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What are the four steps that serve as the foundation for problem-oriented policing?

Problem-oriented policing is the diagnosis and solving of problems that increase crime risks. It is ideal for use in areas experiencing high crime levels. It focuses on diagnosing and finding solutions to various problems that cause crime. Problem-oriented policing is an approach that can be applied to any crime and disorder problem. 

The term “Problem-Oriented Policing” (POP) was coined by Herman Goldstein in 1979 in his review of policing models. He subsequently recommended changing conventional reactive and incident-driven policing to a proactive model. Goldstein aimed to develop an approach that would allow for greater efficiency and effectiveness in police work, directing police activities toward the single objective of reducing crime. 

He called for the police to:

  • Identify the problems which the public expected to see the police handling
  • Gain a deep level of understanding of the problem 
  • Find a creative and tailor-made response to the problem

Goldstein noted that in devising a response to the problem, the police should consider the following:

  • Preventive action
  • Options that are not entirely dependent on the criminal justice system
  • Developing solutions involving the local community, other agencies, and stakeholders interested in the problem.

Goldstein defined a problem as “a cluster of similar, related, or recurring incidents rather than a single incident; a substantive community concern; or a unit of police business”.

The four key steps in implementing POP are known as the SARA model. This model was devised by John Eck and William Spelman (1987). SARA stands for:

  1. Scanning 
  2. Analysis
  3. Response 
  4. Assessment

The model aims to identify and find ways to overcome the underlying causes of criminal activity rather than just treating the symptoms. 

  1. Scanning
  • Identifying problems causing concerns
  • Checking how frequently the problems occur
  • Verifying whether reported problems are valid
  • Understanding the consequences of the problems for the police and community and the scale of the impact if they remain unaddressed
  • Assessing how long the problems have been occurring 
  • Choosing which problems need closer examination and prioritizing them for urgency

In the scanning phase some reported issues may need to be assessed to understand whether they are valid concerns. For example, some problems may be perceived rather than actual, so that drivers may regularly exceed the speed limit in an area, or it may simply be a perception that they are speeding. For some problems, the data source may also need to be reviewed to identify whether reports of issues are coming from just one resident, and whether other sources of information can back them up.

  1. Analysis
  • Identifying the data which needs to be gathered
  • Identifying resources needed for a better understanding of the problem
  • Carrying out a thorough analysis to understand the events which precede a problem
  • Documenting explanations for the cause of the problem, for example, environmental issues, behavioral issues, or the absence of relevant legislation to enforce a solution.
  • Establishing the current approach to addressing the problem and the strengths and weaknesses of the current response. Understanding why it is not eliminating the problem, who is involved in the current response, and what resources are allocated. 

Data gathered in the analysis stage may include calls for service, demographics data, and statements from community partners, residents, and local business owners.

  1. Response
  • Identifying options for alternative interventions
  • Looking into how other communities have responded to similar problems
  • Selecting the most suitable interventions 
  • Identifying parties responsible for the response plan
  • Implementing the response plan

Community partners, police, and other stakeholders work together to identify the most suitable interventions for reducing or eliminating the problems. This is an opportunity to assess whether other stakeholders need to be involved in the solution and whether referrals need to be made to support services. Factors that will need to be considered when deciding on interventions include how quickly solutions can be implemented, cost, etc.

The response plan needs to be broken down into interventions to be taken by each individual, group, or organization, with objectives and owners recorded for each intervention. 

  1. Assessment
  • Assessing whether the actions were taken as per the response plan
  • Gathering data post-response to compare with pre-response data
  • Measuring the impact of the response to find out whether it had the effect of meeting the plan’s goals and detailed objectives
  • Identifying any new strategies needed to add to the original response plan
  • Continuing to assess the effectiveness of the response plan on an ongoing basis

The review of the response plan implementation should incorporate input from all partners involved in the plan. The first implementation of a response plan will not always eradicate a problem. It is usual for some difficulties to need further work to be addressed more fully. In this situation, the team of partners should revisit the SARA model and decide which steps need to be repeated. Follow-up assessments are helpful to ensure that planned actions don’t slip, and old behaviors don’t start to reappear. 

Essential factors for success

As part of preparing to introduce a problem-oriented policing program, some steps need to be taken, and some conditions need to be met.

Implementation support

For the problem-oriented policing program to be successful, there needs to be buy-in from key stakeholders. 

  • Mid-level and senior managers need to be fully involved and, where necessary, given training on this approach to policing. 
  • Check that the right people are being selected to be involved in the program. It is vital that the community respect and trust the officers who will be taking part in the program. 
  • Secure commitment to the resources required to implement the program. When officers have been allocated to the program, whether full-time or part-time, the program needs to be treated as a priority during those hours. 

Support needs to be consistent and not specific to particular managers. Otherwise, a change of leadership can result in a loss of support for the program, and efforts to implement POP can be in vain.

Skills assessment

As part of implementing problem-oriented policing, there needs to be a skills assessment to review the necessary skills and those currently available within the department. Any shortfall in the expertise required should be filled with training so that officers and support staff have the skills they need and are ready to introduce the problem-oriented policing program. 


If a POP response plan is to be effective, there needs to be a deep understanding of the problems it seeks to address. One of the potential pitfalls of POP is too great a reliance on police data. 

Gathering data on the community from a range of sources, such as community leaders, church leaders, social workers, local business owners, residents, and police officers who have experience serving that area will give a much broader perspective on the problem. This enables the creation of a list of the core problems driving most of the crime in the area and identifies recommended solutions for tackling the problems. 

Examples of services that can be provided under a problem-oriented policing program:

  • Youth outreach, counseling
  • Providing recreational opportunities for young people
  • Mental health support services
  • Providing information about substance abuse support programs and encouraging attendance
  • Arranging shelter for homeless people
  • Establishing charitable support programs, for example, from local businesses

A POP response plan may include a range of crime prevention strategies and tactics, for example:

Increasing the effort required

  • Making it harder for criminals to commit a crime by enhancing security at properties – both commercial and residential in targeted areas. Security measures can include installing suitable gates, fencing, and alarms. 

Raising the risks of being caught

  • Using passive measures, such as restricting entry points to buildings and making them more secure.  
  • Making use of active measures, such as security guards and surveillance systems. Visible policing patrols serve as a deterrent in hotspots. 

Reducing the rewards of criminal activity

  • Introducing initiatives to record serial numbers and mark goods to facilitate the tracking of stolen property.
  • Supporting business owners and residents in concealing or removing valuables from their property to reduce the payoff from a break-in. 
  • Denying gratification by acting promptly to repair vandalized property and paint over graffiti. 

Avoiding provocations

  • Reducing or eliminating potential provocations which might trigger violence, using measures such as crowd control, and policing of disorderly conduct and disputes. 

How effective is POP? 

Many studies have found that when fully implemented, POP programs are successful in tackling a wide range of crimes and reducing levels of offending. There is a measurable reduction in crime in the targeted area compared with areas where POP has yet to be introduced. Assessments have been carried out to identify whether POP programs are simply displacing crime to another location, but these studies have not found any significant evidence to support this. 

In 2020, Hinkle et al. published a review of POP evaluations conducted over several years. The review found that POP interventions significantly impacted crime, with an average 33.8% reduction in crime and disorder in the targeted area or group. There were negligible signs of crime displacement, and instead, there was evidence to suggest crime reduction benefits had spread to other areas. A study by Scott and Clarke, 2020 also found that POP strategies positively impacted the communities where they were implemented. 

Reasons why POP programs are mostly successful 

An ongoing issue is that POP programs are not always implemented fully. This may be for a variety of reasons, such as inadequate resourcing, changes in leadership, or changing priorities. If the key champions of the program leave the organization, in many cases, the POP program will fall apart, and the police department may revert to conventional policing strategies. 

Research has been carried out in situations where POP has yet to be successfully implemented. 

Common reasons why POP programs fail or are not as effective as expected include the following:

  • Lack of cooperation from partners in the POP program
  • Lack of training on what POP involves and how to implement it
  • Inadequate analytical skills and capacity 
  • Limited scanning and analysis performed
  • Inadequate information sharing
  • Over-reliance on police data
  • Lack of senior support
  • It does not fit with the culture of the police department
  • Responses that focus too much on traditional police enforcement
  • Poor assessments of the impact of responses

In 2018 when Goldstein acknowledged receipt of the Stockholm Prize for Criminology, he commented on the sporadic implementation and usage of POP. He described the observation of, “successful efforts to implement POP – when carried out in all of its full dimensions – as episodic rather than systematic; as the results of relatively isolated cells of initiative, energy, and competence”. 

Problem-oriented policing is one of the areas you will gain more knowledge of when you study for an online bachelor of policing. At Wilfrid Laurier University, your Honors BA in Policing program will also cover other models of policing, as well as specializations such as cybercrime and indigenous community policing. As part of your degree course, you will also develop your management and leadership skills, providing you with transferable skills which you will be able to use in other career paths too. The program is entirely online and is taught by experienced officers. It has been developed in partnership with the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. The program consists of ten credits from core police courses and ten elective credits. Police officers with at least one year of professional experience are welcome to apply to join the bachelor of policing program. 

Problem-oriented policing can be a highly effective mechanism for reducing crime and improving relations between law enforcement and the community. However, its success depends on several factors, including a genuine commitment to full implementation of the strategy and response plans, the allocation of adequate resources, and policing being conducted in genuine partnership with the local community and other stakeholders. 

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