What do aviation, construction, and medicine have in common? Checklists. To a greater or lesser extent all routinely use checklists to manage complexity and reduce error. Their checklists do differ in form and function, however. In large-scale construction projects, checklists are used both to ensure routine build quality and to help address atypical problems. In aviation, checklists are used as the standard by airline pilots in the interests of passenger safety. And more recently, in medicine, the adherence to checklist procedures has been shown to substantially reduce both complications (and deaths) during surgery and bloodstream infections from central venous catheters (Gawande 2010; Pronovost and Vohr 2010).
The need for checklists of this sort arises when research evidence and practice has revealed a series of steps that is highly likely to lead to success, but where ignorance, ineptitude, discretion, and error mean such steps might easily, and detrimentally, be overlooked. To varying degrees, policing faces these conditions.
In a recent paper we speculated on the use of checklists to overcome persistent challenges encountered when carrying out problem-oriented policing (Sidebottom, Tilley, and Eck 2012). These challenges exist at three levels: integrating problem orientation within police agencies; delivering problem-oriented work, most commonly through using the SARA model; and implementing preventive responses. Take the latter. The problem-oriented policing literature is filled with examples where the implementation of selected measures is patchy, poorly timed, uncoordinated, or lacking the required follow through, thereby falling short of the sought-for outcomes.
This is clearly seen with efforts to reduce repeat burglary victimization, where a review of studies by Grove and Farrell (2012) revealed that better implementation of measures was associated with larger reductions in crime. However, in the case of repeat victimization, the quite large number of research studies that are available, when taken together, reveal several important features that should be considered, which we suggest may usefully be organized into a checklist (as shown in Table 1).
Table 1: A repeat burglary victimization project delivery checklist
We predict that the development of checklists like that of Table 1 may improve the response it summarizes. A checklist’s deliberately simple format often belies its sophistication. As can be seen in Table 1, this simple 15-item checklist draws attention to critical—and sometimes unobvious—steps that need to be taken if a repeat burglary victimization scheme is to be successful.
If those carrying out problem-oriented work were required to summarize the proposed intervention in the form of a workable checklist, they may be less likely to omit critical steps in their intervention, overlook important stakeholders, or neglect other vital details. Furthermore, such a checklist provides a useful means of documenting the implementation of the response, thereby providing valuable information for its assessment. Context is important in crime prevention. Consequently, any checklist relating to the implementation of specific measures would undoubtedly have to adapt to the particular initiative and setting under study.
Some will baulk at our suggestions. They will justifiably claim that problem-oriented policing is an iterative, open-ended search to determine effective solutions to knotty police-relevant problems. Reducing this to mechanistic box-ticking is at best overly-simple and at worse regressive. We share their sentiments, in part. But after examining fields that have successfully used checklists, and that are every bit as complex and iterative as police problem solving, we conclude that checklists offer clear advantages, particularly when dealing with complex open-ended problems. We see checklists as supplementing the numerous strategies already in place to help manage the complexity involved in doing problem-oriented policing, not to be worked through slavishly but to act as an aide-memoir to ensure that actions that research evidence suggests is important are considered and not forgotten.
What we propose is an invitation to the field. Evidence-based checklists have brought about substantial improvements in allied problem-solving fields. Time will tell if such effects are transferable to policing. Presently, the potential for similarly derived checklists to improve aspects of problem-oriented policing has received little attention. We think it deserves more.
John E. Eck
Gawande, A. 2010. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. London, UK: Profile Books.
Grove, L., and G. Farrell. 2012. “Once Bitten, Twice Shy? Repeat Victimization and its Prevention.” In B. Welsh and D. Farrington (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Crime Prevention, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pronovost, P. J., and E. Vohr. 2010. Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals: How One Doctor’s Checklist can Help us Change Health Care from the Inside Out. Plume: Penguin.
Sidebottom, A., N. Tilley, and J.E. Eck. 2012. Towards Checklists to Reduce Common Sources of Problem-Solving Failure. Policing: A journal of Policy and Practice.
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