Problem-Oriented Policing

Problem-Oriented Policing: The Disconnect between
Principles and Practice
Anthony A. Braga and David Weisburd
Problem-oriented policing works to identify why things are going wrong and to
frame 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 & Spelman, 1987;
Goldstein, 1990). 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 & Frydl, 2004; Weisburd & Eck, 2004; Braga, 2008;
Weisburd et al., 2010). The US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and
Medicine Committee on Proactive Policing recently reviewed the more rigorous
evaluations of problem-oriented policing and concluded that these programs lead
to short-term reductions in crime and disorder (Weisburd & Majmundar, 2018).
But is the “problem-oriented policing” that researchers have evaluated
similar to the model of problem-oriented policing that its originators
proposed? There is substantial evidence that, too often, the principles
envisioned by Herman Goldstein are not being practiced in the field.
Deficiencies in current problem-oriented policing practices exist in all phases
of the process. A number of scholars have identified challenging issues in the
substance and implementation of many problem-oriented policing projects,
including 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; but also see Clarke,
1998; Read & Tilley, 2000; Scott & Clarke, 2000). Indeed, the research
literature is filled with a long history of cases where problem-oriented policing
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programs tend to lean toward traditional methods and where the problemsolving process is weak (Goldstein & Susmilch, 1982; Eck & Spelman, 1987;
Buerger, 1994; Capowich, Roehl & Andrews, 1995; Read & Tilley, 2000).
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 problem-oriented policing projects
bear little resemblance to Goldstein’s original definition. Eck (2000) comments
that contemporary problem-oriented policing is but a shadow of the original
In this chapter, we examine the nature of problem solving and problemoriented policing as it is practiced in the field. Our main conclusion is that
there is a disconnect between the rhetoric and reality of problem-oriented
policing, and that this is not likely to change irrespective of the efforts of
scholars and policy makers. Indeed, we take a very different approach to
this problem than others who have examined the deficiencies of problemoriented approaches. We argue that there is much evidence that what might
be called “shallow” problem solving can be effective in combating crime
problems. This being the case, we question whether the pursuit of problemoriented 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
defining the problem
To understand our argument, it is useful to review the problems that police
encounter at each stage of the well-known SARA model (Scanning, Analysis,
Response, Assessment) that was developed in Newport News, Virginia, to
crystallize the problem-oriented process (Eck & Spelman, 1987). It is worth
noting here that other models have been developed to guide police officers in
their problem-solving efforts. For instance, Ekblom (2005) proposed the
“5Is” (Intelligence, Intervention, Implementation, Involvement, Impact) as
a better way to capture what problem-oriented policing calls for and ideally
does. SARA, however, remains the most influential model for implementing
problem-oriented policing. In practice, many problem-oriented policing
projects that follow the SARA model do not follow its linear stepwise
approach. Rather, the steps tend to occur simultaneously or in a fashion by
which officers move back and forth between scanning, analysis, and responses
(Capowich & Roehl, 1994; Braga, 1997; Cordner & Biebel, 2005).
Nevertheless, the model provides a useful way to structure our discussion of
the disconnect between principles and practice in the problem-oriented
policing process.
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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: 66). To ensure that
problems are specified correctly, it is important to break down larger categories
of crime into more specific kinds of offenses (Clarke, 1997). For example, auto
theft should be further specified into particular types of auto theft such as “joy
riding” or “stripping for auto parts.” Close analysis of these specific problems
may lead to very different types of intervention that might be more appropriate
for each component of an auto theft problem when compared to a more general
There are many ways a problem might be nominated for police attention.
A police officer may rely upon 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 approach to identifying problems is through consultation
with community groups of different kinds, including other government
agencies. Another possibility is to identify problems from the examination of
citizen calls for service coming in to a police department. This approach is
implicitly recommended by those who advocate “repeat call analysis” in the
identification of crime “hot spots” (Sherman & Weisburd, 1988; Sherman,
Gartin & Buerger, 1989; Weisburd & Mazerolle, 2000). The notion is that
citizens will let the police know what problems are concerning them by making
calls as individuals. Problems can be identified by examining the distribution of
crime incidents at specific public or private places such as stores, bars,
restaurants, shopping malls, ATM locations, apartment buildings, and other
facilities (Clarke & Eck, 2007).
Crime mapping remains a very popular way for police departments to
identify existing crime problems (Weisburd, Mastrofski & Greenspan, 2001)
and, relatedly, hot spots policing has diffused widely among police departments
as a strategy to address identified high-crime places (Weisburd & Lum, 2005).
Problem-oriented policing has been applied to address crime hot spots with the
available evaluation evidence suggesting stronger crime prevention impacts
relative to simply increasing traditional policing activities in targeted highcrime places (Braga, Papachristos & Hureau, 2014).
Relative to their performance in other phases of the process, police officers
are generally good at identifying problems (Bynum, 2001). However, Clarke
(1998) suggests that problem-oriented police officers often fail to make
appropriate specifications of the problems they are addressing in one of two
ways: they either undertake a project that is too small or too big. Small, beat-
184 Anthony A. Braga and David Weisburd
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level projects, such as dealing with a confused lonely old man who is seeking
some daily companionship by repeatedly calling the police for a variety of
concerns, may be better handled as a citywide project addressing older
citizens who live alone and generate a large number of calls for trivial matters
(Clarke, 1998). Some overly ambitious initiatives, such as dealing with “gang
delinquency” or focusing on a “problem neighborhood,” do not represent
a single problem, but a collection of problems. For example, in the “problem
neighborhood,” there could be a diverse set of problems such as drug markets,
auto theft, and domestic violence. These are separate problems that require
individual attention. Problems in problem-oriented policing programs are often
broadly identified; this destroys the discrete problem focus of the project and
leads to a lack of direction at the beginning of analysis (Clarke, 1998).
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 was intended to go beyond this. Unfortunately, as Boba (2003)
observes, while problem-oriented policing has blossomed in both concept and
practice, problem analysis has been the slowest part of the process to develop.
In his twenty-year review of problem-oriented policing, Michael Scott (2000)
concludes that problem analysis remains the aspect of problem-oriented
policing that is most in need of improvement. The Police Executive Research
Forum’s national assessment of the US Community Oriented Policing Services
(COPS)-sponsored “Problem Solving Partnerships” program also found that
problem analysis was the weakest phase of the problem-oriented policing
process (PERF, 2000).
Bynum (2001) suggests that police have difficulty clearly defining problems,
properly using data sources, conducting comprehensive analyses, and
implementing analysis-driven responses. 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
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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.
Analyzing problems at crime hot spots may present a particularly vexing
challenge to problem-oriented police officers. Given the contemporary
popularity of crime mapping in the identification of problems worthy of
police attention, we feel that it is important to highlight the difficulties in
analyzing problems at hot spots. High-activity crime places tend to have
multiple problems and the problems at crime places can be quite complex and
involved. In their close analysis of hot spots in Minneapolis, Weisburd and his
colleagues (1992) suggest that a heterogeneous mix of crime types occur at high
activity crime places rather than a concentration of one type of crime occurring
at a place. In their examination of problem-oriented policing in San Diego,
Capowich and Roehl (1994: 144) observed that multiple problems tend to
coincide at places and report, “at the beat level, there are no pure cases in
which the problem can be captured under a single classification. The range of
problems is wide, with each presenting unique circumstances.” In Oakland’s
Beat Health program to deal with drug nuisance locations, officers encountered
difficulties unraveling what was happening at a place and deciding how it
should be addressed (Green, 1996). Evaluations of problem-oriented policing
programs to control crime hot spots in Lowell (Braga & Bond, 2008) and
Boston (Braga, Hureau & Papachristos, 2011), Massachusetts, also noted the
multitude of identified problems at each crime place and the challenges faced by
officers in analyzing these problems.
In the Jersey City (NJ) problem-oriented policing in violent crime hot spots
experiment, the number of identified problems per place ranged from three to
seven, with a mean of 4.7 problems per place (Braga, 1997; Braga et al., 1999).
Table 8.1 presents the problems identified by officers for further analysis and
the key characteristics of violent crime hot spots in the Jersey City problemoriented policing experiment. From their training and the reading materials
made available to them, the problem-oriented officers expected that they would
be preventing violence at each place by focusing on very specific underlying
characteristics or situational factors. After examining places closely, the officers
observed that they would be controlling a multitude of crime problems. All
twelve places were perceived to suffer from social disorder problems such as
loitering, public drinking, and panhandling; eleven places suffered from
physical disorder such as trash-filled streets, vacant lots, and abandoned
buildings. Seven places had problems with illicit drug selling and three places
had problems with property crimes.
Across and within places in the Jersey City problem-oriented policing
experiment, few problems were analyzed thoroughly (Braga, 1997). Eck and
Spelman (1987) suggest two classifications for the depth of problem analysis:
186 Anthony A. Braga and David Weisburd
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table 8.1 Problems and Characteristics of Twelve Violent Crime Places
Place Problems Relevant Characteristics

Assault and robbery of commuters Train and bus terminals
Drug selling
Restaurants and retail stores
Abandoned buildings
Abandoned automobiles
Homeless loitering and panhandling Holes in fences around terminal
Disorderly groups of youths Poor lighting
Physical disorder Piles of lumber used by loiterers
Piles of trash deposited by illegal
Major thoroughfare
Street fights
Drug market
Public drinking and drug use Tavern
Disorderly groups of youths Abandoned buildings
Physical disorder Vacant lot
Assault and robbery of college students College campus
Burglary and larceny on campus
Minor drug selling
Physical disorder
Multiple bus stops
Trash-strewn vacant lot with tall weeds
Low-income apartment building
Trash-strewn alley
Poor lighting
Grammar/middle school
Community college
Assault and robbery of students
Car jacking
Homeless loiterers Retail stores
Disorderly groups of youths Major intersection
Robbery of retail stores
Street fights
Disorderly groups of youths
Retail stores
Major thoroughfare
Public drinking Poor lighting
Physical disorder
Drug market Liquor store
Loitering Major thoroughfare
Public drinking Poor lighting
Physical disorder
Robbery of elderly
Disorderly groups of youths
Physical disorder
Senior citizen housing complex
Low-income housing project
Interstitial area between middle- and
lower-class neighborhoods
Poor lighting
Bus stop
Large low-income apartment building
Retail stores
Drug market
Street fights
Bar fights