Printer Friendly

Problem-Solving Policing Eliminating Hot Spots.

In a small town in Pennsylvania, a local park that was once a safe, quiet area that local residents and children used for recreation became the object of repeated calls for police service. Many of the complaints involved vandalism and substance-abuse-related offenses. For example, drug dealers and juveniles terrorized elderly residents in an adjacent apartment complex and destroyed property owned by citizens living in the area surrounding the park. The vandalism appeared to result directly from abuse of alcohol and other drugs. Also, the littered appearance of the park area and the overgrown shrubs that hid an adjacent railroad property encouraged these deviant behaviors. As a result, this area served as a crime "hot spot" for drug abuse and sexual activity that, in turn, helped generate a fear of crime among residents.

Using the SARA (scanning, analysis, response, and assessment) model of problem solving, law enforcement agencies can address crime in particular areas of a community. The SARA model helps police reduce the crime rate, as well as the fear of crime among citizens.


In recent years, the philosophy of community-oriented policing has gained a significant position in American law enforcement procedures. The strategic planning process for the philosophy remains the problem-solving policing model of SARA.(1) These problem-solving strategies focus on crime generators and hot spots that plague law enforcement agencies in the United States. Specific problem-solving activities to eliminate these hot spots include working with citizens through such programs as Neighborhood Watch and coordinating with potential "guardians" (e.g., local business owners and residents) to increase surveillance and territorial control. Law enforcement agencies base SARA solutions to hot spots on information obtained from citizen and crime prevention surveys.

Why focus on hot spots? Residential locations can generate as much as 85 percent of the repeat calls for service. Moreover, research indicates that in many communities, more than 50 percent of the calls for service come from only 10 percent of the locations.(2) Identifying these hot spots through crime analysis and crime-specific planning can lower the level and the fear of crime.


Why are crime prevention surveys and crime-specific planning important? Community involvement remains the essential ingredient for reducing the fear of crime. Crime prevention surveys provide core information concerning criminal behavior for police patrol and Neighborhood Watch programs. After developing criminal intelligence, police officers can use this information as the foundation for coordinating community programs. Without the development of accurate criminal information, little opportunity exists for planned citizen involvement or successful tactical strategies. Moreover, only when agencies conduct the assessment of the present condition (where is the department now?), can they project its future status (where is the department going?). Therefore, prevention represents an ongoing process that requires planning strategies, implementing responses, evaluating effectiveness, and modifying approaches.

Crime prevention surveys gather information that can help police officers eliminate the motives, opportunities, and means for individuals to commit crimes. This information provides officers with the exact times and kinds of offenses committed, the offenders' methods of operation, the targets of attack, and the crime generators and hot spot locations. Further, crime prevention surveys can determine the underlying causes of crime, aid in eliminating opportunities for offenders to detect victims or criminal targets, and assess situations based on individual needs.

After gathering this information and carefully analyzing the problem and causative factors, officers can implement appropriate responses. For example, they can pinpoint hot-spot locations through computer mapping and photographs. Then, they can outline the problem by numbering the offenses, plotting the times and places crimes occurred, and noting the techniques used to commit the crimes. Finally, by establishing goals and priorities to determine where they need police patrols, officers can attack these hot spots in an effective and efficient manner.

Although similar to problem-oriented policing, crime-specific planning approaches crime problems by considering the underlying factors that characterize each type of offense.(3) Crime-specific planning aids problem-oriented policing by using proactive measures aimed at protecting citizens and property. For example, law enforcement agencies task police personnel and allocate equipment based on crime analysis results and crime-specific programming. Also, crime analysis can improve community relations by graphically illustrating criminal patterns to citizens' crime watch programs. The SARA model expanded on these early strategies by examining the geographical, cultural, and economic aspects of the hot-spot location, along with the relationship between the victim and the offender.


Officers must understand the actions and interactions among offenders, victims, and the crime scene before developing appropriate responses. Criminal intelligence information gathered in crime prevention surveys serves as the foundation for this analysis. However, the intelligence process also includes analysis and dissemination of criminal information.

A crime cannot occur without the presence of the three elements that form a crime triangle: the offender, the victim, and the crime scene or location.(4) Accordingly, crime analysts must discover as much as possible about all three sides while examining the links between each. By asking who, what, when, where, how, why, and why not about each side of the triangle, as well as observing the way these elements interact, analysts can understand what prompts certain crime problems.(5)

Law enforcement agencies use crime potential forecasts to attempt to determine future crime events. Forecasting depends primarily on historical analysis of cyclic, periodic, or specific events. The historical data can explain the context of the present and anticipated crimes while focusing on problem locations. Officers benefit from using spot maps and computers when targeting crime sites and time frames from past experience and criminal information. Data from crime series and pattern analysis can provide assistance when estimating future target locations and times. For example, analysis of the neighborhood spatial, cultural, and psychological characteristics may produce valuable crime-specific information. Spatial analysis generally focuses on a small geographical area and includes physical, demographic, and crime history characteristics. Blocking out on a map neighborhood areas that have a frequency of crime occurrences shows where most illegal acts occur and subsequently targets these locations and the levels of crime intensity. The criminal analyst then applies the techniques of spatial analysis and crime templating.

Determining Spatial Relations

Criminals do not move randomly through neighborhoods - a predictable pattern usually exists. A criminal who is motivated to commit crimes uses cues to locate, identify, and target sites and hot spots. Experience provides the offender with serial cues associated with environmental opportunities and risks. For example, familiarity with a neighborhood reinforces criminal patterns, a process often referred to as cognitive mapping or mental imaging. Consequently, offenders plan potential crimes and make decisions based on template information.(6) Designated hot spots provide criminals with mental images for safe havens - places where criminals feel they can commit crimes with less chance of detection.

Microanalysis of criminal behavior links this criminal conduct to geography. This type of analysis represents the processing and selection of mental cues and images selected by the offender. Therefore, police leaders use templates to understand offender patterns and predict likely courses of action.

Identifying Crime Templates

Crime prevention surveys also can assist in identifying the criminal mindset or template. Templates provide a means for continuous identification of offenders and their vulnerabilities. The templates can help reveal travel patterns and methods of operation and help officers predict how and where offenders may select activities and crime sites. The hot spots serve as focus points for analysis and crime prevention responses. In summary, templates have several advantages. They help 1) estimate locations where critical events and activities might occur, 2) identify victims and crime scenes, 3) project time-related events within crime sites or hot spots, 4) present mapping techniques, and 5) determine a guide for tactical decisions and proactive patrol allocations. While a template may be unable to predict exactly when and where a criminal will strike next, it provides information that can help police choose appropriate courses of action. For example, in many instances, police officers have determined that templates indicate that crimes often occur only short distances from an offender's residence.

Travel Distance

Offenders gain template knowledge from familiar environmental experiences (e.g., living in a certain geographical area). Most property crimes, such as vandalism, are committed within 2 miles' travel distance of the offender's residence. Yet, offenders may avoid targets closer to home because of the risk of apprehension. Opportunity, reward, and fear of arrest determine the difference between "good" and "poor" crime hot spots.7 An area that provides cover and concealment represents a favorable hot spot, whereas a well-lit, heavily patrolled area would prove a poor choice for criminal activity.

Analyzing Crime Data

In the park case study, police officers found that crime-specific analysis and crime templates showed that the pattern of criminal behavior was restricted to a small geographical area. Crime statistics revealed a history of offenses surrounding the park. The data indicated that the offenders moved to and from an adjacent jurisdiction, often using a bridge joining the two areas.

The offenders and the victims remained close in time and space - only a walk of a distance of fewer than 400 yards. Mapping techniques traced the offenders to a particular residential area fewer than 2 miles from where they lived.

In this case, the juveniles obtained their alcohol or other drugs and then hid in the overgrown brush along the railroad tracks. This secluded hot spot was adjacent to the bridge and park. The unkempt vegetation obstructed the local residents' view, making natural surveillance impossible. Illegal activities remained undetectable by anyone passing through the area, thereby creating a hot spot. The guardians were unable to view the area and engage in surveillance. Poor park maintenance contributed to the destruction of the social environment. Crime template analysis revealed that when youths used alcohol and other drugs, they committed more crimes. This social disinhibitor, alcohol, prompted them to target victims and engage in criminal behavior. An ideal crime site or safe haven reinforced these behaviors. A minimal risk of apprehension existed; therefore, the crime site continued to serve as a hot spot.


Crime-specific analysis and crime prevention surveys can systematically appraise the social and geographic features of a hot spot and safe haven. For example, in the case study, crime analysis revealed that sellers and buyers could monitor the approach of the police officers or individuals who might report illegal activities. The physical terrain and geography provided an awning for drug transactions. Moreover, offenders created several escape routes by opening holes in the surrounding park fence. After acquiring relevant accurate information, law enforcement officers developed numerous proactive responses.

Law Enforcement Responses

In the case study, law enforcement agencies developed and implemented several countermeasures based on crime prevention survey responses: 1) installing closed-circuit television surveillance cameras, 2) repairing damaged fences, 3) improving lighting, 4) locking the park fence during the evening hours, 5) limiting access, and 6) posting and enforcing such signs as "Park Rules and Regulations." In addition, pruning the shrubbery around the park and creating a defensible space improved natural surveillance. These corrective actions gave a visible warning that the police and local residents cared about the park and were determined to abolish criminal behaviors. For example, youthful offenders used a pay telephone to page drug dealers. However, with the cooperation of the telephone company, officers had the telephone booth removed. Coordination with railroad authorities helped eliminate overgrown vegetation that blocked public view. Officers also contacted the guardians with the best view and encouraged them to report suspicious activities in the park and surrounding railroad area.

The emphasis on crime analysis and proactive patrol reduced the need for redundant calls for service. Crime-specific planning improved tactical responses and freed patrol officers to respond to emergency situations more effectively. Spatial analysis and crime templates served as the foundation for identifying hot spots and patrol techniques in this community.

The concept of random patrol proved less productive than employing direct-deterrent patrol and target-oriented patrol. The department changed patrol coverage based on offender location and crime site. In the case study, direct-deterrent patrol and target-oriented patrol provided the best strategies. Direct patrol differs from traditional patrol methods because patrol officers perform certain specific, predetermined preventive functions. Patrol movements are planned on the basis of crime-specific planning and systematic procedures. Officers perform preventive activities on the basis of spatial analysis, crime incidents, offender characteristics, methods of operating, and offender templates. For example, in some geographical areas, foot and bicycle patrols have several advantages because of terrain.

With target-oriented patrol, when officers are not responding to calls, they may monitor particular routes to interrupt criminal patterns developed under analysis and crime-specific planning. Agencies target high-risk areas and certain types of crimes using location- and offender-oriented patrol.

Victim Responses

The level and fear of crime lessen after communities successfully establish Neighborhood Watch and other community programs. Citizens feel safer when crime prevention initiatives give them an opportunity to become involved in their communities. Police departments can strategically employ bicycle and foot patrols, as well as coordinate with parents to determine their willingness to cooperate with nearby guardians. Police presence and high-profile tactics help reduce the fear of criminal behavior.

A crime newsletter and ongoing communication between the police and citizens proved beneficial to community residents in the case study. For example, in addition to the strategies discussed, monthly neighborhood meetings addressed accurate crime statistics and steps taken to improve the situation. Cooperation and communication between the police and local residents resulted in a reduction of crime, as well as the fear of crime.

Offender Responses

The police discovered that the same group of individuals committed a series of related crimes. Several unique, repeated incidents (e.g., ringing doorbells of residents who lived in the immediate park facility) identified specific group activities. Crime-specific analysis revealed that alcohol and other drug- and party-oriented activities became the common denominators for these acts. Psychological disinhibitors such as alcohol and other drugs often facilitate vandalism. These ingredients undermine social or moral inhibitions and impair judgment and restraint, making offenders less aware that they are breaking the law. Corrective actions (controlling drinking in public and semipublic areas) limit these factors.

In addition, during the summer, teenagers who do not participate in meaningful activities have too much leisure time and become bored. As a result, they loiter at many community locations and have more opportunities for criminal activities. The creation of summer recreation programs may assist in more productive leisure activities for these youths. Coordination with the parents, school district, and recreation department may provide some solutions.


When agencies design community crime prevention programs, they often neglect the assessment process, which measures the intervention results concerning the level and fear of crime. Statistical analysis of citizen surveys will help determine successful interventions. In the case study, the evaluation phase consisted of a preassessment that provided information on hot spots and a postresponse assessment designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the policing tactics.

Moreover, prevention programs generally fail to address the effect of the program outside the target area. In the case study, areas external to the park served as control groups and receive comparison with the target area. The results of the intervention effort showed that the level of crime tended to shift away from the park to areas where other law enforcement departments have not implemented crime prevention efforts.

A decreased level of crime that can be measured by such factors as lower levels of vandalism and drug abuse will provide the most dramatic indicator of the program's success. Another indicator of success is the level of the fear of crime. In the case study, a decrease in the fear of crime among individuals living near the park after the department implemented crime prevention measures indicated successful problem solving.

Agencies should not displace the problem to another area. In the case study, the problems in the park could move to a nearby jurisdiction across the bridge. Crime displacement - the movement from the crime hot spot to alternate crime sites - an occur in certain areas, by time, method of attack, victim of attack, and change of criminal offense. Departments must consider displacement when evaluating crime prevention programs.


Crime prevention requires constant vigilance and thorough, crime-specific planning. A crime prevention survey provides the basic tool for accomplishing these goals. This tool assists police leaders in identifying hot spots and crime templates. Crime analysis allows police leaders to become proactive. The strategic planning and anticipation of events can produce valuable tactical information. The SARA model can assist law enforcement agencies by focusing on specific problem-solving approaches.

Accurate criminal intelligence remains essential to the process of analysis and the ultimate success of problem-solving policing. Once departments acquire the necessary data, they can develop and implement analyses and tailor-made responses to eliminate one or all of the sides of the crime triangle - the offender, the victim, and the location of the crime.

In a time of diminishing resources, the police must learn to do more with less. The cost of crime prevention is minimal; however, the opportunities and rewards are optimal.


1 H. Goldstein, Problem-Oriented Policing (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990), 32.

2 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, "Neighborhood-Oriented Policing in Rural Areas: A Program Planning Guide," August 1994, 44.

3 B.D. Cummings, "Problem-Oriented Policing and Crime-Specific Planning," The Chief of Police, March 1990, 63.

4 Supra note 2.

5 W. Spellman and J.E. Eck, "Sitting Ducks, Ravenous Wolves, and Helping Hands: New Approaches to Urban Policing," Public Affairs Comment (Austin, TX: School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, 1989).

6 Ibid., 344.

7 Ibid., 343.

Dr. Loreen Wolfer serves as an assistant professor in the Sociology/Criminal Justice Department at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Assistant Professor Thomas E. Baker teaches in the Sociology/Criminal Justice Department at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania

Officer Ralph Zezza is the director of police services in the West Pittston, Pennsylvania, Police Department
COPYRIGHT 1999 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Zezza, Ralph
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Previous Article:Responding to Individuals with Mental Illness.
Next Article:The Benefits of Scent Evidence.

Related Articles
Small departments and community policing.
The SPARC task force: Solving Problems and Restarting Communities.
Neighborhood service team.
Implementing change: community-oriented policing and problem solving.
Lasting impact: maintaining neighborhood order.
The comprehensive care model.
Community policing: the process of transitional change.
Police training in the 21st century.
Police Eliminating Truancy: A PET Project.
Community Mobilization.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters