Problem-Oriented Policing Research Paper

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Problem-oriented policing is an alternative approach to crime reduction that challenges police officers to understand the underlying situations and dynamics that give rise to recurring crime problems and to develop appropriate responses to address these underlying conditions. Problem-oriented policing is often given operational structure through the well-known SARA model that includes a series of iterative steps: Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment. Police officers often find it difficult to implement problem oriented policing properly with deficiencies existing in all stages of the process. The existing evaluation evidence shows that problem-oriented policing generates noteworthy crime and disorder reduction impacts. These crime reduction impacts are generated even when problem-oriented policing is not fully implemented; this confirms the robustness of the problem-oriented approach in addressing crime and disorder problems.


Most police departments have historically engaged incident-driven crime prevention strategies. In dealing with crime, these departments were aimed at resolving individual incidents instead of addressing recurring crime problems (Eck and Spelman 1987). Officers responded to repeated calls and never looked for the underlying conditions that may be causing like groups of incidents. Officers often became frustrated because they answered similar calls and seemingly made no real progress. Citizens also became dissatisfied because the problems that generate their repeated calls still existed (Eck and Spelman 1987). In a seminal article that challenged existing police policy and practice, Herman Goldstein (1979) proposed an alternative; he felt that police should go further than answering call after call and search for solutions to recurring problems that generate the repeated calls. Goldstein (1979) described this strategy as the “problem-oriented approach” and envisioned it as a department-wide activity. Problem-oriented policing is now a common police crime prevention and control strategy.

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 (Eck and Spelman 1987; Goldstein 1990). Since the publication of Goldstein’s article, many police departments have experimented with the approach and the available evaluation evidence suggests that problem-oriented policing is a fundamentally sound approach to controlling crime and disorder problems (Skogan and Frydl 2004; Braga 2008; Weisburd et al. 2010).

The Principles Of Problem-Oriented Policing

Beginning in the 1940s and continuing through the emergence of community policing, police departments followed what many have come to call the “standard” or “professional” model of policing (see e.g. Skogan and Frydl 2004) that was characterized by rigorous professional standards, militaristic organizational structures, the use of technology, and other important historical reforms. Under this model, police departments attempted to prevent serious crimes by advancing three operational strategies: preventive patrol, rapid response, and investigation of more serious cases by specialized detective units. The limits of these strategies are, by now, well known (Skogan and Frydl 2004). Research studies found that varying levels of preventive patrol did not reduce crime, rapid response to calls for service did not increase the probability of arrest as very few crimes are reported in progress, and follow-up investigations solved only a relatively small proportion of reported crimes.

The findings of these studies had a strong impact on a generation of police scholars and practitioners. By the early 1990s, there was a broad consensus among criminologists and police scholars that crime was a product of larger social forces, and the police could do little if anything to impact upon crime or crime rates (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990; Bayley 1994). The police as “crime fighters” might have been a popular idea in the media and among the public, but the idea that the police could do something about crime had little credence in the universities or research institutes that were concerned with policing.

In 1979, Herman Goldstein, a respected University of Wisconsin law professor and former aide to Chicago police chief O.W. Wilson, made a simple and straightforward proposition that challenged police officers to address problems rather than simply respond to incidents. According to Goldstein (1979, 1990), behind every recurring problem there 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).

It is important to note here that Herman Goldstein (1979, 1990) intended problem-oriented policing to be a general approach that could be applied to a wide range of police business problems. This includes non-crime problems such as personnel issues, budgetary concerns, and police-community relations. Most problem-oriented policing research and practical experience, however, has focused on applying the approach to addressing crime and disorder problems. As such, this research paper examines our existing knowledge base on police use of the problem-oriented approach to tackle recurring crime and disorder problems.

The Process 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: Scanningthe identification of an issue and determining whether it is a problem; Analysisdata collection on the problem to determine its scope, nature, and causes; Responseinformation from the analysis is used to design an appropriate response which can involve other agencies outside the normal police arena; and Assessment the response is evaluated and these results can be used to re-examine 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 2008). 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 needing to be re-analyzed because initial responses were ineffective and implemented responses that sometimes reveal new problems (Braga 2008).

Scanning. The process of 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. Goldstein 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” (1990, p. 66).

Analysis. 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 that 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.

Situational crime prevention has further developed the methodology of analyzing problems, and provided important examples of how crime problems may be closely analyzed. Situational crime prevention measures are tailored to highly specific categories of crime. As Clarke (1997) describes, distinctions must be made not between broad crime categories such as burglary and robbery, but between the different kinds of offenses that comprise each of these categories. For example, in their analysis of domestic burglary in a British city, Poyner and Webb (1991) revealed that cash and jewelry burglaries tended to occur in older homes near the city center, while burglaries of electronic goods, such as TVs and VCRs, generally occurred in newer homes in the suburbs. Analysis further revealed that offenders on foot committed cash and jewelry burglaries. In the electronic goods burglaries, offenders used cars that had to be parked near to the house, but not so close that they would attract attention. The resulting crime prevention strategies differed accordingly. To prevent cash and jewelry burglaries in the city center, Poyner and Webb (1991) recommended improving security and surveillance at the burglar’s point of entry; in contrast, to prevent electronic good burglaries in the suburbs, they suggested improving the natural surveillance of parking places and roadways in the area.

Response. 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.

Assessment. 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 has 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.

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.

Community Policing And “Problem Solving”

During the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, problem-oriented policing and community policing were heralded as revolutionary alternatives to the professional model. The terms are sometimes referred to as essentially the same strategy (Kennedy and Moore 1995), however others maintain a distinct separation between the two concepts (Eck and Spelman 1987; Goldstein 1990). Problem-oriented policing is typically defined as focusing police attention on the underlying causes of problems behind a string of crime incidents, while community policing emphasizes the development of strong police-community partnerships in a joint effort to reduce crime and enhance security (Moore 1992). Indeed, community-oriented police officers use problem solving as a tool and problem-oriented departments often form partnerships with the community.

The term “problem solving” is often conceptualized as what an officer does to handle small, recurring beat-level problems, and it is distinguished from problem-oriented policing based on its rudimentary analysis of the problem and lack of formal assessment (see, e.g., Cordner 1998). In short, some observers suggest the term “problem solving” does not adequately capture the substance of problem-oriented policing as envisioned by Goldstein (1990). Scott (2000) reports that Goldstein himself has been especially careful to avoid the term “problem solving” because many, if not most, problems the police confront are too complex for anything approaching a final solution; reducing harm, alleviating suffering, and/or providing some measure of relief are ambitious enough aims for the police.

Situational Crime Prevention And Supporting Theoretical Perspectives

The field of situational crime prevention has supported the problem-oriented policing movement since its genesis in the British Government’s Home Office Research Unit in the early 1980s (Clarke 1997). Instead of preventing crime by altering broad social conditions such as poverty and inequality, situational crime prevention advocates changes in local environments to decrease opportunities for crimes to be committed. Situational crime prevention techniques comprise opportunity-reducing measures that are: “(1) directed at highly specific forms of crime (2) that involve the management, design, or manipulation of the immediate environment in as systematic and permanent way as possible (3) so as to increase the effort and risks of crime and reduce the rewards as perceived by a wide range of offenders” (Clarke 1997, p. 4). Like problem-oriented policing, the situational analysis of crime problems follows an action-research model that systematically identifies and examines problems, develops solutions, and evaluates results. Applications of situational crime prevention have shown convincing crime prevention results when applied to a variety problems ranging from obscene phone callers to burglary to car radio theft. This simple but powerful perspective is applicable to crime problems facing the police, security personnel, business owners, local government officials, and private citizens.

Problem-oriented policing and situational crime prevention draw upon theories of criminal opportunity, such as rational choice and routine activities, to analyze crime problems and develop appropriate responses (Clarke 1997; Braga 2008). Most criminological research focuses on why some people become persistent offenders. However, as Eck (2000) observes, by the time a problem comes to the attention of the police, the questions of why people offend are no longer relevant. The most pressing concerns are why offenders are committing crimes at particular places, selecting particular targets, and committing crimes at specific times (Eck 2000). While police officers are important entry points to social services for many people, they are best positioned to prevent crimes by focusing on the situational opportunities for offending rather than attempting to manipulate socio-economic conditions that are the subjects of much criminological inquiry and the primary focus of other governmental agencies (Braga 2008). Theories that deal with the “root causes” of crime focus on interventions that are beyond the scope of most problem-oriented policing projects. Theories that deal with opportunities for crime and how likely offenders, potential victims, and others make decisions based on perceived opportunities have greater utility in designing effective problem-oriented policing interventions.

The rational choice perspective assumes that “crime is purposive behavior designed to meet the offender’s commonplace needs for such things as money, status, sex, and excitement, and that meeting these needs involves the making of (sometimes quite rudimentary) decisions and choices, constrained as these are by limits of time and ability and the availability of relevant information” (Clarke 1995, p. 98). Rational choice makes distinctions between the decisions to initially become involved in crime, to continue criminal involvement, and to desist from crimina offending, as well as the decisions made to complete a particular criminal act. This separation of the decision-making processes in the criminal event from the stages of criminal involvement allows the modeling of the commission of crime events in a way that yields potentially valuable insights for crime prevention.

The emphasis of the rational choice perspective on concepts of risk, reward, and effort in criminal decision making has been used to inform the development of problem-oriented policing and situational crime prevention strategies that seek to change offender appraisals of criminal opportunities (Clarke 1997; Braga 2008). Of particular importance, the decision processes and information utilized in committing criminal acts can vary greatly across offenses; ignoring these differences and the situational contingencies associated with making choices may reduce the ability to effectively intervene (Clarke 1995).

For example, a robber may choose a “favorite” spot because of certain desirable attributes that facilitate an ambush, such as poor lighting and untrimmed bushes. One obvious response to this situation would be to improve the lighting and trim the bushes.

Rational choice is often combined with routine activity theory to explain criminal behavior during the crime event. Rational offenders come across criminal opportunities as they go about their daily routine activities and make decisions whether to take action. The source of the offender’s motivation to commit a crime is not addressed (it is assumed that offenders commit crimes for any number of reasons); rather, the basic ingredients for a criminal act to be completed are closely examined. Routine activity posits that a criminal act occurs when a likely offender converges in space and time with a suitable target (e.g., victim or property) in the absence of a capable guardian (e.g., property owner or security guard) (Cohen and Felson 1979).

The routine activity approach was used to demonstrate that increases in residential burglary in the United States between 1960 and 1970 could be largely explained by changes in the routine activities of households (Cohen and Felson 1979). During this time period, the number of empty homes during the day increased as the number of single-person households and female participation in the workforce grew. At the same time, households increasingly contained attractive items to steal, such as more portable televisions and other electronic goods. Burglary increased, as fewer capable guardians were present in the home to protect the new suitable targets from burglars. These kinds of analytical insights on the nature of crime problems are very valuable to problem-oriented police officers seeking to develop appropriate responses.

The Practice Of Problem-Oriented Policing

Although the problem-oriented approach has demonstrated much potential value in 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 and Weisburd 2006). Cordner (1998) identifies a number of challenging 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 towards traditional methods and where problem analysis is weak. In his 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 (e.g., the lonely old man who repeatedly calls the police for companionship) or too broad (e.g., 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 43 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.

Given the limited analysis that many crime problems, it is not surprising that 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; narrowly focused responses, usually on offenders; as well as a number of other weakness in the response development process. Finally, Scott and Clarke (2000) observed that the assessment of responses is rare and, when undertaken, it is usually cursory and limited to anecdotal or impressionistic data.

Reflecting on these practical issues, Eck (2000) comments that the problem-oriented policing that is practiced by many police department diverges significantly from the original concept that was envisioned by Goldstein. Braga and Weisburd (2006), however, find value in the imperfect implementation of problem-oriented policing. They argue that there is much evidence that what might be called “shallow” problem solving responses can be effective in combating crime problems. Apparently, weak problem-oriented policing is better than none at all. This being the case, Braga and Weisburd (2006) question whether the pursuit of problem-oriented policing as it has been modeled by Goldstein and others, should be abandoned in favor of the achievement of a more realistic type of problem solving. While less satisfying for scholars, it is what the police have tended to do, and it has been found to lead to real crime prevention benefits.

“Ideal” Applications Of Problem-Oriented Policing

Herman Goldstein (1979, 1990) originally suggested that problem-oriented policing efforts should be located within a headquarters unit rather than assigned to police officers in operational units. The decentralization of the approach to street police officers may have reduced the quality of routine problem-oriented policing efforts as busy officers handled too many problems and had little time to conduct the extensive analysis and search for appropriate responses. Ideal applications of problem-oriented policing tend to involve larger scale problems, the involvement of academic researchers and crime analysis units, and the solid support of the police command staff to implement alternative responses. Two examples of these types of “ideal” problem-oriented projects are briefly reviewed here: The Boston Police Department’s Operation Ceasefire intervention to prevent gang violence (Braga et al. 2001) and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s program to reduce theft from construction sites (Clarke and Goldstein 2002).

The Boston Gun Project was a problem-oriented policing enterprise expressly aimed at taking on a serious, large-scale crime problem — homicide victimization among young people in Boston. Like many large cities in the United States, Boston experienced a large sudden increase in youth homicide between the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Boston Gun Project proceeded by: (1) assembling an interagency working group of largely line-level criminal justice and other practitioners; (2) applying quantitative and qualitative research techniques to create an assessment of the nature of, and dynamics driving, youth violence in Boston; (3) developing an intervention designed to have a substantial, near-term impact on youth homicide; (4) implementing and adapting the intervention; and (5) evaluating the intervention’s impact (Kennedy et al. 1996). The Project began in early 1995 and implemented what is now known as the “Operation Ceasefire” intervention, which began in the late spring of 1996.

The trajectory of the Boston Gun Project and of Operation Ceasefire is by now well-known and extensively documented. Briefly, the working group of law enforcement personnel, youth workers, and researchers diagnosed the youth violence problem in Boston as one of patterned, largely vendetta-like (“beef”) hostility amongst a small population of chronic offenders, and particularly among those involved in some 61 loose, informal, mostly neighborhood-based groups. These 61 gangs consisted of between 1,100 and 1,300 members, representing less than 1 % of the city’s youth between the ages of 14 and 24. Although small in number, these gangs were responsible for more than 60 % of youth homicide in Boston.

The Operation Ceasefire “pulling levers” strategy was designed to deter violence by reaching out directly to gangs, saying explicitly that violence would no longer be tolerated, and backing up that message by “pulling every lever” legally available when violence occurred. Simultaneously, youth workers, probation and parole officers, and later churches and other community groups offered gang members services and other kinds of help. The Ceasefire Working Group delivered this message in formal meetings with gang members, through individual police and probation contacts with gang members, through meetings with inmates at secure juvenile facilities in the city, and through gang outreach workers. The deterrence message was not a deal with gang members to stop violence. Rather, it was a promise to gang members that violent behavior would evoke an immediate and intense response. If gangs committed other crimes but refrained from violence, the normal workings of police, prosecutors, and the rest of the criminal justice system dealt with these matters. But if gangs hurt people, the Working Group concentrated its enforcement actions on their members.

A large reduction in the yearly number of Boston youth homicides followed immediately after Operation Ceasefire was implemented in mid-1996. A US 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 (Braga et al. 2001). The evaluation also suggested that Boston’s significant youth homicide reduction associated with Operation Ceasefire was distinct when compared to youth homicide trends in most major US and New England cities (Braga et al. 2001).

To many observers, the analysis phase is the critical step in the problem-oriented policing process as it unravels the nature of recurring problems and points police towards innovative responses that go beyond traditional enforcement activities. Clarke and Goldstein (2002) document the vital role played by innovative crime analysis in a problem-oriented policing project undertaken by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to address a sharp increase in the number of kitchen appliances stolen from new houses under construction. A detailed analysis of security practices and risks for theft among 25 builders in one police service district was conducted. The analysis led to the recommendation that the installation of appliances should be delayed until the new owners moved into the residence. Removing the targets of theft was found to be an effective response: as appliance theft declined markedly in the police service district and there was no evidence of displacement to surrounding district (Clarke and Goldstein 2002).

A key moment in the analysis of the theft problem occurred when the crime analyst discovered that a “certificate of occupancy” had to be issued by the county before a new owner could move into the residence. Compared to the building permits that had been used in earlier iterations of the problem analysis, these certificates provided a better measure of when a house was ready to be occupied and, therefore, a timelier basis for calculating the risk of theft. Building permits measured only planned construction. Builders may obtain 100 permits to build houses, but only actually build a fraction in a given year. That is why building permit data could not be used to accurately assess the stage when a house was completed and, thus, at-risk for theft of newly installed appliances.

Crime Prevention Effects Of Problem-Oriented Policing

There is a growing body of evaluation evidence that problem-oriented policing generates noteworthy crime control gains. The US National Academy of Sciences’ Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices recently 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; Weisburd and Eck 2004). Several published volumes on problem-oriented policing 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. Indeed, the widespread use of problem-oriented policing as a central crime prevention and control strategy in police agencies across the world is a strong indicator of the practical value of the approach.

However, the strongest empirical evidence available in support of problem-oriented policing comes from three Campbell Collaboration systematic reviews. Formed in 2000, the Campbell Collaboration Crime and Justice Group aims to prepare and maintain systematic reviews of criminological interventions and to make them electronically accessible to scholars, practitioners, policy makers and the general public (www. The Crime and Justice Group requires reviewers of criminological interventions to select studies with high internal validity such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experiments.

David Weisburd and his colleagues (2010) recently completed a Campbell Collaboration systematic review of the crime prevention effects of problem-oriented policing on crime and disorder. Despite reviewing a very large number of empirical studies on the approach, they identified only ten problem-oriented policing studies that used more rigorous randomized experimental and quasi-experimental evaluation designs. Given the popularity of problem-oriented policing, Weisburd et al. (2010) were surprised by the small number of rigorous evaluations studies that examined the crime prevention benefits of the approach. A meta-analysis of these ten evaluations revealed that problem-oriented policing programs generated a modest but statistically-significant impact on crime and disorder outcomes. These results were consistent when Weisburd et al. (2010) examined randomized experiments and quasi-experiments separately.

The Campbell problem-oriented policing review also reported on the crime prevention effects of simple pre/post comparison evaluation studies. While these studies did not include a comparison group and were less methodologically rigorous, Weisburd et al. (2010) found that they were far more numerous and identified 45 pre/post evaluations. 43 of these 45 evaluations reported that the approach generated beneficial crime prevention effects. These studies also reported much larger crime reduction impacts associated with problem-oriented policing when compared to the effects reported by the more rigorous research designs.

Policing crime hot spots represents an important advance in focusing police crime prevention practice (Braga and Weisburd 2010). Since crime hot spots generate a bulk of urban crime problems, it seems commonsensical to address the conditions and situations that give rise to the criminal opportunities that sustain high-activity crime places. The available evaluation evidence also suggests that problem-oriented policing holds great promise in addressing the criminogenic attributes of specific places that cause them to be crime hot spots. A recently updated Campbell Collaboration review of 19 rigorous evaluation studies found that hot spots policing generates modest crime reductions and these crime control benefits diffuse into areas immediately surrounding targeted crime hot spots (Braga et al. 2012). A moderator analysis of the types of hot spots policing programs found that problem-oriented policing interventions generate larger crime control impacts when compared to interventions that simply increase levels of traditional police actions in crime hot spots.

The Campbell hot spots policing review also reported that the problem-oriented policing interventions generated larger diffusion of crime control benefits into areas immediately surrounding the targeted hot spots areas (Braga et al. 2012). Many of the problem-oriented policing interventions used to control crime hot spots were described as suffering from superficial problem analyses, a preponderance of traditional policing tactics, and limited situational crime prevention responses. However, these generally “shallow” problem-oriented policing programs still generated crime reduction gains. This finding supports the assertion made earlier by Braga and Weisburd (2006) that limited problem-oriented policing, also known simply as “problem solving,” is a stronger approach to crime prevention when compared to traditional police crime prevention strategies.

A number of US jurisdictions have been experimenting with new problem-oriented policing frameworks, generally known as pulling levers focused deterrence strategies, to understand and respond to serious crime problems generated by chronically offending groups, such as gun violence among gang-involved offenders (Kennedy 2008). These approaches include the well-known Boston Gun Project and its Operation Ceasefire intervention (Braga et al.

2001) discussed earlier in this research paper and typically represent carefully implemented problem-oriented policing projects. Another recently completed Campbell Collaboration systematic review of focused deterrence strategies found that 10 out of 11 rigorous evaluations reported significant crime reduction effects associated with this problem-oriented approach (Braga and Weisburd 2012). A meta-analysis of these programs reported that focused deterrence strategies were associated with an overall statistically-significant, medium-sized crime reduction effect. This review provides additional evidence that the general problem-oriented policing approach can inform innovative violence reduction strategies and generate impressive crime control gains.


Problem-oriented policing represents an important innovation in American policing. Indeed, the advocates of this young and evolving approach have accomplished much since Herman Goldstein first presented the concept in 1979. Early experiences in Madison, London, Baltimore County, and Newport News demonstrated that police officers could greatly improve

their handling of crime problems by taking a problem-oriented approach. Since then, many police agencies in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Scandinavia, Australia, and New Zealand have continued to implement problem-oriented policing, to apply it to a wide range of crime and disorder problems, and to change their organizations to better support problem-oriented policing (

The practice of problem-oriented policing sometimes falls short of the principles suggested by Herman Goldstein (1979, 1990). While the approach is more than 30 years old, 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. Police departments should strive to implement problem-oriented policing properly but recognize that even weak problem solving can be beneficial when applied to recurring crime problems. Within police departments, it seems like a balanced problem-oriented policing agenda would include both a commitment among officers in the field to apply problem-solving techniques to address problems that they encounter on a routine basis and a commitment to maintaining a centralized problem-oriented policing unit capable of conducting high-quality analyses of larger and more persistent problems and developing more creative responses to reduce them.

In closing, it also seems important to point out that the demonstrated crime reduction efficacy of problem-oriented policing is a striking result considering the large body of research that shows the ineffectiveness of many police crime prevention efforts. The robustness of the problem-oriented policing is underscored by the observation that, even when it is not implemented properly, the approach still generates noteworthy crime reduction gains (Braga and Weisburd 2006). It is tantalizing to think that had the police more fully implemented the problem-oriented approach and took a more specific, more focused approach to crime and disorder problems, crime control benefits might have been greater. Of course, this requires the development of such skills from both “trial and error” experience of problem solving on the street and additional training in the problem-oriented model, particularly in the area of problem analysis. The investment in the acquisition of these skills could be well worth the effort.


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