Crime Analysis as Part of the Evidence-Based Policing Toolkit: Implementation, Integration, and Practical Use
Teresina G. Robbins
University of New Haven
Crime analysis, a significant component of effective evidence-based policing strategies, is defined as “the qualitative and quantitative study of crime and law enforcement information in combination with socio-demographic and spatial factors to apprehend criminals, prevent crime, reduce disorder, and evaluate organizational procedures” (Boba, 2001, p. 9). In other words, crime analysts use data and context across time and geographic area to assist law enforcement agencies with problem-solving. Santos (2014) offers the anecdote that crime analysis is more of a diagnostic tool, akin to an MRI machine, rather than a direct cure for crime.
To date, there is limited research on crime analysis. However, prior research on strategies that incorporate crime analysis as part of the police problem-solving toolkit are easily located. Evidence-based practices like hot spots (Braga, Papachristos, & Hureau, 2014) and focused deterrence (Braga, Weisburd, & Turchan, 2018) use crime analysis and mapping as a tool to identify short- and long-term problems. While there is no direct evidence that crime analysis itself influenced the crime reduction revealed in these programs, Santos (2014) argues that it is a necessary component of problem solving. Even without a direct impact on crime, it is surprising that such a critical piece of the evidence-based policing movement has not received much empirical attention.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss the utility of crime analysis as a key component of evidence-based approaches in policing. First, background information is provided on the development of the Stratified Model to integrate crime analysis, and the Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment (SARA) model that is often used in situational crime prevention (SCP). Next, current research expands on these models and suggests key predictors of successful integration of crime analysis, demonstrates the applicability of the Stratified Model, and provides a practical example of crime analysis. The paper concludes with policy implications and suggestions for future research.
In a guidebook prepared for the office of Community Oriented Policing Services of the U.S. Department of Justice (COPS office), Boba and Santos (2011) discussed their framework called the Stratified Model of Problem Solving, Analysis, and Accountability (Stratified Model). The Stratified Model was developed, evaluated, and refined through practical application in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand. Its purpose is to integrate evidence-based strategies into an agency’s current organizational structure, regardless of organizational size or resources.
Responsibility for crime problems and problem solving is meant to be stratified and integrated throughout the entire organization. Crime analysts develop actionable materials based on various problems faced by the agency and community. The problems are based both on complexity, frequency, and level of importance to be addressed. For example, problems may be immediate, short- or long-term, and may be single or repeat incidents, patterns, or problems that occur over time. The crime analysis products are then distributed throughout the ranks based on problem type, and daily, weekly, or monthly meetings are held to ensure accountability. In other words, problem solving is not just left to low ranking officers, specialized units, or community policing, but rather it is the responsibility of the entire organization.
The SARA model often is used to identify problems that are addressed in materials crime analysts produce. SARA is a step by step process which also allows one to revisit previous steps and adjust based on new information and outcomes. Scanning identifies what, where, how often, and the priority of the problem. Then, the context of the problem is analyzed. This may include information about what is facilitating the problem, identifying stakeholders, and gaining a more qualitative understanding. Next, the response step uses the information obtained in the analysis to develop interventions, identify intended outcomes, and make plans for assessment. Finally, assessment is concerned with both outcomes and implementation. If the intervention has not received the intended outcomes, the analysis, or response steps could be revisited. If there were implementation issues, one can return to the response step (POP Center, 2018).
Interventions from the SARA model may incorporate situational crime prevention (SCP) techniques. SCP stems from the routine activities approach which posits that crime occurs when a likely offender comes in contact with suitable targets or victims, in the absence of a capable guardian (Cohen & Felson, 1797). This is referred to as the crime triangle. By looking closely at the situational aspects of the crime environment and limiting opportunity to engage in criminal activity, crime analysts can suggest interventions that may reduce the problem. In a report for the Center for Problem Oriented Policing, Clarke & Eck (2005) explain that opportunities can be reduced by making the crime more difficult, risky, and less rewarding. However, for this to be effective, there would need to be cooperation between place managers of crime spots, and guardianship of targets. This challenge is demonstrated in current research by Zidar, Schafer, and Eck (2018), discussed below.
From a special edition of Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, research articles by Santos (2018), Smith, Santos, and Santos (2018), and Zidar, Shafer, and Eck (2018) illustrate what crime analysis currently looks like for police departments in the United States. Their research significantly contributes to the limited number of studies on this topic and provides important evidence for the inclusion of crime analysis and evidence-based strategies, how to institutionalize these practices, and how different perspectives can influence problem-solving.
Smith, Santos, and Santos (2018) used data from a 2008 Police Executive Research Forum survey of over 1,000 agencies to evaluate the level of integration of crime analysis. They found that 47.9% of agencies in their sample had at least one full-time employee whose sole focus was crime analysis. Unsurprisingly, this was a key predictor for whether crime analysis was well integrated in an agency. Additionally, they found that accountability at all levels was a strong predictor of integrated crime analysis. This lends support for the Stratified Model as a mechanism for integration of problem-solving within agencies (Smith, Santos, & Santos, 2018).
Crime analysis is a critical part of stratified policing, but it is just as important to understand organizational attitudes to ensure its successful use. Santos (2018) evaluated whether perception of the agency changed after implementation of the Stratified Model in the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO). Implementation included the production of actionable materials by crime analysts, along with weekly and monthly accountability meetings. The research focused on measuring changes in perceptions of leadership, accountability, communication, transparency, and use of proactive policing strategies. An anonymous survey was distributed to all WCSO officers before and after implementation, and the results showed significant improvement in all categories, with the exception of leadership participation, demonstrating the impact of stratified policing on the organization. Additionally, while the study was not concerned with crime reduction, the WCSO also experienced decreases in crime overall, and particularly with regard to burglary and criminal mischief.
In a practical application of crime analysis and evidence-based strategies, Zidar, Shafer, and Eck (2018) discuss a shoplifting and officer time allocation issue in a Paducah, Kentucky Walmart. As part of his application process to become a crime analyst with the Paducah Police Department (PPD), Zidar was provided with data and asked to assist an officer. In examining the data, he found that officers were spending a great deal of time at one location. Zidar contacted his colleague, Shafer, and the two reframed the problem based on what they had learned in a course taught by third author, Eck. Instead of focusing on the offender, attention was directed to place management. They asked the question of what was happening in the Walmart that was facilitating the opportunity for shoplifting. This new approach led to PPD hiring Zidar.
Zidar had scanned the data to identify the problem during the application process. He now had the opportunity to further analyze the issue by going on ride-alongs with officers and speaking with community members. This provided context to the problem, and Zidar recognized that Walmart was using PPD to subsidize their security. It also became obvious that certain Walmart policies were conducive to shoplifting. Asset protection, signs, and cameras did not stand out, employees were few and far between, and entrances were not monitored. This provided little guardianship for merchandise and generated the perception that there was little risk of apprehension. Zidar and the PPD worked closely with Walmart management to develop a response that would increase guardianship. Citing policy, Walmart was not willing to accept responsibility and shift their practices, so the PPD had to take a different approach. If the theft was under a $500 threshold, the Walmart would report the incident online, and no officer would come out to the scene. There were some exceptions, but associates were provided with a detailed explanation of when it was appropriate to call PPD.
There were initial limitations in the implementation of response protocols, whereby Walmart associates would misrepresent incidents and attempt to get around policy. To combat the issue, PPD engaged with regional management, who resolved the issue. Implementation improved, and Walmart even began their own restorative justice program that diverted people who shoplifted to educational programs instead of pressing criminal charges. When Zidar assessed the issue, the time officers spent at the Walmart decreased significantly. The researchers acknowledge that this may be due to underreporting; however, the issue of officers spending a significant amount of time at Walmart improved, so the outcomes were considered a success.
This research showed crime analysis in action and illustrated how a different perspective can have a tremendous influence on how crime problems are tackled by police agencies. Using the SARA model, Zidar consulted with Shafer who helped reframe a problem that was initially evaluated from an offender perspective. Making the shift from the offender to place management, Zidar and the Paducah Police Department were able to significantly impact the time officers spent responding to larceny calls at Walmart. Importantly, the article documented the realistic process of crime analysis – that it is not linear and may involve multiple consultations with stakeholders and place managers. As such, it is important that analysts continue to share practical examples of their work.
Boba and Santos’ (2011) Stratified Model of policing is a promising framework for integrating evidence-based practices and crime analysis into police departments. Both the case study with the WCSO and the national survey provide support for this model, and the results of the replication research being conducted in other agencies is anticipated. While one should exercise caution in adopting practices that are not supported by evidence, hiring a full-time crime analyst and increasing communication, transparency, and accountability are low-risk ways to approach crime reduction. However, agencies making these changes should consult with either their crime analyst or engage in researcher-practitioner partnerships to evaluate implementation and impact.
While the research suggests a strong benefit to having a full-time crime analyst imbedded in the department, Zidar, Shafer, and Eck (2018) acknowledge that it is not enough to hire a crime analyst who has the analytical and theoretical capabilities. An effective crime analyst should be willing to leave the office and engage with relevant stakeholders to get to the root of the problem and provide effective solutions. Finally, it is important that the products the analyst provides are actionable, but even actionable information lacks efficacy if there is no accountability for problem-solving.
Suggestions for Future Research
It is not difficult to identify gaps in policing research, as the field is broad and relatively unexplored. Crime analysis and integration are no exception. They are especially important given their central role in many evidence-based strategies (Santos, 2014). Based on an analysis of the literature, future research should explore the following: direct measures of accountability; implementation and impact evaluations; and, qualitative or mixed method approaches.
In the national survey, the variable for integration was meant to evaluate the use of crime analysis. However, Smith et al. (2018) expressed concern that, due to self-report data, it was possible that some departments responded in ways that would portray their agency in a favorable light. Therefore, the measure may not have been able to assess what the department actually did. To mitigate this, future research should be more diligent in constructing measures that directly evaluate concepts.
Additionally, broader implementation of research into crime analysis and stratified policing would help to determine the true efficacy of these strategies. Santos (2018) stated that the survey used in the WCSO study has also been given in other agencies, and the field will benefit from those results once the agencies complete integration and the results are published. Although the WCSO study focused primarily on perceptions, future research could evaluate the implementation and integration of the Stratified Model. Finally, there are other ways researchers can explore how crime analysis and the Stratified Model impact policing and crime reduction. Using a qualitative or mixed-methods approach may provide a deeper understanding of the data. For example, interviews can be used to expand on survey results and better understand the integration of crime analysis within an agency.
There is still work to be done to understand how crime analysis affects policing and evidence-based strategies to reduce crime. Prior research is limited, but the positive evaluations of hot spots, problem-oriented policing, focused deterrence, and other evidence-based crime reduction strategies provide initial evidence of the benefits of crime analysis Additionally, Boba and Santos’ (2011) stratified policing framework outlines an approach to integrating those practices and laid the groundwork for their later research. The current literature suggests having a full-time crime analyst and accountability measures as key predictors of problem-solving integration and supports the efficacy of the stratified policing framework. Further, the practical use of crime analysis by Zidar, Shader, and Eck (2018) provided a realistic look at how crime analysis should be modeled in the field. These studies were not without limitations, but they are significant contributions that provide a number of launching points for future research.
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Zidar, M. S., Shafer, J. G., & Eck, J. E. (2018). Reframing an obvious police problem: Discovery, analysis and response to a manufactured problem in a small city. Policing: A Journal of Policy & Practice, 12(3), 316–331. https://doi.org/10.1093/police/pax085
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