The Effectiveness Of Problem-Oriented Policing In Contrast To Community Policing In Reducing Crime


Since the origin of policing in the western world, beginning with Sir Robert Peel and the London Metropolitan Police Department in 1829, policing has transitioned through different eras, each consisting of a myriad of tactics in which police leaders deemed to be relevant and suited for the time. Such varying tactics have received the attention of scholars and researchers, curious as to their effectiveness in reducing crime. Tactics such as, but not limited to, random patrols, rapid response to 911 calls, focus on follow-up investigations, and hot spot policing have all been utilized and examined. This paper will describe Community-Oriented Policing (COP) as well as Problem-Oriented Policing (POP), while examining evidence-based research generally pointing to community policing as an ineffective tactic in reducing crime while examining problem-oriented policing as an effective tactic in reducing crime. In addition, we will compare and contrast both tactics and present reasons contributing to why community policing may have been ineffective in reducing crime, while generally problem-oriented policing tactics has shown to be effective.

Ineffective Approach - Community-Oriented Policing

Community-Oriented Policing (COP) is a law enforcement philosophy comprising three key components: community partnerships, organizational transformation, and problem solving (Gill, Weisburd, Telep, Vitter &Bennett, 2014). Several research findings suggest communityoriented policing strategies have positive effects on citizen satisfaction, perceptions of disorder, and police legitimacy, but limited effects on crime and fear of crime. A study conducted by La Vigne, Fontaine, and Dwivedi (2017) highlights a disconnect between people living in high crime, low poverty areas and police departments, which could impact efforts to effectively utilize community policing to reduce crime rates. The study claims procedural justice, police legitimacy, and an absence of bias are essential elements for community policing. Six cities surveyed in the study found in high crime, low poverty areas that only 28.3 percent of residents agreed the police department was responsive to community concerns, only 28.2 percent agreed the police department prioritized problems most important to the community and only 24.4 percent agreed the police department held officers accountable for wrong or inappropriate conduct in the community. These findings appear problematic in a police department’s quest to build community partnerships in hopes of reducing crime, as departments often depend heavily on the community to identify and apprehend criminals committing crime. A study conducted in the 1970s highlighted the impact of information from citizens, noting; “If information about crimes and criminals could be obtained from citizens, primarily patrol officers, and could be properly managed by police departments, investigative and other units could significantly increase their effect on crime”. Thus, lack of trust between the community and police might impair the effect of COP.

The second key component to community policing, organizational transformation, is arguably the least understood dimension of community policing. This is significant as change is critical to police departments attempting to shift to a community policing model which requires decentralization and trusting in officers to exercise discretion and ultimately trust in their professionalism (Skogan, 2008). Skogan (2008), argues that officers and middle management personnel are resistant to change. In fact, resistance and the power of “revolts” by mid-level managers hindered community-policing projects in several cities (Skogan, 2008). Such resistance and unwillingness to relinquish traditional chain-of-command control can stifle efforts to implement effective community policing strategies that may impact crime eduction. Skogan (2008) further points out that resistance can be so embedded in police departments that the only way top executives can implement innovative policing units is by running them directly from the chief’s office. I found this to be the case while working directly for a Deputy Chief of Police on an initiative aimed at reducing crime surrounding college campuses. This will be discussed later in the paper.

The third component to community policing, problem solving, arguably determines whether a COP initiative will prove successful when the goal is crime reduction. After all, whether it be the officer, the community, or the community and the officer working collaboratively to address a problem, problem solving becomes a major determining factor in whether a solution can be identified and implemented successfully. A study conducted by Sozer and Merlo (2013) found that COP without a clear focus on specific problems has not been found to be effective in reducing crime. Due to the ambiguity and various ways police define COP, it is clear for me to see that agencies and officers might deploy initiatives, and activities, calling them Community Policing, while not addressing a specific problem.

The Effective Approach - Problem Oriented Policing

Unlike Community Oriented Policing, Problem Oriented Policing is generally shown to have a positive impact on crime reduction, especially when deployed in conjunction with hotspot policing. Though it appears additional evidence and research are needed to show where and when problem-oriented policing is effective; generally, POP is found to have a statistically significant impact on crime and disorder. Problem Oriented Policing (POP), unlike COP, requires finding effective solutions to problems, which may or may not involve the community. For example, an officer patrolling his beat in a specified area of town, would be given autonomy to apply POP to an issue or concern. Herman Goldstein’s 1979 model, was elaborated by Eck and Spelman (1987), called the SARA model, a widely accepted model that has become used in the application of POP.

Firstly, the model requires scanning which includes identifying and prioritizing a problem. Secondly, the model requires an analysis, involving the use of several data sources to collect information regarding the problem. For example, one might utilize incident reports, 911 call logs, witnesses, and technological resources to gather intelligence in an effort to prepare for the third phase- response. Response may consist of internal and external resources being allocated to address the problem. For example, the police department’s motorcycle unit, forestry unit, and GDOT may be resources directed in response to a stretch of roadway whereby several fatalities have occurred. The motorcycle officers would respond by enforcing traffic-laws, while the forestry unit may cut down trees causing potential blind spots and GDOT might conduct an assessment as to whether a traffic-light or stop-signs would aid in making the stretch of roadway safer.

Lastly, the fourth and final phase, assessment, requires follow-up and subsequent evaluation of the response. A popular study illustrating the impact of POP in alleviating crime at its root, is a study by Clarke and Goldstein (2000). The study consisted of a detailed analysis of security practices and the risks of theft assessment was made for 25 builders operating in a police services district in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. The prescribed solution to address the root of the problem was to delay installation of appliances until the new owners of the construction properties had taken up residence. The overall impact of the experiment on burglary rates in the district indicated a reduction in compliance thefts by more than 50% compared to the previous two years. This study, along with many others, illustrates the effect of POP on crime.

Moreover, from my personal experiences as a law enforcement officer for nearly ten years, it is clear to see why COP has been generally found to be ineffective in reducing crime, while POP has been found to be effective in reducing crime. I find the COP approach to be “vague and difficult to execute”. I made this observation during my time in the Community Policing Section, as tactics deployed by the unit were broad in range and mostly unmeasurable, as approaches ranged from door-to-door visits, establishing neighborhood watches, community meetings, youth engagement initiatives, foot-patrols, to distributing flyers and brochures. At the time in which these tactics were being used in the unit, I was specifically tasked with serving as the City of Atlanta Police Department’s College Liaison Officer. I found the lack of metrics in place to determine effectiveness to be puzzling. In fact, the approximately fifty police officers comprising the Community Liaison Unit, were simply asked to write narrative reports at the end of each shift discussing their day’s work. And, each day’s work for each officer in the unit was very different. While a hand full of officers spent their days attending panel discussions, forums, meeting with police chiefs, and engaging internal and external resources of the department to address campus and community crime concerns; other officers spent the day conducting directed patrols, playing basketball with children throughout the city, attending community and Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) meetings, randomly patrolling on bicycles, and distributing flyers on a variety of public safety messages, etc.

It appeared that many of my colleague’s work was having an impact on citizen satisfaction and public approval of the Atlanta Police Department; however, there was virtually no way to determine if efforts were working to reduce crime as quantifiable tracking mechanisms were virtually non-existent. During 2012 and 2013, I recall citizen surveys in the Atlanta Police Department indicating higher citizen satisfaction ratings than experienced in the past, which Commanders attributed to COPS unit work; however, we rarely if ever heard reports of COPS efforts serving to reduce crime in communities. In most cases, the statistical reductions in crime were attributed to the zone officers and specialized units that targeted specific areas utilizing heavy enforcement practices. These observations appear consistent with research regarding Community Policing, as a study found COP strategies having a positive effect on citizen satisfaction, perceptions of disorder and police legitimacy, but limited effects on crime and fear of crime (Gill et al., 2014). On the other hand, I observed statistical reductions in crime, by using a problem oriented policing approach in a hot spot area surrounding the Atlanta University Center which led to me receiving an ASIS International Positive Policing Award in May of 2014, while working in the College Liaison Unit. The unit worked diligently to identify specific crime problems in the community. For instance, we identified robbery against college students as a primary issue.

We then worked to gather intelligence from police reports identifying how and when students were being robbed on beats 101 and 401, the beats in which Morehouse College and Spelman College reside. We concluded, after reading incident reports, that students were being robbed primarily who wore school paraphernalia, presented large sums of cash while shopping, presented electronic devices in plain view (i.e. beats by Dre, laptops, iphones, etc.), and took travel routes surrounding campus that were not well lit. After making this observation, my colleagues and I hosted campus-wide informational sessions that consisted of presenting actual case studies, based on Atlanta Police reports, showing how and when the robberies were being committed. In addition, when we were not taking part in panel discussions and forums, we worked within the target area (101 and 401), in plain clothes, making several arrests and engaging internal and external resources such as Georgia Power and Public Works to fix lighting and environmental concerns potentially making it easier to commit robbery.

At the conclusion, the overall crime rate surrounding the AUC was down 17 percent from 2012 to 2013 (Pendered, 2014). Robberies on the north side of I-20 (Beat 101) were down 31 percent during the Fall 2013 semester, compared to Fall Semester 2012. Robberies on the north side of I20 were down 17 percent in the spring 2014 semester, compared to spring 2012. Robberies on the south side of I-20 (Beat 401) were down 39 percent in the fall 2013 semester, compared to fall semester 2012. Robberies on the south side of I-20 were down 15 percent in the spring 2014 semester, compared to spring semester 2012. Here POP was successful as a result of identifying a specific problem and holding ourselves accountable for seeing statistical reductions in crime and reporting directly to the deputy chief who was able to shield us from chain-of- command influence.


In conclusion, I think policy makers can draw from these findings when working on future sentencing reform, as the problem-oriented approach highlights the necessity to eradicate problems at its root, rather than taking a one size fits all approach. Following the initial intention of the Sentencing Reform Act (SFA) of 1984, one of its main purposes consisted of reflecting the seriousness of the offense to promote respect for the law, and to provide punishment for the offense. This purpose reflected in the SFA has not been well executed as incarceration rates and lengthier sentences continue to climb, specifically concerning non-violent drug offenses in the federal prison system.

For example, Michelle Alexander, in her book entitled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, points out homicide offenders account for only percent of the past decades growth in the federal prison population, while drug offenders account for nearly 61 percent of the federal prison expansion. Actions such as mandatory minimum sentencing and the “three strikes” crime bill contribute to such increases in the federal population. These actions are counterproductive to the initial purpose of the SFA, in its aim to reflect the seriousness of the offense in sentencing, as such actions do not focus on punishing violent offenders. In conclusion, it is my opinion that policy makers continue to examine sentencing with a heavy focus on punishing violent offenders rather than non-violent offenders, while using an approach that addresses the root cause of the problem.

09 March 2021
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