Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Researching a Problem

Tool Guide No. 2 (2005)

by Ronald V. Clarke and Phyllis A. Schultze

Introduction

Problem-oriented policing focuses, one-by-one, on specific problems of crime and disorder with the intention of identifying and altering the particular factors giving rise to each problem. The problems addressed in problem­oriented policing tend not to be confined to just a few police jurisdictions, but are more widely experienced. It is therefore likely that some other agency has tried to solve the kind of problem that you are dealing with now. Or perhaps some researcher has studied a similar problem and learned things that might be useful to your work. You could save yourself a lot of time and effort by finding out what they did and why. In particular, you can learn which responses seemed to be effective and which were not. So long as they made available a written report of their work, this guide will help you discover what they did.

Having found out what others have done, you cannot simply copy what they did. You will have to adapt any successful responses they used to your own situation. This guide does not tell you how to analyze and understand your own problem. It will only help you to profit from the work of those who have dealt with a similar problem. It is designed to take you as quickly as possible to the information you need and to help you evaluate and make the best use of this information. In doing this, it assumes:

† See Weisel (2005) for a comprehensive treatment of analysis.

  • You are familiar with problem-oriented policing. The guide assumes that a problem-solving model, such as SARA (Scanning, Analysis, Response, Assessment), is guiding your project. The guide will assist you at the Analysis and Response stages by pointing you to the possible cause of the problem you are tackling and to the ways you might respond.
  • You are wiling to consider new responses to the problem. Rarely does police enforcement alone solve a persisting problem. To bring a lasting improvement, it is almost always necessary to modify the conditions giving rise to the problem, such as a lack of security or surveillance. Whatever measures you adopt must be carefully matched to the nature of your problem. Many of the measures are likely to be outside your experience and, indeed, that of most police officers. So, you need to learn about the ones that have been successfully used before in dealing with the kind of problem you face. While it is not usually recommended that a police agency blindly adopt another agency's responses to a problem, neither is it a good idea to be blind to what others have done. The key is to understand whether lessons learned elsewhere would apply under the conditions that exist for your problem.
  • You have limited time. The guide assumes that you have limited time to research best practice and that you want results quickly. You are not writing an academic paper where you might be faulted for missing a particular article or book. You are simply trying to find information that will help you with the practical task of dealing with your problem. For this reason, the guide does not provide a comprehensive description of all information sources, whether on the Internet or in libraries. Rather, it is intended to help you find two main categories of information relevant to your task: (1) articles by researchers who have studied the problem you are facing and, (2) reports of police projects dealing with the problem. The first category of information will help you understand the factors giving rise to your problem; the second will help you find effective responses. Later in the project, you might wish to search for a third category of information: detailed information about a particular response (say, street closures or a publicity campaign) that you would like to implement.

    † Comprehensive descriptions are provided by Benamati et al. (1998) and Nelson (1997).

  • You are not writing a formal literature review. The guide will not include guidance about writing up the results of your literature search, but it will provide some advice about reading the material you find and extracting the information you need.
  • You have Internet access. Nowadays, it is very difficult to research a problem without having access to the Internet. The guide assumes that you have this access and that you are familiar with searching for information on the Internet. (Indeed, you might have found this guide on the Internet.) The computer you use will need a copy of Adobe Reader, which allows you to read and download articles in portable document format (.pdf) that you find at websites on the Internet. Unless your computer has a high speed connection, this process of visiting websites and reading and downloading material can be slow and frustrating. Most computers in libraries have high speed connections and you can usually pay to obtain print copies of the material you have downloaded.

    † Can be downloaded from www.adobe.com

  • You have library access. The guide assumes that you have access to a large public library, or preferably a university or college library. Not only do these have computers linked to the Internet, but they also have paid subscriptions to some on-line sources of information that can be particularly helpful in your research. In addition, college or university libraries hold large numbers of books and journals that contain information that may be very relevant to your needs, especially if they have a criminal justice program. They also have professional librarians who can point you in the right direction and save you hours of work.

The guide recommends a particular sequence of steps to take in searching for material, which should lead you as quickly as possible to the information you need. Even so, unless you are lucky and hit upon the right material quickly, you can expect to spend many hours on the Internet or in the library. For most problems, there is relatively little available literature, and finding relevant articles and reports can be difficult. Rarely will all the information you need about your problem be in one place unless it happens to be the subject of one of the Problem-Oriented Guides for Police Series. More usually you will have to piece together items of information from a variety of sources. At first, you should concentrate on understanding the factors that give rise to the problem. Later, you might concentrate on what others have done to reduce the problem. You might have to repeat your search as you narrow down the material you are seeking or as you need to find out more about particular aspects of a promising response. So, don't expect to complete your search all in one sitting. Instead, you might have to return to your computer or the library several times before you have assembled the information you need.

The Best Place to Start

The Problem-Oriented Guides for Police Series is the best place to look for background research on a variety of common crime and disorder problems. Each guide summarizes the best available research on the causes of a particular problem, and also provides a blueprint for analyzing and responding to the problem. Guides have been published on such topics as drug dealing in privately-owned apartment complexes, thefts of and from cars in parking facilities, and burglary of single-family homes. Guides are continually being produced, and are available online through the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at www.popcenter.org and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at www.cops.usdoj.gov.

Defining Your Problem

You will greatly reduce the time spent searching for information if you tightly define your problem. Let us say that you are dealing with a rash of vehicle-related thefts in your town. An Internet search on "car theft" could yield hundreds of "hits" or sources. It would take too long to scan through all these sources to find the ones most relevant to your particular problem. It is like a crime investigation with too many suspects, not too few! So it is important that you focus more tightly. What kind of car theft are you dealing with: Is it both thefts of cars and from cars, or is it just theft of cars? Try to focus on the largest component of your problem. If it is theft of cars, where are these cars being stolen–from the downtown area, from the suburbs or from university campuses? If from downtown, are most of the thefts from the street or from parking lots? If from parking lots, are these public or private, or from surface lots or decks. And so on.

Making your search too narrow (for example, "joyriding thefts from downtown lots at night,") might yield no useful literature because nobody has undertaken a study on precisely this topic. So even if this defines your problem exactly, you might have to broaden your search a little to find some relevant literature. For example, searches for "car thefts from parking lots" or "juvenile joyriding" might yield articles or reports that begin to help you understand your problem and begin to suggest some possible responses, even if most of what you find is not directly relevant.

There are few firm rules about defining your problem to make your search efficient, though it is usually best to begin with a tight definition and broaden this progressively until you have begun to find relevant material.

Formulating Search Terms

Having defined your problem clearly, you will then need to formulate a search term for use in searching online databases and website search boxes for relevant material. Make a list of words that come to mind when you think of your topic. These will be the "keywords" that you use for your search term. In doing this, think about words with similar or identical meanings. Think also about alternative spellings, especially British spellings ("behaviour" instead of "behavior," "organisation" instead of "organization," etc).

Your search will probably be an evolving process. You may need to revise your search term as you find out more about your topic. Keep a record of your search terms (with words or phrases exactly as entered), the name of the databases that you used, and the date of your search. Don't waste time figuring out the same thing twice!

Sometimes a search can be overly general (which results in too many hits) or overly specific (too few hits). To fine­tune your search, you can use: (1) phrases, (2) Boolean operators, and (3) truncation symbols:

  • Phrases. Phrase searching is searching for words adjacent to each other (e.g., automobile theft; problem­oriented policing; crime prevention). Searching for phrases is a powerful technique for focusing precisely on the topic you want, because it excludes records with separated and irrelevant keywords. Not all electronic resources, however, support phrase searching.
  • Boolean operators. You can use AND, OR and NOT (sometimes called Boolean operators) to link your search words together (use capitals for these operators). These will help you narrow or broaden your search to retrieve the information you need quickly.
    • Using AND: If you have a search term that is too general, you can append several terms together using AND (e.g., police AND prevention AND burglary). By stringing key terms together, you can further define your search and reduce the number of results.
    • Using NOT: To narrow a search, you can link words together by using NOT (e.g., burglary NOT robbery). This will help you to filter out specific topics you do not wish included as part of your search.
    • Using OR: To broaden a search, you can link synonyms together by using OR (e.g., cars OR automobiles OR vehicles). Linked by this operator, your words are searched simultaneously and independently of each other. When using both OR and AND in a search, use parentheses to enclose the words you are linking with OR. Examples would be:
      • burglary AND (police OR law enforcement),
      • and (juveniles OR teenagers) AND joyriding.
  • Truncation symbols: Most databases allow use of a truncation symbol that is used to pick up words with variant spellings. The most commonly used symbols are * and ?. For example: burglar* will find burglar, burglars, burglary and burglaries.

The websites listed in the next section (and many others) have a search box, usually on the home page, which helps you find relevant material quickly. In some cases, the search box comes with a tutorial or specific instructions in its use, which you should always read.

Refining Your Search

As you begin to search, you may find that you are getting either too many hits (your search is too broad) or too few (your search is too narrow). In these cases you will want to broaden or narrow your search.

Broadening Your Search

  • Try using synonyms and think of keywords that are more general.
  • Try using fewer keywords. The more words you use, the more specific you become, and the fewer number of hits you will get. If you use fewer keywords your focus is widened, and you should get more hits.
  • If you do need to search using a number of words, search them individually (or possibly in pairs) first.
  • Use the "or" operator and truncation * symbol.
  • Use lower case, even for proper nouns. This will broaden your search.

Narrowing Your Search

  • Be more specific. Evaluate your keywords and synonyms. Can you use more specific words to describe your topic?
  • Capitalize when appropriate. Some search engines are case sensitive. Use appropriate capitalization when you need to focus your search precisely.
  • Use AND. The Boolean operator "and" will limit your search to only those occurrences that include both terms, not just one or the other.
  • Use phrases.
  • Try using NOT. The Boolean operator "not" narrows the search by excluding certain words.