2018 POP Conference
November 5–7, 2018
Providence, Rhode Island

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Researching a Problem

Tool Guide No. 2 (2005)

by Ronald V. Clarke and Phyllis A. Schultze


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.

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:

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

Narrowing Your Search

Getting Started: The Five Most Useful Websites

The best way to begin is by visiting the websites described in this section. These websites are the ones most likely to contain the kind of information you are seeking. Not everything on the websites will be of equal interest to you, and the descriptions focus on the sections that you are most likely to find useful. If you find nothing of relevance on these websites, it is unlikely that a more detailed search of the Internet from your computer at home, or the one at work, will yield much useful information, and it may be time for you to visit a library or get some expert help. Before doing that, however, it might just be worth undertaking a general search on the Internet using Google or other search engines, and also searching the electronic archives of some of the major newspapers. The next section of the guide tells you how to do this.

You will save time by visiting the websites in the order they are listed here. You may be tempted to skip the Australian and U.K. websites, but this would be a mistake. Problem-oriented policing is practiced widely in both these countries and many of the crime problems are similar to those in the United States. In fact, crime occurring, let us say in San Francisco, may be more like that in Sydney, Australia, than in a small town in Louisiana or Tennessee. It is also the case that more research has been conducted in the United Kingdom on specific crime problems than in the United States because of different criminological traditions in the two countries.

A Word of Warning

Even with a high speed connection, you may experience numerous problems in connecting to websites, finding your way around them and locating and downloading documents that you know to be there. (Always check the number of pages to be downloaded.) Websites vary greatly in their ease of use and how regularly they are updated and maintained. A good website can deteriorate and a bad one can improve. Many are constantly being redesigned to improve them–but not always successfully. The Internet is also prone to many unexplained glitches and if you cannot gain access to a website or have a frustrating visit on a particular occasion, it can be worth trying again on another occasion.

Center for Problem-Oriented Policing (www.popcenter.org)

Your first Internet stop should be the Center for Problem -Oriented Policing, which is a website developed with funding assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Service (the "COPS Office") specifically to help police undertake problem-oriented policing projects. The website is managed by the same organization that produces the Problem-Oriented Guides for Police Series for the COPS Office. All the guides produced to date can be found here, as well as on the COPS website (see below). The website also has direct links to all the other websites discussed in the section, as well as a number of others.

† When you are searching for information on the World Wide Web, you may find "links" or "hyperlinks" that you can click on that will take you directly to another relevant document on the Web or to another place within the same document where more information related to the word in question can be found.

The first thing you should do is to check whether a guide already exists on your topic. If it does not, you should look at any guides that deal with related topics. For example, say your problem is one of drug dealing in a public housing complex. Assuming no guide on this topic has been written, but guides are available on "Drug dealing in privately-owned apartment complexes" and "Drug dealing in open-air markets," reading these guides might be helpful, even though they are not directly focused on your problem.

You should pay particular attention to the "References" listed near the end to see if there are books or articles you would like to read. Many of the references listed in the guides are available on the website in .pdf format and you can read and download these as well. If they are not on the website, this is because the copyright owners of the article have withheld permission for it to be made available on the website. (See "Visiting a Library" below for information about obtaining the article in this eventuality.)

It is important that you look at other sections of the website, which contain a wealth of other articles and reports. Especially important is the section on "POP Projects and Awards." This section contains hundreds of reports of problem-oriented policing projects submitted over the years for the annual problem-oriented policing awards in the United States (the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing) and the United Kingdom (the Tilley Awards). The website's search engine allows you to search these awards by topic, so you can quickly identify the projects that are likely to be relevant and read or download the reports.

National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) Abstracts Database (http://www.ncjrs.gov/abstractdb/search.asp)

The National Criminal Justice Reference Service is an information clearinghouse created by the U.S. Department of Justice for people involved in research, policy, and practice related to criminal and juvenile justice, and drug control. The "NCJRS Abstracts Database" is the largest collection of criminal justice abstracts in the world. It contains summaries of over 180,000 U.S. and international publications, including federal, state, and local government reports, books, research reports, journal articles, audiovisual presentations, and unpublished research. It contains far more material than the website for the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, though only a small proportion of the abstracts deal directly with problem­ oriented policing or specific crime problems. Even so, it is likely to contain material that will be useful to you.

In some cases the abstracts are linked to the full text of the article or report, which you can read online or download and print. Where reports and articles are not online, some are available free of charge. Many others are available for a small fee. This service is efficient–it generally takes no more than two to three weeks to receive the material. (It usually helps to refer to the NCJ number for each publication you want to order.)

The website includes an "online tutorial" on how to search the abstracts, which will save you time and help you find your material in an efficient way.

The Home Office, United Kingdom (www.homeoffice.gov.uk)

The Home Office is the government department responsible for U.K. internal affairs. It is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Department of Justice and has overall governmental responsibility for crime matters and the criminal justice system, including the police. As you might expect this is a large website with many links and, while you can browse the many sections, it is best to start with a "quick search" using the search box on the home page. You can ask it to search "any words" in your search term, "all words" or "exact phrase." Results will be delivered from three sources:

You can choose to limit your search to any of these three sources. A small summary is given for each entry and you can click on the title to take you to the full document.

A useful section of the website for you to browse is "Research and Statistics." The Home Office sponsors or conducts a large amount of high quality research, much of it dealing with policing and specific crime problems.

Crime Reduction Website, Home Office, United Kingdom

The Crime Reduction website was established by the Home Office to provide a single point of access to U.K. government documents, statistics and legislation relating to crime reduction topics. The search box on the general Home Office website will allow you to search this website, but you should browse its two most important sections– the "toolkits" and the "mini-sites." The toolkits are similar in concept to the Problem-Oriented Guides for Police Series, and are designed to provide practical guidance in dealing with the particular topic covered; the mini-sites bring together key information and new material on topics of concern to the government. The topics covered under both these sections are continually being expanded. The categories of crime covered in the toolkits include: vehicle crime, street crime and robbery, residential burglary, rural crime, racial crime and harassment, trafficking in people, arson, business and retail crime, and public transport crime. Those covered under the mini-sites include: domestic violence, street crime and victimization of college students.

Australian Institute of Criminology (www.aic.gov.au)

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) is Australia's national organization for the study of crime and criminal justice and for the dissemination of information on these subjects. It conducts and sponsors research, holds conferences and maintains a fine library. The website contains many full-text documents and reports. The best way to begin is by searching from the opening page. A short description is provided of each entry yielded by the search. By clicking on the title, you can get a fuller description and you can also download full-text copies of many of the documents. The website also allows you to search the library catalog, which will yield material not accessible through the home page search box. However, little more than the title of the document is listed so this will be of limited value to you.

Other Useful Websites

You may not have found much information directly relevant to your problem at the five recommended websites and you may wish to explore others. Those listed here sometimes contain useful material not available elsewhere and are worth a visit.

Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) (www.cops.usdoj.gov)

The COPS Office provides grants to state and local law enforcement agencies to hire and train community policing officers, acquire and deploy new crime-fighting technologies, and develop and test innovative policing strategies. The website allows you to download or order COPS publications that deal with problem-oriented policing. These can be downloaded or ordered from the website. The Problem-Oriented Guides for Police Series can be downloaded from this site. The COPS website has links to its network of Regional Community Policing Institutes.

Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) (www.policeforum.org)

PERF is a national membership organization of police executives from large law enforcement agencies. Its mission is to improve policing and advance professionalism through research and involvement in public policy debate. The website may be entered as a guest or as a member. It contains POPNet, a searchable database of problem-oriented policing projects, many of which are also included in the "Goldstein Awards" on the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing website.

"Publications and Information Services" lists publications for sale from the "online store" and "public publications" that may be downloaded free.

Community Policing Consortium (www.communitypolicing.org)

The Community Policing Consortium, funded by the COPS Office, is a training and technical partnership of five of the nation's leading law enforcement organizations: the International Association of Chiefs of Police; the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives; the National Sheriffs' Association; the Police Executive Research Forum; and the Police Foundation. Its mission is to deliver community policing training and technical assistance to police departments and sheriffs' offices. The website's "electronic library" contains community policing publications, some of which can be downloaded. It also allows you look for information in back issues of three of the consortium's newsletters: "Sheriff Times," "Community Policing Exchange" and "Community Links."

Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science (www.jdi.ucl.ac.uk)

The Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science at London University is devoted specifically to reducing crime through teaching, research and public policy analysis. The website lists "Crime Science: Short Reports" for practitioners and policymakers concerned with finding ways to reduce crime and disorder. "Ad Hoc Publications" covers a general range of research from the Institute. Some publications are available in full text, while for others only a brief summary is provided.

Police Foundation (www.policefoundation.org)

The Police Foundation conducts a wide range of research projects on a variety of policing issues. The website lists the Foundation's publications under "List and Order Form." A short summary of each publication is provided. Many of the publications can be downloaded free of charge while others can be ordered for a small fee. The "Ideas in American Policing" series and "Crime Mapping News" are also in this section.

International Association of Chiefs of Police (www.theiacp.org)

The largest police association in the world, IACP is dedicated to advancing professional policing. The most useful section of the website is "Publications," which provides current and back issues of "Police Chief Magazine”. Many of the articles are available in full text. A search capability is provided for the periodical, but it is limited to searching only recent issues of the magazine. A second useful section is "Research Center Documents," which contains the full text of many recent reports of the IACP.

RAND (Public Safety and Justice Center) (www.rand.org/research_areas/public_safety)

The RAND Public Safety and Justice center conducts research and analysis on various public safety issues, including: illegal immigration and border control; domestic counter-terrorism, terrorism preparedness, threat and vulnerability management; drug use and prevention; violence prevention; and a wide range of issues relevant to law enforcement. Website publications are arranged by category, or one can search by specific words. Many of the reports can be downloaded free.

FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (www.fbi.gov/publications/leb/leb.htm)

"FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin" is published monthly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The website contains full text of all issues. No search function is available, but you may have found references to articles from this journal when you have used other indexing or abstracting services.

California Commission on Peace Officer Standards & Training (POST) Library (www.post.ca.gov)

The POST Library was established to assist the Commission, staff, and California peace officers in their research efforts. The POST Library database contains citations and brief abstracts for over 48,000 articles dating from the early 1960s. Where possible, links to the full text are included. Keyword searching is possible in the abstract/table-of-contents field. Many of the Command College projects ("futures studies" that are similar to masters' theses) are available in full text on the Internet. Books are loaned directly to POST staff only, but others may borrow materials via interlibrary loan through their local library.

Expanding Your Internet Search from Your Home or Office

Your search of websites is likely to have produced useful articles and reports that you have been able to download and read. It is also likely to have alerted you to the existence of other articles and reports that you were not able to obtain on the Internet. This is the point when you will need to visit a library (see the next section). On the other hand, you might have found very little of value or you may wish to spend just a little more time searching from your home computer or the one at work. To make the best use of your time, there are three things you might consider doing: (1) making a general search of the Internet using Google or similar search engine, (2) searching the online archives of some large newspapers, and (3) searching some online databases.

Searching the Internet Using Google (www.google.com)

Google is considered the premier search tool on the Internet, featuring not only the best web search engine, but also many additional features such as the ability to search .pdf files. To enter a query into Google, just type in a few descriptive words and hit your "enter" key (or click on the Search button) for a list of relevant web pages. These tend to be listed in order of importance as calculated by the number of links to the site.

† The website's uniform resource locator (URL), which is a standard way of identifying website addresses, provides useful information about the provenance of the site and can help you evaluate the information it contains. The suffixes you are most likely to encounter are: .edu = American educational institution; .org = non-profit organization; .gov = organization of the American government; .com = commercial enterprise; .ac = overseas academic institution. The URL may make use of a two-letter country suffix. Those you are most likely to encounter are: ..au = Australia; .ca = Canada; .nl = Netherlands; .se = Sweden; .uk = United Kingdom.

Because Google only returns web pages that contain all the words in your query, narrowing your search is as simple as adding more words to the search terms that you have already entered. Your new query will return a smaller subset of the pages Google found for your original "too­broad" query. Search for phrases by enclosing them in quotation marks. Words enclosed in double quotes ("problem-oriented policing") will appear together in all results exactly as you have entered them. Google also supports the OR operator. To retrieve pages that include either word A or word B, use an uppercase OR between terms (e.g., auto OR cars OR vehicles).

Google has released a new search tool called Google Scholar (www.scholar.google.com) that enables you to search scholarly literature, including peer-reviewed articles, books, and technical reports. A search might lead you to a citation for an article or book (which you will have to obtain from a library) or sometimes to a full text report.

Another Word of Warning

Unlike scholarly books and journal articles, websites are seldom reviewed or refereed. You need to be critical of the information you use when it comes from the Web, because anyone can make a website that looks expert. In general, rely more heavily on those sites sponsored by colleges and universities, government agencies, and professional organizations.

Online Newspaper Archives

Newspapers sometimes print stories about new forms of crime or accounts of police innovations in controlling a particular problem. Indeed, these stories and accounts might reach the newspapers before they reach the professional or academic journals. Newspapers, especially those with a national readership and high standards of reporting, can therefore sometimes be the best source of up-to-date information. These newspapers generally provide free online access to their archives of past issues, although you may need to register first. Some examples are the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune.

Online Databases Requiring a Fee

There are some useful databases that can be searched from your office or home computer, but to use them properly you will have to pay a fee. This can sometimes be a useful alternative to visiting a library (where you can often access the databases without charge).

Getting Advice

You might find that seeking help and advice from some other people can greatly speed up your search. Among those to consider are:

Crime Analysts

If your department is large enough to employ crime analysts, they might help you search the Internet for useful material. This is particularly the case if a crime analyst has been assigned to help with your project. Crime analysts are generally comfortable with using computers and are accustomed to searching for material on the Internet. Recent manuals and other publications for crime analysts have recognized the important role they can play in researching problems for a police department.

† See Velasco (2005) and Weisel (2005).

Other Police Departments

"Cold calling" other police departments is rarely productive, but if your search has revealed that a particular police department has tackled a similar problem, it is worth calling that department. Try to speak to the officers originally involved in the project and try to get a copy of the report if one was produced.

Local College or University Faculty

If your local college or university has a criminal justice program, you might be able to obtain helpful advice on your problem from a faculty member. Do not expect the professor to spend much time on your problem, but he or she might be able to suggest sources for you to explore. Look at the institution's website to find out as much as possible about the interests of the faculty before attempting to contact anyone. If you call and leave a message, be sure that the professor can reach you easily. For anything more than an hour or so of consultation, the faculty member might expect compensation, although some state universities consider assistance to government agencies within that state to be part of their faculty's regular service mission.

National Experts

A particular expert's name might appear repeatedly during your Internet search and it can sometimes be helpful to contact that person by email to ask for advice. Remember that these experts are likely to be very busy people. You should contact them only when you have exhausted other possibilities, and you should only ask them for a specific piece of information that they can provide quickly. Experts cannot be expected to summarize their publications for you. They will not reply to general queries such as, "Any information you can provide about my problem will be gratefully received." When asking for references to useful articles, list those that you have found most helpful to date. The expert will then be able to tell at a glance whether you have missed anything really important, and he or she is more likely to supply the key reference. Do not expect to engage an expert in a prolonged email correspondence unless he or she has invited you to email again.

Visiting a Library

As explained above, you can obtain some articles and reports not available on the Internet through the NCJRS. In some cases you may be able to call or write to the agency or organization that issued the report for a copy. But in most cases, the only practical method of obtaining an article or report not available on the Internet is by visiting a public library or, better still, a university library. Most of them, except the smallest public libraries, have professional librarians to help you locate material and online subscriptions to information sources not available to you at home or work. Since the services available at public libraries and university or college libraries are different, these are discussed separately below.

Public Libraries

The public library serving your town or county might be closer than the nearest university library and has the great advantage of being open to any member of the public. The librarians are also likely to be especially helpful to local police. However, do not expect to find the books or articles you want to read on the shelves of your public library, even if it serves a large city. The material is usually too specialized for a general readership and to find it you will usually have to go to a college or university library. What you can expect to get at any reasonably large public library is personal help from the librarians with your search. You can also expect to find three important resources:

Once you have obtained a library card, you might be able to gain access to the library resources from your home computer, including access to these and other databases.

University or College Libraries

Unless you are enrolled as a student, you cannot always gain access to these libraries. You might expect to be more warmly received at a state college or university than at a private institution, but libraries vary greatly in their access policies and it is always worth going there in person and asking if you might be allowed to use the library. In some cases, you may be able to become a "Friend of the Library" for a nominal fee, which will allow you to borrow books and access other services of the library. In other cases, you might be granted certain privileges but not others. For example, you might be allowed access to the books and journals, but might not be allowed to make use of the library's interlibrary loan service.

When the college or university has a criminal justice program, ask the librarian to tell you where the books and journals are shelved that are used mostly by the criminal justice faculty and students. An hour or two browsing these shelves might turn up useful material. If the librarian is a criminal justice specialist, he or she might be able to direct you to the most productive sources.

Evaluating Your Primary Sources of Information

Though your search may yield information from a wide variety of different sources, your primary sources of useful information are likely to be: (1) articles by researchers who have studied the problem you are facing, and (2) reports of police projects dealing with the problem. This section is intended to help you read and evaluate these two sources.

Academic Articles

Unless you are dealing with an extremely common problem, do not expect to find more than a few academic articles directly relevant to your topic. Academic criminologists tend to be more interested in crime and delinquency in general than the very specific forms of crime that are typically the focus of problem-oriented policing projects. Criminologists also tend to be more interested in "distant" causes of crime–such as social disadvantage, psychological impediments and dysfunctional families–than in the "near" causes of a problem, which include situational factors such as poor security or lack of surveillance. As a police officer, you can do little about the distant causes, but you may be able to alter the situational factors. Consequently, even when you find academic articles dealing with your problem, you might find that the causal factors they identify will provide you with little help in developing an effective response.

Academic articles follow a fairly standard format designed to help readers decide quickly how relevant the article is to their interests. Most articles begin with an abstract. This is usually a single paragraph, which includes information about the data used for the study and a summary of the main findings. The abstract should tell whether you want to look more closely at the article. If so, go to the end of the article and read the "Summary," "Discussion" and/or "Conclusions." Only if the article seems valuable need you read more. Even if it is valuable, you may not need to read the literature review at the beginning of the article or the methodological sections dealing with data, analysis, and results. On the other hand, when the article is not directly relevant to your needs, you might still find useful material listed in the "References" at the end, which you might try to find and read.

Reports of Police Projects

Again, unless you are dealing with a very common problem, do not expect to find more than a few highly relevant police projects. The greatest limitation of those you do find is likely to be that claims of success frequently have to be treated with a considerable skepticism. Rarely are projects properly evaluated, with comparisons of crime data before-and-after the project, or with crime data for a "control" group or area not included in the project. Even some projects that have received Goldstein or Tilley awards (see the section above on Center for Problem-Oriented Policing) have not been evaluated in full accordance with social science research standards. Further, you should beware that a response that has worked in a particular town or neighborhood might not automatically work in yours. This could be because of specific circumstances that make your situation different from earlier ones. Or it could be that the effectiveness of a specific response depends partly on the other responses introduced at the same time. This does not mean that it is a waste of time looking at what other police agencies have done. To the contrary, this past experience is always an important source of ideas about what might be helpful in your situation and what might not. But in reaching decisions about the responses you want to implement, you must always weigh the information obtained from any particular project together with all the other information you find.

† For more details on the requirements of an evaluation see the POP Guide on Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem Solvers.

Using the Information You Have Found

Make a copy of any highly relevant material you find in the course of your search because you may want to consult it repeatedly. Highlight particularly relevant passages or, better still, stick a "post-it" label on the page with a brief note about the topic. You can then find the relevant passages without having to flip through the entire article or report, and you can easily remove these labels when you have finished dealing with the topic.

Understanding Your Problem

One of the principal objectives of conducting a literature search is to learn what others have discovered about the causes of the kind of problem you are tackling, particularly its "near" causes (those factors that most immediately contributed to the problem). Knowing what they have found will be useful to you in analyzing your own problem. Your analysis can check whether factors that have been implicated in the past also hold true in your situation.

It is only when you have achieved an understanding of your problem that you can expect to identify effective responses. You will know you have achieved this understanding when you are able to provide answers to the five "W" and one "H" questions:

† For a fuller discussion of these questions, see Clarke and Eck (2003).

When you can answer these sorts of questions with reasonable certainty, you will have developed a hypothesis about your problem. A hypothesis is a statement that explains why the problem is occurring. The hypothesis points you in the direction of certain responses and away from others.

Identifying Responses

Keep a record of responses you identify by constructing a summary grid similar to that found at the end of each of the problem-specific guides in the Problem-Oriented Guides for Police Series. For each response, note the prime source and explain how the response works, the conditions under which it works best, and any special considerations, such as costs or legal requirements. Your grid should have one row for each response and five columns as below:

  Response Source How It Works Works Best If… Considerations

This table will be a summary of the most valuable results of your search. You might need more detailed information for the responses you believe will be most effective in your situation. For example, if you think you might want to install CCTV cameras to improve surveillance, you might need information about the different CCTV systems on the market, their costs and their relative advantages and disadvantages. Returning to your computer and the library one more time should help you find the facts you need and enable you to profit from the experience of others.

† The Problem-Oriented Guides for Police now include a Response Guide Series that presents detailed information about commonly used responses.

Ten Tips For Researching a Problem

  1. Check the Problem-Oriented Guides for Police Series.
  2. Browse www.popcenter.org, especially the Tilley and Goldstein awards.
  3. Browse www.crimereduction.gov.uk
  4. Try to get access to Criminal Justice Abstracts.
  5. Visit your local library and speak to a librarian.
  6. Whenever possible, use a computer with a high-speed Internet connection.
  7. Make copies of the best articles and reports you find.
  8. Look for additional material to read in the reference lists of any useful article.
  9. Develop a hypothesis about the causes of your problem.
  10. Organize information about responses in a summary grid.


The Internet and the development of online social science databases have made it much easier for you to find research and best practice that can help with your problem-oriented project. A few hours spent at the computer, and time spent in a nearby public or college library, can unearth a wealth of relevant material. For some problems that are new or rare, the haul might be more meager. And it is sometimes difficult to find your way around the Internet or locate the material in libraries. But it is always worth seeking to profit from the labors of others. Learning what they have discovered could jump­start your efforts and save you valuable time later in your project.


No Endnotes Available


Benamati, D., P. Schultze, A. Bouloukos, and G. Newman (1998). Criminal Justice Information: How To Find It, How To Use It. Phoenix , Ariz. : Oryx Press.

Clarke, R. and J. Eck (2003). Become a Problem-Solving Crime Analyst. London : Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science, University College London. [Full text]

Nelson, B. (1997). Criminal Justice Research in Libraries and on the Internet. Westport , Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Velasco, M. (2005). "Practical Literature: What to Read and How to Read It." In C. Bruce, J. Cooper, and S. Hick (eds.), Exploring Crime Analysis: Readings in Essential Skils. Oakland Park, Kan.: International Association of Crime Analysts Press.

Weisel, D. (2005). "Solving Crime and Disorder Problems Through Applied Research." In C. Bruce, J. Cooper, and S. Hick (eds.), Exploring Crime Analysis: Readings in Essential Skils. Oakland Park , Kan. : International Association of Crime Analysts Press.