Problem Solving versus Directed Patrol in Hot Spots: How Do These Approaches Affect Suburban Residential Communities?

Tammy Rinehart Kochel, PhD Southern Illinois University and Lt. Peter Morrow St. Louis County Police Department


An experiment in suburban crime hot spots in St Louis County, MO reveals that both problem solving and directed patrol strategies reduce crime above and beyond standard policing practices. However, the study, which focused on how different strategies affected opinions about police and neighborhoods, demonstrated that residents opinions about police were not negatively impacted in the long term and instead, residents believed their neighborhoods were better equipped to address violations of neighborhood behavioral norms. Lessons learned suggest that police might be most successful when they explain their strategies to residents prior to implementing them, and that spending more time in crime hot spots might embolden residents to begin to self police.


This project was supported by Award No. 2011 -IJ-CX-0007, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice. Hot spots policing in its various forms has a strong track record of reducing crime in urban areas. St. Louis County Police Department in Missouri collaborated with Dr. Tammy Rinehart Kochel, Associate Professor at Southern Illinois University, to examine non-crime consequences. The study addresses whether residents across 71 suburban hot spots of Part I and Part II crimes might respond differently to a problem solving approach to hot spots policing versus directed patrol. The expectation in applying the strategy in suburban residential areas was that crime would decrease. The question was whether the choice of strategies applied in hot spots—whether more enforcement and people-focused deterrence versus collaborative and place-focused in nature— might differently affect how citizens view police effectiveness and legitimacy, and whether one strategy over the other might generate stronger feelings of safety and promote cooperation with police and neighborhood self-policing. Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.

The Nature of the Crime Problems

Areas selected for the experiment were small, only about .01 square miles each, but recorded an average of 31 incidents in the year leading up to the study. In total, the hot spot areas accounted for less than 1 percent of the residential areas in the County, but composed nearly 11 percent of the crimes in residential areas. Common crime problems included assault, vandalism, burglary, drugs, and larceny. Areas were identified by a St. Louis County crime analyst, reviewed for appropriateness by precinct commanders, and selected when sufficient numbers of addresses in the area would allow for successful surveys of residents.

Directed Patrol

Directed patrol is the traditional approach applied within hot spots. Based on deterrence, officers provide a substantial visible presence in an effort to increase the risk to would-be offenders. Twenty areas were randomly assigned to receive directed patrol. Across a five-month period (June through October 2012), officers in the course of their normal patrol responsibilities were given maps of the hot spots and asked to increase visibility in identified hot spots during hot times. Patrol officers spent an average of 3 hours and 10 minutes within each hot spot each week, an increase of 40 percent over pre-project levels. Targeted patrols averaged 15 minutes each. Officers conducted roving patrols most often, but also conducted stationary observations, wrote or called in reports from marked vehicles, conducted traffic enforcement, spoke with citizens, spoke to other officers car to car, conducted foot patrol, performed vehicle and pedestrian stops, and other miscellaneous enforcement activities.

Collaborative Problem Solving

In the twenty areas randomly assigned to receive a collaborative problem solving approach, officers applied the SARA model of problem solving. One or two officers were assigned to manage a specific hot spot across the five-month treatment period. In some cases, officers worked multiple hot spots. A total of 22 officers worked on the effort at some point in the project. Officers received an initial 2-day training in problem solving and situational crime prevention, a 1-day booster session within the first month of the project, had direct access to a crime analyst, and participated in monthly meetings to discuss progress and specific next steps. They were asked to identify a specific pattern of problems in the area, investigate the nature and reason for the pattern, and in partnership with at least one community partner, attempt to implement responses tailored to what they learned about conditions contributing to the problem. The majority of the problems were property crimes—notably burglaries and theft of or from vehicles. However, some problem solving efforts addressed domestic violence, assault, drug and gang problems, quality of life concerns, and repeat address problems. Responses included educating residents on target hardening strategies and parking regulations; securing vacant residences; intensive follow up with troubled juveniles; identifying and busting a fencing operation; applying crime prevention through environmental design strategies; involving social service agencies; forging relationships with local property managers; increasing communication and information sharing with a local high school, probation and parole, railroad management, the gang unit, and neighboring St. Louis Metro Police; eviction; securing access to utility boxes and air conditioning units; enforcing a Parental Neglect ordinance; enforcement of a false alarm statute; repairing a burglar alarm system; and deployment of a S.M.A.R.T. trailer.

Crime Impact

A time series analysis found that calls for service decreased during the five months of treatment, June through October 2012, in the problem solving and directed patrol hot spots compared to the 31 hot spots that operated with standard policing practices. Directed patrol hot spots saw an average decline of 5 percent, problem-solving areas saw an average decline of 7 percent, while areas receiving standard policing practices saw no change, on average.

Community Impact

The impact on the community was limited to one temporary, short-term, negative outcome on police legitimacy and one longterm neighborhood benefit. 1 Residents across the hot spot areas reported seeing police several times a week, and in general, 20 to 25 percent of hot spot residents said police meet with residents or businesses in the area to address crime and other problems. However, residents did not appear to notice the changes to policing in their areas. Directed patrol residents did not report drastic increases in visibility (the frequency they saw police) as a result of the project, and residents from problem solving areas did not report significant increases in police-community collaborations compared to residents of the other areas (although the proportion of problem solving residents who reported collaborations did modestly increase from 20 to 27 percent). In fact, resident surveys did not reveal any significant effects that can be attributed to the different hot spots strategies on views about the competence and effectiveness of police, perceptions of misconduct and aggressive tactics, perceived neighborhood safety or victimization risk, or willingness of residents to cooperate with police. Although automated vehicle location (AVL) data support that police did spend more time in directed patrol hot spots and researcher observations and monthly meetings revealed that officers assigned to conduct problem solving did work on problems in partnership with members of the community, resident surveys suggest that residents were relatively unaware of these activities. Yet, two effects on residents are worth mentioning. First, among residents in directed patrol areas, the surveys revealed a significant decline in residents’ perceptions about police legitimacy compared to the problem solving and standard practice site residents in the timeframe immediately following the treatment. This does not appear to be a consequence of residents personally experiencing increases in enforcement actions. Although a slightly larger proportion of residents in directed patrol areas reported being stopped by police, compared to residents of the problem solving and standard policing areas, this proportion actually was lower in the time following the project activities than right before it began. In the baseline, 35 percent of residents in directed patrol areas had been stopped in the six months before the survey, whereas only 25 percent said this happened during the treatment period. The reason for this initial decline in police legitimacy is not clear. It may be that an increase in the duration of police presence, without any knowledge of why that change was made led to some distrust of police motives. A better outcome may have been achieved if residents were told what police were doing and why prior to increasing their presence. Whatever the reason, the deficit was temporary. In the follow-up interviews six to nine months after the treatment period, residents in directed patrol sites reported higher perceptions of legitimacy. They improved sufficiently that views about police legitimacy by directed patrol residents were no longer distinguishable from residents in the problem solving and traditional policing neighborhoods.

A further encouraging finding is a notable improvement in neighborhood collective efficacy among directed patrol area residents. Although initial assessments about neighborhood cohesion and capacity to create order and exert control were considerably lower among directed patrol residents than residents in the other areas, they reported significant increases concurrent with the timing of the treatment. Upon increasing police presence, residents of directed patrol areas reported improved community solidarity and a greater belief that neighbors in the community will act to address problems in the area. Residents of the problem solving and control areas did not experience the same level of improvement.

The increase in neighborhood collective efficacy is an important finding, as past research strongly suggests that neighborhoods with more collective efficacy have an increased capacity to reduce crime and disorder problems, even in spite of a concentration of social problems in the area such as poverty, residential turnover, and disrupted families (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997). Additionally, residents living within areas with higher collective efficacy and reduced disorder levels have greater confidence in police and more positive views about procedural justice (believing that police behave fairly and respectfully). Potentially being able to promote neighborhood well-being and greater confidence and trust that the police perform fairly and justly within disadvantaged, high crime places, where more negative views are historically held toward police, is very promising.

It is worth contemplating why this may have happened in the directed patrol hot spots. One possibility is that although residents did not report seeing police more often, perhaps they did notice the extended time being spent there when they did come. Residents may have interpreted the time spent as a commitment by police to the neighborhood, particularly since these extended stays did not produce increases in traffic and pedestrian stops among residents. This level of commitment may have provided the support and safety net needed for residents to feel empowered to initiate their own actions to promote order in the neighborhood. Of course, increased presence by police could have led to an increase in the negative interactions between the public and the police, but this did not happen. In fact, residents of the directed patrol and problem solving hot spots reported significantly higher levels of satisfaction with the way that they were treated during police encounters, compared to residents in traditional policing areas. When residents were interacting with police on the street, or to report crimes, make complaints, or because they were stopped, their experiences were positive. In past research, greater satisfaction with police has also been found to encourage residents’ to take action in their neighborhoods (Silver & Miller, 2004; Wells, Schafer, Varano, & Bynum, 2006).

Lessons Learned

The lessons to learn from this study are that (1) hot spots policing strategies can significantly reduce crime in suburban areas EBP Quarterly Volume 1, Number 1, 2016 Pages 13-17 17 as well as urban areas; (2) both a deterrence approach through directed patrol and collaborative, place-based problem solving approaches to hot spots policing significantly reduce calls for service; (3) adopting a deterrence approach focused on increasing officer visibility and presence may initially trigger declines in legitimacy while residents contemplate police motives, thus explaining police actions before implementation may be beneficial. (4) Ultimately, though, the extended time spent in neighborhoods restores police legitimacy and (5) may even serve to increase perceptions of formal support for residents who then can feel greater confidence and willingness to take action to address neighborhood problems themselves. In short, implementing directed patrol and problem solving strategies in hot spots of crime not only reduce calls for service, but they do so without harming public opinion about police in the long term and may even promote neighborhood cohesion and control in the case of directed patrol.

1 Door-to-door surveys were conducted in all 71 hot spots at three time points— prior to the implementation of the hot spots strategies (Spring 2012), immediately following implementation (late Fall 2012), and six to nine months after problem solving and directed patrol implementation concluded (early Summer 2013). University interviewers, primarily students, attempted to interview residents at the same address across all three waves, however, some additional interviewees were added at wave 2 and wave 3 to ensure adequate hot spot level representation. Residents from 1949 unique addresses were interviewed. Thirty-seven percent were interviewed at least at two time points. Responses from directed patrol versus problem solving versus standard practice sites were compared across time.


Sampson, R. J., Raudenbush, S. W., & Earls, F. (1997). Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy. Science, 277(5328), 918–924.

Silver, E., & Miller, L. L. (2004). Sources of Informal Social Control in Chicago Neighborhoods. Criminology, 4(3), 551–584.

Wells, W., Schafer, J. A., Varano, S. P., & Bynum, T. S. (2006). Neighborhood Residents’ Production of Order: The Effects of Collective Efficacy on Responses to Neighborhood Problems. Crime & Delinquency, 52(4), 523–550.

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