers to implement problem-oriented policing strategies (Eck and Spelman 1987; Clarke 1998; Braga 2002). Cordner (1998) identifies a number of challenging second-generation issues in the substance and implementation of many problem-oriented policing projects. These issues include the tendency for officers to conduct only a superficial analysis of problems and rushing to implement a response, the tendency for officers to rely on traditional or faddish responses rather than conducting a wider search for creative responses, and the tendency to completely ignore the assessment of the effectiveness of implemented responses (Cordner 1998). Indeed, the research literature is filled with cases where problem-oriented policing programs tend to lean toward traditional methods and where problem analysis is weak (Eck and Spelman 1987; Buerger 1994; Capowich and Roehl 1994; Read and Tilley 2000). In his recent review of several hundred submissions for the Police Executive Research Forum’s Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing, Clarke (1998) laments that many recent examples of problem-oriented policing projects bear little resemblance to Goldstein’s original definition and suggests this misrepresentation puts the concept at risk of being pronounced a failure before it has been properly tested.

Deficiencies in current problem-oriented policing practices exist in all phases of the process. During the scanning phase, police officers risk undertaking a project that is too small (for example, the lonely old man who repeatedly calls the police for companionship) or too broad (for example, gang delinquency) and this destroys the discrete problem focus of the project and leads to a lack of direction at the beginning of analysis (Clarke 1998). Some officers skip the analysis phase or conduct an overly simple analysis that does not adequately dissect the problem or does not use relevant information from other agencies (such as hospitals, schools, and private businesses) (Clarke 1998). Based on his extensive experience with police departments implementing problem-oriented policing, Eck (2000) suggests that much problem analysis consists of a simple examination of police data coupled with the officer’s working experience with the problem. In their analysis of problem-oriented initiatives in forty-three police departments in England and Wales, Read and Tilley (2000) found that problem analysis was generally weak with many initiatives accepting the definition of a problem at face value, using only short-term data to unravel the nature of the problem, and failing to adequately examine the genesis of the crime problems. As noted earlier, the responses of many problem-oriented policing projects rely too much on traditional police tactics (such as arrests, surveillance, and crackdowns) and neglect the wider range of available alternative responses. Read and Tilley (2000) found that officers selected certain responses prior to, or in spite of, analysis; failed to think through the need for a sustained crime reduction; failed to think through the mechanisms by which the response could have a measurable impact; failed to fully involve partners; and narrowly focused responses, usually on offenders; as well as a number of other weaknesses in the response development process. Scott and Clarke (2000) observe that assessment of responses is rare and, when undertaken, is usually cursory and limited to anecdotal or impressionistic data.


Problem-oriented policing represents an important innovation in American policing. Unfortunately, the practice ofproblem-oriented policing sometimes falls short of the principles suggested by Herman Goldstein (1990). The substance and implementation of many problem-oriented policing projects are limited due to shortcomings in the links between analysis and response. The current state of knowledge among front-line police officers about the most effective and economical ways in which to address problems is limited, and often primitive (Scott 2000; Braga 2002).

Advocates such as Michael Scott, Rana Sampson, Ronald Clarke, John Eck, and Herman Goldstein have made a concerted effort to disseminate research methodologies, theoretical insights, and research findings to the police and the communities they serve. These scholars have been involved in the publication of many practical guides and volumes to further the practice of problem-oriented policing. Most recently, the Problem-Oriented Guides for Police series, published by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (, represents a systematic effort to summarize research knowledge on how police can reduce the harm caused by specific crime and disorder problems. These guides present useful information on an impressive array of problems ranging from robberies at automated bank teller machines to rave parties to clandestine drug laboratories.

It is important to recognize that problem-oriented policing is still in its formative stages and its practice is still developing. Progress in policing is incremental and slow, and that does not make problem-oriented policing unrealistic. Indeed, the pioneers of this young and evolving approach have accomplished much since Herman Goldstein first presented the concept in 1979.

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