Problem-oriented policing (or problem-solving policing, as it is better known in the United Kingdom) refers to a philosophy and method of law enforcement that focuses on problems of concern or considerable nuisance to the general public, with a special focus on crime and social disorder. Problem-oriented policing was conceptualized in the 1970s and began being implemented in various locations in the 1980s and 1990s. The practice centers on the identification and assessment of problems, with a special emphasis placed on addressing the core causes of the problems. Some research suggests problem-oriented policing strategies can be moderately more effective than conventional reactive policing strategies.
Prior to outlining the basics of problem-oriented policing, it is important to note that the term problem-oriented policing has frequently been and continues to be used interchangeably with the terms community policing and community-oriented policing. There is some debate as to whether the differences between problem-oriented policing and community-oriented policing are substantive or are primarily semantic. Problem-oriented policing and community policing are conceptually comparable and, at the very least, there is considerable overlap between the practices.
The term problem-oriented policing was coined by Herman Goldstein, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who introduced the notion of problem-oriented policing in his seminal 1979 article “Improving Policing: A Problem-Oriented Approach,” published in the journal Crime & Delinquency. Goldstein elaborated upon the concept in his 1990 text Problem-Oriented Policing. The roots of problem-oriented policing date back to the escalation of crime in the 1960s and 1970s. Law enforcement officials, public policy makers, and researchers began questioning the effectiveness of the police and searching for means of improving the capacity of the police to control crime and maintain order. During this period research began to emerge that indicated that conventional policing methods, such as routine patrol and rapid response to calls for service, had little impact on crime.
For example, in the early 1970s researchers studied the effectiveness of routine police patrol in Kansas City. The Kansas City Police Department cooperated with the Police Foundation and conducted an experiment in which the level of police presence in a number of police beats was randomly altered and the effects of the varying levels of police presence were assessed: Additional patrols were added in some beats, routine patrol was eliminated in some beats, and patrol levels remained unaltered in some beats. The researchers found no significant increase in crime rates in the beats where routine patrol had been eliminated and no significant decrease in crime rates in the beats where routine patrol had been fortified. While the researchers cautioned that the results of the study should not be interpreted to indicate that police activity has no impact on crime, the results nonetheless indicated that routine patrol is of little value against the criminal element and that enhancing the police presence does not necessarily deter crime.
Evolution of Problem-Oriented Policing
It is against this backdrop of increasing crime and the emergence of empirical research indicating that conventional policing strategies were of limited efficacy that problem-oriented policing evolved. Rather than viewing crimes as isolated individual events and utilizing a criminal event or call for police service as the basic unit of analysis, problem-oriented policing rests on the notion that problems should be the basic unit of analysis. Conventional policing is predominantly reactive. Police officers randomly patrol and respond to calls for service, treating incidents one at a time, with patrol officers dealing with minor events and detectives being assigned to investigate serious felonies. In contrast, problem-oriented policing is proactive by design. At the core of problem-oriented policing are the premises that crime and other public nuisances are the result of social environmental factors and, by means of systematically identifying and addressing the problematic factors, crime and disorder can be prevented or, at the very least, substantially reduced.
Problem-oriented policing also represents a break from the traditional model of police organization, wherein police officers are conceptualized as line workers. Similar to an assembly line in a manufacturing plant wherein workers are viewed as interchangeable, with each worker having the knowledge and skill required to perform a specific task, the conventional administrative structure of police agencies operated on the assumption that all officers had a rudimentary understanding of criminal law, basic tactical skills, and a knowledge of police policy and procedure; by means of adhering to departmental policy and procedure, any officer could be dispatched to an incident and handle that incident in a professional manner (i.e., “by the book”). In contrast, problem-oriented policing requires that officers not only be capable of responding to incidents of crime and disorder, but also be able to analyze such incidents, discern patterns of problematic social activity, identify root causes of the problems, and ultimately resolve the problem. To do so requires analytic skill and the capacity to build and function as part of a team, in that the resolution of any given problem will likely require the involvement of multiple parties, such as individual citizens, neighborhood organizations, businesses, and public service providers (educators, municipal maintenance providers, social workers, etc.).
In brief, problem-oriented policing requires that police officials at all levels engage in constant assessment of the crimes and myriad situations that they are called upon to handle, identify patterns and trends, locate the source of the problem, devise a strategy for addressing the source of the problem, diplomatically put that strategy into action, and then continue with their assessment and research to determine whether the problem has been resolved. A common method of practicing this process is a model known as SARA: An acronym for scanning, analysis, response, and assessment. During the initial scanning stage the police scan the areas they attend to, looking for recurring problems and prioritizing the problems in terms of which problems are most deserving of police resources. In the next phase, the analysis, the police analyze the problem, searching for events and conditions associated with the problem; examining police data relevant to the problem and areas most affected by the problem; contacting and working with local residents, businesses, or public agencies to obtain additional information pertinent to the problem; and forming working hypotheses about the causes of the
problem. The police then develop a response to the problem, the goal being the reduction or elimination of the conditions believed to be generating the problem. Once the response has been set in motion the police continuously assess the situation to ascertain whether the problem has been resolved, has been displaced, or has continued unabated, with further police activity being dependent upon the results of the analysis.
Since the 1980s a number of empirical evaluations of problem-oriented policing efforts have been conducted in cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Jersey City, Newport News, and Philadelphia. The results have generally been favorable, indicating that problem-oriented policing efforts can help reduce crime and disorder. The research on problem-oriented policing, however, is limited and has focused primarily on police efforts to solve specific problems on specific properties such as an apartment complex or in specific neighborhoods or parts of a city. As previously mentioned, problem-oriented policing requires that all officers at all levels constantly engage in problem-solving efforts. While there is some evidence that problem-oriented policing is more effective against crime and disorder across entire cities or counties than traditional policing, such evidence is limited and suggests that problem-oriented policing is only moderately more effective than conventional policing.
With regard to recent developments in problem-oriented policing, efforts have been made to integrate the principles of problem-oriented policing into homeland security operations. In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, law enforcement agencies across the United States (and in many other nations), inclusive of municipal police departments and county sheriff departments, began to incorporate a focus on counterterrorism into their operations. Because intelligence is central to counterterrorism, a number of scholars suggested that problem-oriented policing strategies should be a key component of efforts to enhance homeland security. There are two basic premises underlying the integration of problem-oriented policing into homeland security efforts. First, there is the argument that local law enforcement agencies are best positioned to gather information pertinent to homeland security. In other words, there are far more municipal police officers and county deputy sheriffs than there are federal law enforcement officials, and it is municipal and county officers (not federal agents) who are out patrolling the streets and interacting with the public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Thus, local law enforcement officers are believed to be in the best position to detect indicators of unusual and potentially threatening activity. Second, there is the view that the process of identifying problems and gathering information relevant to problems, which is at the heart of problem-oriented policing, is not fundamentally different from the process of collecting counterterrorist intelligence.
While the general thesis that law enforcement officials at all levels—local, state, and federal— should cooperate in the process of collecting and analyzing information relevant to homeland security may be logically sound, putting this idea into practice has proven difficult. As a case in point, in the decade following the September 11 terrorist strikes the U.S. government allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to the development of dozens of fusion centers across the nation.
Concordant with the notion that problem-oriented policing (with its emphasis upon the collection and analysis of information) is compatible with homeland security operations, fusion centers were designed as information collection, analysis, and sharing hubs, the goal being to facilitate the integration of and access to information pertinent to criminal and terrorist activity between local, state, and federal law enforcement and first-response officials. However, an examination of fusion centers conducted by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 2012 found no substantive evidence to suggest fusion centers have in any way enhanced public security. In brief, while problem-oriented policing has proven to be of some value in terms of reducing crime and disorder at the local level, the utility of problem-oriented policing to national security operations remains unconfirmed.
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