Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What's your problem?

So. As you've asked. The day job.

I work for the Metropolitan Police Problem Solving Unit. There are three of us in the team - all police officers - and we come from a variety of backgrounds and all have some expertise in a range of skills and knowledge. Our job is to help others to find sustainable solutions to persistent problems that have not responded to traditional enforcement methods. And by 'enforcement' I'm talking about the widest possible range of legal options available to public-service organisations all working together in partnership; organisations like town and county councils, local authorities, housing departments, social services, schools and colleges, health trusts, fire and rescue etc. Incidentally, that 'partnership' word will crop up time and time again. It's not just a nod to political correctness or a fashionable buzz-phrase. It's a really vital component of what we do. Problem solving isn't just a case of coming up with a bunch of mad ideas and hoping that one of them works. It's a science. And it can be used for tackling anything from dog poop on the pavements to international terrorism. It works like this.

All problems have three components:

There is always something or someone that is causing the problem, someone or something that is affected by the problem, and a place in time and space where the two of them come together - that's where and when the problem occurs. This may seem like common sense. And it is. But our natural tendency as human beings is to simplify matters, so we tend to tackle a problem on only one side of the triangle at a time, usually the cause. This is all very well, but if you want a more complete and sustainable (there's that word again) solution, you must tackle all three sides.

Take burglary for instance. The police can arrest as many burglars as you like but burglary won't go away. That's because there will always be a steady stream of motivated offenders (cause) ready to fill any 'job vacancy' created by the arrests. Meanwhile, if the victims (effect) continue to act in much the same way as they always have and the location (space-time) remains unchanged, the offender's job is made that much easier. They have a template to work from - all of the previous successful burglaries in that area. So we advocate a three-pronged problem solving approach:
  • Cause - We work on catching the bad guy. Of course we do. But we also try to identify what makes someone become an offender in the first place and try to divert potential burglars away from the swag bag (often in partnership with youth groups and other agencies). We also work with convicted offenders to try to stop them re-offending.

  • Effect - We work in partnership with the householders to make them less likely to be victims in future. This means education. We offer crime prevention advice (close your windows!) and reassurance (visits, setting up Neighbourhood Watch schemes etc.).

  • Space-Time - We encourage people to take some degree of control of their personal protection by modifying the location (alarms, security lights, gravel paths, window locks etc.). We show them how to secure a home without creating a fortress or instilling a siege mentality.

Sometimes, however, the obvious solutions don't work and, despite our best efforts, the problem persists. That's when we have to become a little bit more creative. To do that we firstly find out exactly what the problem is with detailed research and analysis. We're not in the business of sticking plasters and antibiotics - We want to cure the disease. By understanding the root causes we can start to develop ideas to remove them.

If you had a park nearby but were afraid to use it because aggressive drunks go there every afternoon and then fall asleep on the park benches ... what would you do? You've tried traditional methods like asking them to go or calling the police. But these people are locked into a lifestyle they find impossible to break free from, and they are often so drunk that any attempt at communication is fruitless.

It would be easy to take the one-sided triangle approach and keep on arresting the drunks or chasing them away. But, as I said, that won't provide any degree of permanency. You just create a vacancy for other drunks. Or we could simply remove the benches. But that punishes everybody. Where will the pensioners sit? Or the young parents? And aren't some benches wearing memorial plaques? The donors' families won't like that.

Those are one sided soutions. So how about a solution that looks at all three sides of the triangle instead? How about firstly changing the design of the benches. This doesn't disadvantage the lawful park users (victims) and the visual effect on the location in minimal. A lot of people probably wouldn't even notice the substitution. But the drunks will. Oh yes. Now they can't sleep on the benches any more, there's a good chance that they'll move on elsewhere. But solving a problem doesn't mean just pushing it elsewhere. If we think of these people as victims too, maybe we can work in partnership (I warned you about that word) with families, outreach workers, social services etc. to offer these unfortunates a way off of the Hellish merry-go-round that is their life. That's a complete solution. That's problem solving done properly.

It's a simple example but it demonstrates what we do: We research the underlying causes of a problem; We identify the biggest and most solid pillars that support the problem continuing; We design ways to knock those pillars down. Occasionally those methods are unorthodox, unusual, creative or unlikely ... but if they work, that's all that matters. Remember, if everything else has been tried and failed, there are only the unorthodox, unusual, creative or unlikely things left to try. So giving clubbers lollipops at chucking-out time may seem a strange thing for coppers to be doing but it doesn't half break down barriers and it reduces noise levels.

So now you know what I do.

I may only have a year of my day job left before I 'retire' but I don't foresee any let-up in the pressures of work. There may be a credit crunch and a possible recession but there's never any shortage of problems to tackle, believe me.

*When looking at crimes specifically, we change the headings to Victim, Offender, Location but the same applies.


Stuart Peel said...

How remarkably sensible and intelligent. How the Hell was this allowed to actually happen ?

Me said...

Stevyn is a very knowledgeable and acomplished in the police world of problem solving. He is being very modest. I have seen him present his work to 50 senior cops in the USA with just a pen and a flip chart and yet engaged everyone of them with his common sense can do attitude.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Stu - I know. It'll never work ...

Me - You are too kind. You're pretty damned good at what you do too. And a great mate. x

pamokc said...

Simplicity is almost always the best solution! And I think I'm a problem solver, this is brilliant! So what do you recommend for late night neighborhood car break-ins that my area is going through?

Stevyn Colgan said...

Pamokc - Welcome! It's always difficult to answer the question 'What would you do about ...' because the features of every single problem are unique. Different solutions are needed depending upon the type of location and vehicle, the age and modus operandi of the offender and the demographic of the victims. People who are opportunists - like those who steal SatNavs (GPS) operate differently to those who specifically target certain vehicles for parts, components etc. or who are out to steal the car itself. The research and analysis phase of the process can be quite lengthy but it does provide you with very specific 'critical success factors' (I hate business jargon) to achieve. If you want to know more, go to this webpage:


... and read No.6 'Not rocket science' by Tim Read and Nick Tilley. It's a 'starter book' for those using problem solving techniques for the first time. Professor Nick Tiley is a good friend of mine, recently retired. But he was, and probably is still, one of the leading British academics in this field of crime science.

And now, back to some cartoons (much more me).

punk in writing said...

Your day job sounds like a lot of fun!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Punky - It is ... and it isn't. Some problems are frustratingly simple to fix but it only needs a lack of goodwill or support from some vital person or organisation and things stay the same. The best reward is when you really make a difference. I had an 82 year old lady burst into tears once and tell me that thanks to the work myself and others had done she felt safe in her home for the first time in 40 years. That's job satisfaction.


Ok here's one for you. A friend of mine's daughter owns a nightclub in Sheffield. The problem is an odd one.....The girls are smashing up the toilets, the mens are fine but the girls....another matter!

Helen Smith said...

What a fantastic job description, like being a modern-day wizard.

Janet said...

Thanks so much for the peek into your world! How amazing that such a unit exists - professional problem-solvers!

Ahhh...whether you're working or retired, you'll be problem-solving forever. Just like I - sadly - risk-manage more facets of my life than I actually should be...


Stevyn Colgan said...

Simon - Well, O Bro of mine, ask your friend to give me a call. Every problem is unique and will require a unique set of responses. Though I would check to make sure that it's not the regular club of Dr Jekyll's sister. Or Sharon Hulk.

Helen - I have the beard already! But no, it is simply common sense and a bit of creative thinking. No frogs' legs or snakes' eyes involved. Maybe a pig's brain though. Harf.

Janet - Surprisingly, units like mine do exist all over the place. Lancashire Constabulary in particular are brilliant at this stuff. So are Hampshire. In the US, places like Charlotte in North Carolina are bloody experts. And what Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton did in New York is this exact same process taken to the Nth degree and supported by oodles of cash. It's nothing new. But it is beyond the short-term thinking of many bosses.