Problem-solving policing

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An approach to tackling crime and disorder, also known as problem-oriented policing (POP).

First published
9 mins read

Problem-solving policing is also known as problem-oriented policing. It's an approach to tackling crime and disorder that involves:

  • identification of a specific problem
  • thorough analysis to understand the problem
  • development of a tailored response
  • assessment of the effects of the response

The approach assumes that identifying and understanding the root causes of a problem – or conditions that allow it to continue – leads to an effective solution.

SARA model

Problem-solving policing uses the SARA (scanning, analysis, response, assessment) model of problem solving.

The SARA model has four stages.

  1. Scanning – identifying and prioritising potential crime and disorder problems. 
  2. Analysis – analysis of potential problems by gathering information and intelligence to identify underlying causes. 
  3. Response – development and implementation of tailored activities to address the causes of the problem identified in the analysis phase.
  4. Assessment – measurement of the impact of the response, to test if it had the desired effect and to make changes to the response if required.

There is a logical sequence to the SARA process. But in practice, good problem solving is often not linear. Analysis may lead to redefinitions of the problem and a return to scanning. Responses may need changes that call for further analysis. Assessments may indicate that a problem remains, suggesting that the process needs to start again.

So when working through the SARA model, treat the different elements as fluid. Be willing to revisit earlier stages as new information emerges and modifications are required. That said, there are general requirements that should be met before moving through the different stages of SARA. These can be seen in our checklists.

Scanning

Problem solving begins with scanning. Scanning involves identifying persistent problems that:

  • cause harm
  • call for police attention

The purpose of scanning is to home in on a specific problem that affects the community and that the police can do something to address.

Defining your problem precisely is a key part of scanning and is crucial to effective problem solving.

Catch-all categories such as youth crime or serious violence are too broad for the purposes of problem solving. This is because broad categories of crime often mask the existence of several different problems. These may arise for different reasons, display different patterns, require different responses and involve different partners. In general, crime problems are easier to solve when they are defined more precisely.

Scanning typically involves three steps.

  1. Select a broad category of crime or public safety issue that you would like to focus on.
  2. Identify data and information relevant to the identified crime or public safety issue.
  3. Interrogate relevant data and information sources to arrive at, and better understand, a highly specific problem that is suitable for problem solving.

Not every issue that is brought to the police’s attention benefits from a problem-solving approach. In a problem-solving sense, problems refer to clusters of related and persistently reoccurring incidents that harm the community and that the police should – and feasibly can – do something about (Eck, 2003).

A problem-solving approach is not about responding to one-off incidents. It is not appropriate for a rare event that is unlikely to repeat. 

CHEERS test

Your problem-solving efforts should focus on recurring issues that cause tangible harm to communities and where targeted police efforts can do the most good. The acronym CHEERS (community, harm, expect, events, recurring and similar) was developed to help determine whether a problem is suitable for problem solving (Clarke and Eck, 2003).

Appropriate problems should pass the CHEERS test, meaning that they should do all of the following.

  • Community – affects the community (whether it be the whole community or part of it).
  • Harm – generates harm (directly, for victims, or indirectly – for example, through fear in the community).
  • Expect – is something that the public expects the police to address.
  • Events – includes discrete and clearly defined events (such as one person stabbing another).
  • Recurring – includes events that are recurring (such as increases in the routine carrying of knives in a community, or a series of stabbings).
  • Similar – includes events that are similar to one another (such as occurring at the same or in similar locations, involving the same victims, offenders and so on).

Scanning checklist

This checklist of questions is designed to help ensure that these requirements have been met before proceeding from scanning to analysis.

  1. Have you identified a specific crime problem?
  2. Does your identified problem meet the CHEERS criteria?
  3. Have you established the extent and trend of the identified problem?
  4. Have you identified ways in which your selected crime problem is patterned – considering place, time, offenders and victims?
  5. Have you explored different data sources to better understand the extent, patterns and harms of the identified problem?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, continue scanning. Once the answer to all of these questions is ‘yes’, you can move onto the next phase of SARA – analysis.

Analysis

At this stage, you have drawn on a wide range of data and intelligence sources and decided on a specific type of crime on which to focus your problem-solving efforts. You understand:

  • how the problem is trending
  • where and when it is most concentrated
  • the harms it generates

The next step is to explore further to identify the causes and conditions that enable your problem to persist. This step is analysis.

At this stage of the SARA process, it is important to keep in mind that problem solving does not require you to identify and address all of the causes that give rise to your selected problem. That would be unrealistic. Some immediate situational factors are beyond the reach of practical local problem solving. Instead, effective problem analysis is about analysing a problem to identify so-called pinch points.

Pinch points

Pinch points are those causes and conditions that:

  • contribute to a problem
  • are open to preventive intervention by the police and partners

The goal of problem analysis is therefore to help you identify an appropriate and effective response that is based on those pinch points and can be delivered within the resources of your organisation.

Effective problem solving is finding pinch points that can be changed by responses that can be implemented in a reasonable time frame, but that also have a sustained impact.

Analysis tools

Two tools can help to break down your problem and structure your analysis. These are:

  • the problem analysis triangle
  • crime scripts

Problem analysis triangle

Problem analysis triangles can help to structure the analysis of your local problem.

The inner triangle refers to three conditions that must occur for a crime to take place. These are:

  • the presence of an equipped offender
  • the equipped offender being in contact with an accessible victim at the same time
  • the equipped offender and accessible victim being in a location where there is no adequate guardianship

The middle triangle refers to those in a position to prevent crime by:

  • guarding those who are potential victims
  • inhibiting (handling) the person(s) engaging in crime
  • overseeing (managing) locations in ways that reduce the opportunities for crimes to occur

The outermost triangle relates to so-called super controllers. Super controllers are those able to apply levers to relevant handlers, guardians or place managers, to persuade them to act in ways that will lessen or eliminate a particular problem.

Crime scripts

A crime script refers to the stages needed for an offence to be committed.

All crimes have a beginning, middle and end, with offenders making separate decisions at different stages in the crime commission process. 

Scripts can be useful when problem solving. They can help to:

  • break down problems into the sequence of actions adopted before, during and after an offence
  • identify a fuller range of preventive pinch points where you might direct your problem-solving responses

There is no set method for devising a crime script. Police data, investigation files, and interviews with offenders and victims can all help to create a script that reflects your local circumstances.

Other data sources might also help you to analyse the crime commission process.

Analysis checklist

Before moving on to the response section, check that you have considered the following questions in relation to your specific problem or crime type.

  1. Have you checked the specific locations where crimes have been committed?
  2. Have you worked out what draws vulnerable victims and likely offenders to the locations where crimes are concentrated?
  3. Have you worked out why offences tend to occur in specific locations at specific times?
  4. Have you checked what led up to crimes being committed in the locations where they occur most often?
  5. Have you worked out how any weapons are being obtained and why they are being carried in the local area? Have you checked how those using weapons leave the scene of the crime and dispose of the weapons they used?
  6. Have you worked out what aspects of the situation enabling or provoking the commission of crimes are most open to preventive intervention – thinking about victims, offenders, locations, times, attractors, groups and enablers? Do you know which pinch points are the most promising for intervention?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, then you may need to undertake further analysis or scanning before moving on to the next phase of SARA – response.

Response

Following scanning and analysis, your attention should be focused on a specific type of crime problem. You should have a better idea of:

  • the scale of your selected problem
  • how it is patterned
  • the factors contributing to it

You should also have identified one or more pinch points that you believe are open to intervention by the police and partners.

Now is the time to decide how best to address those pinch points as part of your response. 

One of the main challenges in problem solving is avoiding the temptation to rush straight to response, without completing scanning and analysis first. The scanning and analysis stages are necessary to suitably frame a problem and select appropriate responses.

Another challenge is how to respond. Crime problems involve a variety of different offence types involving different groups of individuals and likely requiring different responses.

Problem solving is not prescriptive. It doesn’t tell you what response will work for your specific crime problem.

The specific details of the crime problem in your area are likely to be unique – times, places victims and offenders vary.

Effective problem solving relies on a commitment to select responses that make sense, given what you have learned from your local scanning and analysis.

Questions to devise a response strategy

Two questions can help you in devising your response strategy:

  1. What has worked previously to reduce crime?
  2. Will a response work for me in addressing my local crime problem?

What has worked previously to reduce crime?

Knowing an intervention’s track record of successful or unsuccessful use is important. When embarking on any problem solving project, it is useful to find out what has been tried previously to address similar problems, and to what effect.

It is important to critically assess what has been done locally to address the problem, and ask why the problem remains. The challenge of crime prevention is that responses seldom work everywhere and every time.

For example, what worked to reduce crime in Liverpool may not work to reduce crime in London. Some things that may differ include the:

  • problem (for example, gang-related crime or robbery)
  • location (for example, city centre or housing estate)
  • perpetrators and victims (for example, similar or different demographics)

Will a response work for me in addressing my local crime problem?

Crime is too complex to state with absolute confidence that a given response will work in every place and every time. Context matters.

What you can do is gauge the plausibility of your selected responses and assess whether they make sense, based on what is known about your local problem. Because we cannot be sure that a given intervention will work, evaluation is important.

See the interventions in our crime reduction toolkit for potential suitable responses for your problem.

Response checklist

Before moving on to the assessment stage, check that you have considered the following questions.

  1. Have you consulted existing sources of evidence about what is effective and ineffective for addressing the kind of crime problem you are focusing on?
  2. Have you decided on one or more promising pinch points in relation to your local crime problem? Do the proposed responses align with these pinch points? Put differently, are your responses justified based on what was learned through scanning and analysis?
  3. Have you devised one or more logic models describing how the proposed responses are expected to reduce the identified problem, as well as possible unintended (desirable and undesirable) side effects that might arise following your activities?
  4. Have you considered the EMMIE (effect, mechanism, moderators, implementation, economic cost) framework – in particular, the conditions in which the selected responses are most likely to work?
  5. Have you checked that those who need to play a part in implementing and sustaining the chosen responses are able and willing to take the actions, or provide the resources required for the interventions to be put in place?
  6. Have you subjected your initial plans to critical scrutiny by those competent to assess their plausibility and promise?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, then you may need to undertake further work before moving on to the final stage – assessment.

Assessment

Assessment forms the final stage of the SARA problem-solving process. It's evaluation to determine whether the:

  • response has worked out as intended
  • problem has been removed, reduced or unintentionally aggravated

There are two main purposes of assessment in problem solving. Assessment helps:

  • to determine whether a problem persists following the implementation of responses – knowing this can help you decide whether further problem-solving efforts to address the selected problem are needed
  • with learning lessons for the future – understanding your problem-solving efforts can inform your future work and contribute to the wider evidence base about what is and is not effective in your problem

For the first purpose of assessment, it may be enough to know whether your local crime problem is persisting, regardless of whether your problem-solving work was responsible for any observed reductions.

For the second purpose of assessment, we need to know much more, including whether it was what you did that led to a decrease in crime and whether there were any side effects because of your activities.

This approach will help you and others know whether your responses are worth trying when tackling new crime problems.

Meeting the second purpose of assessment is challenging and will vary in its level of complexity depending on the:

  • scale of your local crime problem
  • nature of the responses implemented
  • skills and resources available

It is important to decide early in the problem-solving process what the purpose of the assessment is.

Deciding this has implications for what you do in other parts of the SARA process.

For example, if you are aiming to learn lessons for the future, you will need to start planning your measurements before any responses are put in place.

If you find that numbers of knife-enabled robberies have declined and then look for the evidence that what you did was responsible for those falls, it risks producing biased findings.

Assessment checklist

Consider the following questions.

  1. Have you decided on the purpose of your assessment? Is it to work out whether the identified problem has been reduced or removed, or is it to determine whether your selected responses were responsible for any observed changes in your identified problem?
  2. Have you developed a theory of change (logic model) of how your responses are expected to reduce the selected problem?
  3. Following the EMMIE model, have you devised methods to measure the effects of your response?
  4. Following the EMMIE model, have you devised methods of capturing information about hurdles to implementing your response and what was done to overcome those hurdles?
  5. Following the EMMIE model, have you devised methods of capturing information about the costs and cost benefits of your selected responses?
  6. Have you worked out when and how you will provide feedback to those delivering the response?
  7. Have you worked out what form your final report will take in terms of sections, tables and figures?
  8. Using the evidence you have collected, are you able to explain:
    • the problem?
    • why you selected that problem (from a range of other candidate problems)?
    • why the selected responses were chosen and how they were expected to work in your local area against the selected problem?
    • what was implemented in practice?
    • the obstacles encountered in delivering your response?
    • whether and how these obstacles were overcome?
    • the total cost of the response?
    • the outcomes overall and by subgroup?

If you answered ‘yes’ to all of the questions above, then you are ready to write up your findings and share them with others.

References 

  • Clarke RV and Eck J. (2003). 'Become a problem-solving crime analyst: In 55 small steps.' Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science. London: University College London. 
  • Eck J. (2003). ‘Police problems: The complexity of problem theory, research and evaluation’. Crime Prevention Studies, 15, pp 79–113.
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