Policing on Purpose: Revisiting Problem-Oriented Policing

By Noah J. Fritz[1]

Modern Policing has come a long way baby, or has it? While any police history buff will already know, Sir Robert Peel offered up nine key principles[2] of policing back in 1829.

  • Peelian Principle 1 – “The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.”
  • Peelian Principle 2 – “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”
  • Peelian Principle 3 – “Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.”
  • Peelian Principle 4 – “The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.”
  • Peelian Principle 5 – “Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to the public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.”
  • Peelian Principle 6 – “Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.”
  • Peelian Principle 7 – “Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
  • Peelian Principle 8 – “Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.”
  • Peelian Principle 9 – “The test of police efficiency (i.e., effectiveness) is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”

It is this author’s humble opinion that these Peelian Principles are universal and timeless, yet we find law enforcement agencies across the globe violating them, and at times violating basic human rights. Don’t assume for a second I am anti-police, nothing is further from the truth. I have dedicated my 25-year career in crime analysis and crime mapping towards the advancement of police services, the very essence of this article. My intent for writing it is to shine some light on sound professional calls for evidence-based practices, and more specifically, the absolute use of assessment—the call for regular evaluations of patrol operations, crime prevention strategies, investigative practices, and a dire recommendation to revisit Herman Goldstein’s Problem Oriented Policing (POP) paradigm.

This call for a paradigm shift was offered by Herman Goldstein, who invented problem-oriented policing after a lifetime career in the profession back in 1979 – nearly 35 years ago. Professor Goldstein offers one of the most profound statements regarding police work ever written:

The police, by the very nature of their function, are an anomaly in a free society. They are invested with a great deal of authority under a system of government in which authority is reluctantly granted and, when granted, sharply curtailed. The specific form of their authority—to arrest, to search, to detain, and to use force—is awesome in the degree to which it can be disruptive of freedom, invasive of privacy, and sudden and direct in its impact upon the individual. And this awesome authority, of necessity, is delegated to individuals at the lowest level of the bureaucracy to be exercised, in most instances, without prior review or control.
Yet a democracy is heavily dependent upon its police, despite their anomalous position, to maintain the degree of order that makes a free society possible. It looks to its police to prevent people from preying on one another; to provide a sense of security; to facilitate movement; to resolve conflict, and to protect the very processes and rights—such as free elections, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly—on which continuation of a free society depends. The strength of a democracy and the quality of life enjoyed by its citizens are determined in large measure by the ability of the police to discharge their duties. (Goldstein, 1977)

This statement conceptualizes the profound nature of American policing and the tenets of problem-oriented policing, along with the varying styles and new names of policing paradigms, since all call for the professionalization and accountability of modern law enforcement agencies. Community policing, problem-oriented policing, “broken windows” theory, evidence-based policing, hotspot policing, intelligence-led policing, information-led policing, predictive policing – each and every one shares these elements. For an intelligence- or information-led or evidence-based approach to work, assessments must be embedded into the process, not as a gimmick, but as a fundamental part of the process.

Most agencies, but certainly not all, embraced these paradigms—some for noble purposes, others for the grant funds or the notoriety. The truth be known, many of these paradigms were convoluted or “derailed” in a manner that allowed agencies to hang on to traditional practices. Community policing was seen as too soft, even though it most closely adheres to Peelian points. Problem-oriented policing was relegated to quick and reactive responses to community issues that have simplistic solutions—albeit with a number of innovative POP projects documented over the years. “Broken windows” turns into racial profiling and intelligence-led policing—post 911—provides agencies with the license to target prolific offenders. What continues to be offered up as part of these paradigms is the need, even the necessity, for program evaluations and strategic assessments. What I am suggesting here is that while we continue to “talk the talk” about evidence-based practices, we continue to fail to perform sound pre— and post—tests regarding what works and what doesn’t in police work. My primary premise is to point out the obvious: We need to police with a purpose—police on purpose; and then we need to measure our effectiveness. Did we reach our goal?

Policing on purpose requires that we articulate systematic objectives about what we want to accomplish, how we go about it, and when and where we implement it; so we can assess its efficacy. Policing on purpose is simple, it is really just good policing. It is honest about what we hope to achieve and then goes about measuring the effectiveness of those efforts. It is about police accountability (i.e., e.g., COMSTAT). It is about systemic problem solving and being certain to include the in-depth analysis and the follow-up review through SARA – scanning, analysis, response and assessment. Every healthy organization conducts research and development, and clearly understands the environment in which it operates. What follows is a recommendation to revisit problem-oriented policing with an emphasis on assessment. Without creating a new name or shifting to a new paradigm, let’s just call it good policing—police work to which every law enforcement agency should aspire. In doing so, a synthesis of existing ideas is offered.

Why is this so critical today? The shooting death of an unarmed black youth in Ferguson, MO and the aftermath of protests and civil unrest, that’s why. This is not to say that the officer was wrong nor to convict the youth, without their day in court. Good policing is critical today for the same reason that community policing and problem-oriented policing were introduced and supported by the U.S. Department of Justice back in the 1990s; and why the 1960s Presidential Commissions called for a major re-construction of the criminal justice system over 50 years ago. The justice system and policing is not as good as it should be. There is plenty of room for improvement. And the only way to get systematic continuous improvement is through assessment. It’s that simple. Every police paradigm since the 1960s has called for action research, evidence-based practices and continuous improvement. The statistics on racial disparity cry out for better explanations, even if disparate enforcement is justified. Public outcry over the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown incidents continues to remind us that racial profiling, real or perceived, has a significant effect on police-public relations.

Sir Robert Peel and Herman Goldstein have nailed it when it comes to the essence of good policing. Yet, there is still something amiss in America on racial grounds and we have an obligation to address it. The reports of sexual assaults on college campuses across the United States related to binge drinking, the lack of ability to give consent as a result of intoxication, and the predators who victimize a reported one-in-five of college female freshmen and sophomores begs for evaluation. Current practices and social interactions continue to result in crime and violence, and yet we continue to fail to incorporate sound research into what works and what doesn’t. It is time to embrace programmatic assessments of patrol operations, investigative practices, and situational crime prevention strategies to improve the safety and welfare of our citizens.

Unfortunately, we continue to fall prey to reactive police methods and case-by-case investigations. What did Herman Goldstein actually suggest?

Problem-oriented policing is an approach to policing in which discrete pieces of police business (each consisting of a cluster of similar incidents, whether crime or acts of disorder, that the police are expected to handle) are subject to microscopic examination (drawing on the especially honed skills of crime analysts and the accumulated experience of operating field personnel) in hopes that what is freshly learned about each problem will lead to discovering a new and more effective strategy for dealing with it. Problem-oriented policing places a high value on new responses that are preventative in nature, that are not dependent on the use of the criminal justice system, and that engage other public agencies, the community and the private sector when their involvement has the potential for significantly contributing to the reduction of the problem. Problem-oriented policing carries a commitment to implementing the new strategy, rigorously evaluating its effectiveness, and, subsequently, reporting the results in ways that will benefit other police agencies and that will ultimately contribute to building a body of knowledge that supports the further professionalization of the police (Goldstein, 2001).

The mastermind behind Compstat, Jack Maples (1999:32)—a NYPD Deputy Commissioner, proclaimed four principles that “any police department needs in order to operate as an undeterrable force against crime.” These guideposts, as he called them, were: (1) Accurate, timely intelligence, (2) Rapid deployment, (3) Effective tactics, and (4) Relentless follow-up and assessment.


Even in the midst of Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe’s strong argument for intelligence-led policing[3] (ILP) and the 3-i Model, Dr. Ratcliffe calls for us to “Reimage policing” – and suggests that “…this movement has produced problem-oriented policing, Compstat, and now intelligence-led policing.”ILP StagesProblem-oriented policing and Compstat remain extremely relevant to crime analysis today, and in-depth analysis and recurring crime accountability meetings are critical to 21st Century policing. We owe tremendous gratitude to the COPS Office for providing invaluable resources, which allowed the Center for Problem Oriented Policing to produce many useful POP guides and other support services. Those guides and other resources are still available at www.popocenter.org. Professionally, I embrace ILP and the key components[4] which I extract from Ratcliffe’s proposal (see insert above). Most notably, he likewise offers up the need to evaluate the concepts and practices of ILP. He tells us: “Evaluation is essential to the development of any crime reduction strategy” and quotes Don Weatherburn (2004:36-38), who identified five features of a rational approach to crime control:

  • Adequate investment in measuring and monitoring;
  • Open access to crime and justice information;
  • Reliance on evidence in the development of policy;
  • Commitment to rigorous evaluation; and
  • A flexible and eclectic approach to control.

Ratcliffe (2008: 186-87) admits that it might seem strange to dedicate an entire chapter to the idea of evaluation. But he reiterates the claims of Gloria Laycock (2001) that change is under way within policing, a change that focuses on crime reduction as an outcome, greater professionalism, a developing body of knowledge, which moves us towards a data-driven, evidence-based problem-solving approach. Assessment is at the core of each and every policing paradigm that has appeared on the landscape over the past 25 years. Now is not the time to turn away from problem-oriented policing or a commitment to assessment. The struggle for good policing—for policing on purpose— is still upon us.

It is time to stop naming and renaming the essence of policing and simply call it what it is, good policing—effective policing, results-oriented policing. Most of all, it is time to require—to mandate—that police tactics, patrol operations, investigative practices, crime prevention strategies be tried and tested. When we don’t embrace evidence-based practices, we often use innovative ideas to disguise our desire to maintain the status quo and cling to police inertia. It is time to revisit problem-oriented policing, not the watered down version of the late 1990s and early 2000s. We need fundamental change regarding the approach to assessment.

Goldstein (1990:37-38) described how crime analysis was applied to policing in the past and what changes need to occur for problem-oriented policing to take hold.

Crime analysis, which has been an important part of the professional model of policing, is a base on which police can build in meeting the much wider and deeper demands for inquiry associated with problem-oriented policing. In a police agency in which individual officers may not know what has occurred outside the areas in which they work or during periods when they are not on duty, crime analysis has been the primary means for pooling information that may help solve crimes. Initially, it consisted of a review of reports on similar crimes to identify those that may have been committed by the same individual or group, with the hope that the sum of information from a number of reports might better enable the police to identify and apprehend the offender(s). If an offender was apprehended, similar analysis might enable the police to solve other crimes for which the offender was responsible and to increase the strength of the case against him or her. As crime analysis developed, attention focused on discovering patterns of criminal activity, enabling analysts to alert patrolling police officers to individuals suspected of committing a particular type of crime and to the area in which they might commit it. Anticipating where the offender was likely to strike also enabled the police to set up surveillance and undercover operations [much of today’s focus on ILP’s Prolific Offender].
At its best, crime analysis has been used to identify offenders and interrupt crime patterns rather than to gain the kind of knowledge and insights that might be used to affect the conditions that accounted for the criminal conduct…
Problem-oriented policing actually provides an incentive to make much more effective use of the data typically collected as part of crime analysis and to expand beyond the current limited objectives of the most advanced crime analysis models. This would first require focusing more broadly on all of the problems police handle rather than on just traditional categories of crime. It would require trying to understand the nature of these problems as a basis for critical review of the agency’s response, rather than limiting inquiries to narrower operational goals. It would use more sources of information than just the reports filed by police officers. To understand all aspects of a problem, police would have to become adept at conducting literature searches, using telephone and door-to-door surveys, interviewing those having the most direct knowledge about a problem (including citizens, officers, representatives of various government agencies and private services, and ex-offenders), and making use of data collected by other government agencies and in the private sector. Finally, the type of systematic inquiry contemplated as part of problem-oriented policing would place a much higher value on the accuracy and preciseness of the data used and the conclusions reached than has been characteristic of studies conducted within police agencies.
Crime Clock

It is this in-depth analysis and “relentless and rigorous” assessment consistently articulated across all contemporary policing paradigms that is compulsory to accomplish ILP’s and POP’s strategic aim of informed decision-making regarding resource allocation and priorities; and that makes for good policing.



[1] The opinions offered in the article are the sole views of the author and do not in any way reflect the views of the Tempe Police Department and its members, or the Police Foundation and Crime Mapping and Analysis News. Please send any comments or questions to Noah Fritz at njfritz@gmail.com.

[2] Peelian Principles cited from http://lacp.org/2009-Articles-Main/062609-Peels9Principals-SandyNazemi.htm

[3] Ratcliffe, Intelligence-Led Policing (2008).

[4] These components represent a short list of key elements of ILP, as interpreted by this author but directly drawn from Ratcliffe’s (2008) book by this very name: Intelligence-Led Policing, and several other articles of his writing.



Goldstein, Herman (1977). Policing A Free Society, Cambridge Mass.: Ballinger.

Goldstein, Herman (1990). Problem-Oriented Policing. New York: McGraw Hill.

Goldstein, Herman (2001) cited from http://www.popcenter.org/about/?p=whatiscpop (2/2/2015).

Laycock, Gloria (2001). “Research for police: who needs it?”, Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, 211:1-6

Maple, Jack (1999). The Crime Fighter, New York: Doubleday.

Ratcliffe, Jerry (2008). Intelligence-Led Policing, Portland, OR: Willan.

Nazemi, Sandra (2015). Peelian Principles cited from http://lacp.org/2009-Articles-Main/062609-Peels9Principals-SandyNazemi.htm (2/2/2015).

Weatherburn, Don (2004). Law and Order in Australia: Rhetoric and Reality. Sydney: Federation Press.

Noah J. Fritz, PhD

SPARC Supervisor Strategic Planning, Analysis and Research Center Tempe (AZ) Police Department Dr. Noah Fritz is the SPARC—Strategic Planning, Analysis and Research Center—Supervisor at the Tempe Police Department and the past Crime Analysis Manager at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. Noah got back into the “field” of crime analysis after spending five years as an Assistant Professor in the Criminal Justice & Criminology Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. His primary area of research is Crime Mapping, Crime Analysis and Geographic Information Systems. He was the previous Director and Founder of the Crime Mapping and Analysis Program (CMAP)—a U.S. Department of Justice sponsored training and technical assistance program; and served as the Deputy Director of NLECTC; and a previous two term President of the IACA. Most notable accomplishments include a Doctorate in Justice and Social Inquiry from Arizona State University, a Master’s from same and undergraduate degrees in Sociology and Criminal Justice from Illinois State University. He has authored articles in the Sociological Quarterly, the Encyclopedia of Criminology and Deviant Behavior, is a co-author of Exploring Crime Analysis (2004); and appeared nationally on ABC’s Weekend News Edition featuring crime mapping and has been featured on public radio in Australia where he provided consulting services to the Victoria Police Department. Noah enjoys camping, hiking and golf; and spending time outdoors with his family and friends.

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