Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Using Offender Interviews to Inform Police Problem Solving

Tool Guide No. 3 (2005)

by Scott H. Decker

Usar as Entrevistas aos Ofensores na Resolução de Problemas Policiais (Portuguese) PDF

Introduction

There is a long tradition in criminal justice research of interviewing active offenders, but very little of this research has focused specifically on police problem solving. This is unfortunate because active offenders provide substantial amounts of information about each of the elements of the crime triangle: victims, offenders, and places. Such information should prove useful for strategic problem-solving interventions, because it yields information about crime patterns in general that may not be obvious when examining one case at a time. The information from such interviews may enhance existing problem-solving projects or generate new ones. The information can also improve officer safety.

The distinction between offenses and offenders is important because it highlights the two different kinds of knowledge–strategic and tactical–that can be gleaned from interviews of active offenders. You can learn about one important leg of the crime triangle by studying offenders. Information from such interviews provides important tactical information for responding to one specific individual or specific patterns of behavior. Such information is useful in responding to that individual and others who may behave like this person. Studying offenses provides information of strategic value for responding to patterns and trends in general. This guide attempts to bridge the gap between police and researchers by underscoring the common purposes both groups have, and pointing out the problem-solving value to be gained from interviewing active offenders.

Information from active offenders is particularly important because in some cases, it comes from offenders who have not been caught. In other cases, information from active offenders can inform you about offenses other than those for which the offender was arrested. Robbery provides an excellent example. Interviews with active armed robbers revealed that these offenders experienced a large number of victimizations that they did not report to the police.1 Often these victimizations were retaliation for earlier robberies and sometimes produced an escalating series of crime sprees. However, these victimizations have implications for the broader community because these offenders often "take matters into their own hands" and retaliate for their victimization, harming innocent members of the community, making the community less safe in general, and greatly increasing fear of crime. This is a key element of the SARA model as it more fully elaborates on the nature of crime problems and their genesis.

This guide falls into two parts. The first part provides a summary of the most important findings from offender interviews, while the second provides concrete recommendations on how to set about conducting offender interviews for problem-oriented policing projects.

What Offender Interviews Have Found

Much is known from offender interviews conducted in prison. There is some evidence that active offenders have different patterns of offending and different perceptions; they may be more forthright and provide more valid information than offenders in prison or jail.2 There is a large and growing body of evidence regarding how active offenders perceive their tactics, motives, targets, and offense patterns.

Research with active offenders has focused on five categories of offenders:

  1. drug dealers and users,
  2. residential burglars,
  3. armed robbers,
  4. gang members, and
  5. gun offenders.

This guide highlights key findings from these interviews that apply directly to problem-solving. The central finding from this work is that the context of offenders' lives–their lifestyles–are important to understand their offending. Interviews with active offenders consistently underscore the role that their values, relationships, and activities play in their involvement in crime. These key findings provide a foundation for implementing strategies to interview active offenders.

Drug Dealers and Users

There is a large body of research with drug users and drug dealers. One study focused on serious heroin drug users in New York City.3 The researchers interviewed and observed heroin users in flophouses, street corners, cars, and

treatment centers in an effort to put the users and their lifestyles into a broader context. They examined the reasons for drug use, the search for drugs, and the experience of being "high." Many of the heavy heroin users held jobs, kept relationships together, and met a variety of social obligations. This broader context of lifestyles and values can yield clues about behavior and associations that can help you better understand how offenders structure their lives and mix offending with more conventional lifestyles. Such understanding can lead to more effective policing, through Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) as well as problem-solving.

Two examples illustrate this important point:

  • First, even the most serious drug users have significant involvement in other activities, many of which are law­abiding. Interviews with heavy (powder) cocaine users in San Francisco found significant involvement in legitimate activities including careers, families, and neighborhood activities.4 Even among the most serious of drug users, patterns of "normal" life could be found. You can use information such as this to look beyond apparently law-abiding lifestyles, as well as to leverage relationships and reduce drug use by paying more attention to middle and upper-middle class drug use. Most "down and out" drug users retain some commitments to family, neighborhood, or employment. These are important links for problem-solving.
  • Even serious drug users go through periods of abstinence. Drug markets that have dried up, or become too expensive or too uncertain because of violence or police presence often impose these periods of abstinence externally. Nearly as often, however, serious drug users impose abstinence upon themselves, refraining from drug use because they know that they have "hit bottom" or are close to the edge.5 These periods of abstinence–regardless of the source–are opportunities for you to link offenders to services, as well as to use additional problem-solving techniques such as the involvement of probation and parole, drug treatment, and community services. These findings also point to the positive results from drug crackdowns that produce temporary reductions in drug availability. During these periods you–and others–must be willing to link offenders to services.

A researcher working in Harlem interviewed hundreds of Puerto Rican drug dealers.6 He identified extreme poverty, rapid social change, and political and cultural isolation as key forces that lead to drug selling. Many of the drug users and sellers he interviewed shared values consistent with the American Dream: they were highly motivated, ambitious, and enterprising. Officers committed to problem-solving can find ways to involve non­governmental organizations (including faith-based groups), families, and other groups such as drug treatment organizations, job placement services, and community resources to address these issues. These interviews underscore the extremely high levels of victimization experienced by individuals involved in drug dealing, and how that victimization further isolates them from law-abiding roles and relationships. This is the sort of information that you can employ to good advantage.

An important question to emerge from this research is how can police officers engage community services or involve other agencies in the effort to solve these community problems. Here are four suggestions:

  • Work through existing coalitions and task forces. Weed and Seed,7 the Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant (JAIBG) program,8 and Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN)9 are three initiatives that exist in most communities. These initiatives provide both resources and contacts that police committed to problem-solving can employ. Other coalitions may include faith-based and non-governmental organizations currently partnering with police.
  • Engage city, state, and county offices. The use of additional public services (trash, nuisance abatement, code enforcement, social services, child welfare, EMS, fire protection) is an obvious choice here.
  • Involve the family. Decades of research have documented that the family is the single most important institution in preventing and responding to crime. The extent to which you engage families in problem-solving is a measure of the extent to which you have engaged their most important allies in solving problems.
  • Involve the juvenile court. It is well understood that the conditions that create involvement in crime among one family member are likely to be replicated among other family members. By engaging in problem-solving activities with older male siblings in families you may find that such activities pay dividends with younger brothers and sisters.

Interviews with active offenders have been supported by the U.S. Justice Department since the mid-1980s. The National Institute of Justice implemented the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring system10 in the jails and pre-trial detention facilities of the largest cities in America. In this program, recent arrestees provided urine samples for drug analysis, and were interviewed and asked about their drug use, drug treatment, and participation in gangs and drug sales. These data reveal a variety of important findings. First, the interviews offer insights into the diversity of offenses and risky behaviors–including unprotected sex and shared needle use–that arrestees engage in. Second, arrestees are generally truthful about their drug use, particularly when self-reports are compared to urinalysis. Third, these interviews dispel the myths that offenders use a single drug and that drug abuse is confined to a specific category of offenders. In many cities, more than half of all arrestees–regardless of charge–test positive for drugs. Finally, these data reveal that arrestees have a large volume of contacts with the criminal justice system, few of which result in more formal processing. These are lost opportunities for problem-solving and intervention.

Residential Burglars

Research with active residential burglars may offer the most provocative lessons for policing. Three key projects, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, were conducted in Odessa ( Texas),11 Delaware,12 and St. Louis13 using active residential burglars for their source of information. These studies document that residential burglars have a variety of motivations, most of which are linked to their desires to engage in a lifestyle focused on partying and keeping up appearances. These offenders maintain a focus on short-term goals and engage in behaviors that entrap them in more offending.

Residential burglars are both victims and offenders. Their victimization is related to their involvement in offending and is more generally related to their lifestyle. Lifestyle issues have proven important in a number of different cultural and comparative contexts.14 As a consequence, these victimizations should be of interest to you. Few offenders report their victimization to the police. Fear of reprisal, fear of detection, or fear of not being taken seriously all lead to under-reporting of victimization among active offenders. Such under-reporting is often treated with a "wink and a nod" by police, because offenders "got what they deserved." Yet in the case of residential burglars (and other offenders), these victimizations create the motives for new offenses. Some of these crimes are the obvious result of their own offending, as their victims (many of whom are offenders themselves) seek redress outside the legal system to right the wrong that was done to them. By engaging in such behavior, offenders circumvent the criminal justice system and invoke punishment themselves.

Why should anyone care about the victimization of one offender by another offender? One answer to this question would be that such victimizations and the mayhem they create add considerably to community disorder. These studies underscore the diversity of offending that burglars engage in. While each of these studies was focused on burglars, they all found that their subjects were not strictly burglars. These "burglars" also engaged in robbery, drug sales, car theft, and a variety of other offenses. If you see arrested burglars strictly as burglars, you may miss key features of the broader context of offending and lifestyle that may lead you to find the burglar in a drug investigation or a gun case.

Armed Robbers

The findings from research with armed robbers underscore the versatility of offending patterns among robbers, the high levels of victimization among armed robbers, and the role of lifestyle pressures among this group of offenders.

In one study conducted in St. Louis, individuals who robbed drug dealers were interviewed.15 It was found that while robbery is the "purest" of offenses with regard to motive and intent (cash), robbers engage in a variety of other offenses. The robbers interviewed engaged in a number of activities–legal and otherwise–that enmeshed them in a lifestyle that they have difficulty leaving. These individuals also had very high rates of victimization, a pattern similar to that for residential burglars and drug sellers.

In another St. Louis study, it was found that armed robbers also engaged in a number of other offenses including burglary, drug sales, auto theft, and assault.16 A pattern was observed whereby offenders would engage in a minor form of offending, be victimized, and retaliate by engaging in a robbery. This pattern increased their level of offending, both in terms of frequency and seriousness.

Few of these offenders chose to report their victimization to the authorities. The failure to report victimizations clearly was linked to involvement in offending. The conclusions indicate that encouraging offenders to report their victimization is a key to preventing future offending. Lacking legal recourse, many offenders take the law into their own hands, circumventing legal means, and thereby increasing the odds of engaging in additional crime.

Gang Members

Interviews with active gang members have been conducted since the start of the 20th century. Federal funding resulted in a number of studies looking at the impact of policies, the motivations for joining and offending, and potential solutions to the gang problem. These interviews provide a picture of gang members that reinforces that of the drug users and dealers, burglars, and armed robbers.

Gang members engage in a variety of offenses-a phenomenon that researchers call "cafeteria-style offending."17 Cafeteria-style offenders pick and choose from the wide variety of offending options. One week, these offenders may be burglars, the next day they may be robbers, and that afternoon they may steal a car. It is a

mistake to regard such individuals as specialists, yet such perceptions are understandable as you typically see these individuals only with regard to the offense for which they were arrested. It is also clear from this research that gang members experience a large volume of victimizations. Gang membership is also transient. Most youth who join a gang tend to do so for relatively short periods of time. During the periods of time that they are active gang members, their levels of offending and victimization were elevated compared to both their time before joining the gang as well as after leaving the gang.

One of the notable features of gang membership is the level of bragging about gang membership. As stories are told over and over again, they attain "mythic" status. Sorting through the talk and bluster about gang activity becomes an important issue because so much of it is simply that, talk. One way to do this is to bring multiple sources of data to bear on the same issue. In this regard, you would bring as much information to bear on an investigation involving a gang member as possible. This would include school records, parental interviews, juvenile court information, field interrogation cards, division of youth service records, and interviews with family and associates.

Gun Offenders

There have been a number of interviews with offenders involved in firearm use. These studies reinforce what was learned in earlier studies including the versatility of offenders, high levels of victimization, and easy access to firearms.

In one study, nearly1,900 prisoners were interviewed in 10 state prison facilities.18 Fifty percent of the prisoners were classified as gun criminals. Three-quarters of the people interviewed owned at least one gun, and of that group, three-quarters owned handguns. Not surprisingly, a majority of the prisoners had used a gun in the commission of a crime. Most inmates reported that they owned a gun for protection, owned small, inexpensive weapons, and had a preference for large caliber, high quality firearms. It is important to note that informal and illegal means dominated the methods by which inmates obtained guns, and most reported that a gun could be obtained within a matter of hours. This picture of the illegal firearms market is consistent with a view of the street gun scene as very informal, word-of-mouth, and easy to access for offenders. It also reinforces the view that offenders are not easily deterred by the chance of arrest and penalties for illegal possession of firearms.

Interviews of incarcerated male juveniles and inner city males showed that gun possession was common among these groups.19 Not surprisingly, involvement in drug sales had important effects in increasing gun carrying. Self­reports of gun carrying were also high among those not involved in drug sales. Taken together, these reports suggest the importance of monitoring gun acquisition by those at risk for involvement in gun violence either as victims or offenders, even at a young age. Other research supports the conclusion that there are strong relationships between being involved in drug sales, gang membership, and gun ownership and use.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (now the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) initiated a17-city program several years ago. This program was designed to comprehensively trace all crime guns, and provide the results of those traces to local law enforcement officials for better prosecution and enforcement activities. A major part of the initiative was to conduct interviews with all offenders illegally possessing a firearm, as well as their associates. This information was to serve both as background for future investigations, as well as to form a backbone of knowledge for police problem-solving efforts. Interviews revealed that females made many straw purchases for felons who could not purchase a gun, and ATF now includes multiple purchases of firearms made by females as a category of concern.

The Strategic Approaches to Community Safety Initiative (SACSI) was a problem-solving initiative funded by the National Institute of Justice in10 cities to address a local problem of their choice. Based loosely on the approach in the Boston Gun Project, these cities formed task forces, identified gun problems, and formulated strategies to address problems. The majority of cities did choose gun crime as their problem. In Detroit, simple gun possession became a focus for the intervention as problem-solving research demonstrated that individuals charged with carrying a concealed weapon or unlawful use (typically charged as city ordinance violations) often were arrested in more serious assaults as well. Rochester, N.Y. focus group interviews documented the easy availability of guns coupled with the knowledge that gun prosecutions were increasing. Despite this, few offenders reported a willingness to give up their guns, owing to the danger on the streets. Detention interviews conducted in Indianapolis demonstrated that arrestees were familiar with several of the initiatives that had been put in place and were in some ways amenable to the messages about reducing gun carrying. St. Louis detention interviews documented a high level of knowledge regarding gun penalties, particularly the higher penalties imposed by federal prosecution compared to the state of Missouri. When asked whether they feared punishment from the criminal justice system or being caught without their guns on the street, arrestees were evenly split. This finding indicates the need to increase the credibility of the threat of arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment among offenders.

Summary of Findings From Interviewing Offenders

What are the key findings learned from this approach?

  • Offenders are versatile. There are few specialists out there. Most offenders employ a cafeteria-style approach to offending, that is, offenders engage in a variety of offenses and are opportunists. This is particularly important for narcotics investigations where interviews with active offenders have demonstrated that drug offenders are involved in multiple offenses. Indeed, there may be no group that is more versatile than drug­involved offenders.
  • Offending has peaks and valleys. Even the most active offender takes periods of time away from offending. In addition, there are cycles in the offending careers of individual offenders as well as in the overall patterns of offending. These patterns vary by day of week, time of day, nature of companionship, age, gender, and economic conditions.
  • There are several keys to understanding the motives of active offenders. These include partying, keeping up outward appearances, group processes, self­protection and retaliation. Few crimes are committed to meet pressing economic needs such as rent or car payments. Co-offending is a constant to most offending, particularly among youth whose crimes are overwhelmingly committed in a group context.
  • Lifestyle plays an important role in offending. Interviews and observations with active offenders hold the promise of uncovering more of that lifestyle than simply interviewing offenders in prison. In particular, the "code of the street,"20 a set of values about being tough, not backing down, and protecting one's reputation; is much more evident in interviews with active offenders than it is in interviews conducted in prison, or in reviewing police and court records.
  • Victimization among offenders is very high and motivates much offending. There is little loyalty among offenders, many of whom victimize each other or don't partner well with each other for the long term.
  • Offenders do respond to sanctions or the threat of sanctions, but only in a limited way and under certain circumstances. The viability of threats is linked to lifestyle issues and limited rationality. Traditional methods of deterrence rarely work among committed offenders, and innovative techniques such as those used in the Boston Gun Project or the Indianapolis VIPER initiative are necessary.
  • Offender careers have a beginning and an end. Hastening the end, postponing the beginning, and reducing the peaks each require different strategies but each will pay dividends. The age-crime curve comes in to play here, and understanding the lifecycle of offenders is important.