What of Checklists for Problem-Oriented Policing?

Image: Check boxWhat 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

  1. Does the identified local crime problem satisfy the CHEERS (of concern to the Community, cause Harms, Expect police response, and relate to Events that Recur and are Similar) criteria?
  2. Have the recorded crime data been cleaned to attempt to remove inconsistencies in victim/target identifiers?
  3. Are the recorded crime data at a sufficient level of granularity to allow for reliable analysis (i.e., crimes are accurately recorded to a specific household)?
  4. Are victims routinely asked about their previous crime experience, whether or not it was reported and recorded?
  5. Has the proportion of all burglaries that comprise repeats been calculated from recorded crime and from victim responses to enquiries?
  6. Has the prevalence (number of victims over a given period), incidence (number of burglaries over the period), and concentration (burglaries per victim) of burglaries been estimated?
  7. Has account been taken of the time window effect on measured rates of repeat victimization (burglaries toward the start of the period have longer for repeats than those toward the end)?
  8. Has the time course of repeat victimization been estimated (pattern of periods or repeat incidents)?
  9. Are all known victims provided with relevant advice on their increased risk and measures they can take to reduce it?
  10. Are victims able to secure increases in their own protection provided with subsidized increased protection from third parties?
  11. Are systems in place to apply externally provided preventive measures promptly (within days of an incident)?
  12. Is a strategy to increase the intensity of intervention with successive incidents in place?
  13. Is the implementation of the strategy undertaken routinely (victim interviews, time to intervention, escalation of intervention, and measures put in place), with feedback to relevant managers?
  14. Are data collected and analyzed to track changes in the rate of repeat victimization and changes in prevalence rates?
  15. Has the strategy been adjusted in light of the implementation patterns?

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.  

Aiden Sidebottom
ick Tilley
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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