This is the blog for Robert Vincent, Chief of Police for the Gulfport (Florida) Police Department. Please feel free to leave comments, but keep in mind that anything appearing on this page may be subject to retention and disclosure in accordance with Florida public records law.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Community Policing vs. Problem Oriented Policing

Yes, there is a difference; and no, it's not just semantics. Let me explain. The citizens of Gulfport provide the funding that we use to hire and train police officers, purchase equipment, and conduct the day to day operations of a modern police department. My job as chief is to ensure that money is being well spent, so my goal is to keep people feeling as safe as possible, using as little of our resources as possible. Community policing and problem oriented policing are how we get it done.

Calls for Service

Let's start with calls for service (CFS). For many years, police departments (including Gulfport) focused on CFS as the primary workload of police officers. Generally speaking, somebody called the police, and we would send an officer. The officer would gather and report the information, investigate if need be, maybe make an arrest, and then move on to the next call. The theory used to be that by calculating the number of CFS, a chief could determine the number of officers he needed on patrol. The problem is, that is a very wasteful way to do business. If you look closely at those calls, you begin to notice that the vast majority of them were repeats. We were going to the same places and dealing with the same people over and over again. If each time we just dealt with the immediate situation, chances were we would be back again very soon. To make better use of police officers' time, it makes more sense to address the root of the problem so that we don't have to come back again.

Problem Oriented Policing

Problem oriented policing is the answer to the repeat CFS dilemma. New officers are being trained (and older ones re-trained) to recognize the signs of problems rather than individual incidents. They employ a dedicated, multi-phased approach to identifying and resolving problems. This approach is known as the SARA method.

Scanning--relying on personal observations, input from citizens and business owners, or even news reports, officers note trends that could indicate potential problems. They focus on problems that tend to result in criminal activity or the perception/fear of criminal activity.

Analysis--following up on their initial observations, officers conduct detailed review of all available facts about the problem. Often times, they employ our full-time analyst to assist as they take note of prior calls and reports, individual criminal histories, intelligence documents, and any other records that may exist. The review of this information will either confirm or invalidate the problem.

Response--if the analysis proves that a genuine problem exists, the officer next devises and implements a plan to resolve that problem. This is where the efficiency comes into play. Take, for example, a problem where high school kids are stealing cell phones and GPS devices out of unlocked cars that are parked on the roadways along the kids' walking commute after school. One response could involve the deployment of several undercover officers for several days in a row, hoping to catch and apprehend the burglars in the act. There is, however, a much more effective (and less expensive) way to handle the problem. The one officer could contact resources at the high school to amend the walking routes, work with juvenile probation officers to identify known burglars and enforce compliance with court ordered-sanctions, ask existing crime watch groups to help spread the word to neighbors how to better secure their vehicles, and employ the city's public relations department to air a televised PSA on auto burglary prevention. In the end, this approach is much more likely to resolve the problem, and it uses considerably less police resources.

Assessment--once the resolution is completed, the officer will want to know if it had an effect. Again, this requires extensive analysis of factors that relate to the problem. Have crimes or calls of this nature decreased? Do citizens report feeling less threatened by these circumstances? If the assessment does not indicate improvement, the officer will go back and try again, this time using a different resolution with different resources.

Community Policing

If problem oriented policing is the vehicle we use to get the job done, community policing is the fuel. In all phases of the SARA model, officers are called upon to make use of various resources. In scanning, they have to know the community stakeholders in order to get a feel for what these people are experiencing. In the analysis, officers must know who to ask for information. Whether it's utility billing information, code enforcement history, or conditions of criminal probation, officers must make and maintain contacts in all sorts of places in order to get the intelligence they need. When it comes time to implement the resolution, other contacts become valuable. How valuable is it, for example, to be on good terms with the manager of the fish market when you want to plant a hidden camera inside the store to record activity across the street? Finally, in order to assess the effectiveness of the resolution, the officers must know who and how to ask. After all, even the best efforts are worth little or nothing if you don't help the right people in the right way.

The ongoing conduct by police officers that identifies, develops, and maintains these valuable contacts is known as community policing. It is through this important process that we gain the resources to use in identifying and solving problems, and it is the use of those resources that allows us to do the most good for the least expense of taxpayers' money.

For more information on community and problem oriented policing, visit the the US Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at : http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/