Solution orientated policing

This issue, the Research Inspector looks at a new research-informed approach that could offer further alternatives beyond problem orientated policing.

Oct 10, 2023
By Professor John Coxhead

For many years, policing has been dominated by problem orientated policing (POP) that advocates analysis of a problem encountered, to understand its causes, to inform an appropriate intervention. Problem orientated policing is associated with Professor Herman Goldstein, as an evolvement beyond simply reacting to incidents.

Goldstein’s (1979) approach was further developed by Eck and Spelman (1987) by adding the now familiar Scan, Analysis, Response and Assessment (SARA) structure. Glensor, Correia and Peak (2000) commented that the arrival of problem solving in this way represented a ‘new policing’ era.

Scott (2000), although conceding that displacement was an ongoing challenge within problem solving approaches, points out that it remains a promising approach and is preferable to simply reactive policing.

A new research informed approach is now able to offer further alternatives beyond problem solving, by further stretching the proactive potential possible when adopting a more ambitious mindset. Uduwerage-Perera and Coxhead (2021) have been exploring how solution orientated policing might work within international policing contexts. There is now an opportunity for solution orientated policing to be applied in the UK.

Engineering a strategy for quality 

A solutions approach is one dominated by the solution, not the problem, and focuses upon achieving effective, quality outcomes from the outset. It takes the initiative entirely away from reacting, towards building what you want rather than trying to fix what’s not working.

For several decades, policing policy and practice has been influenced to be more ambitious than simply react, by taking a problem-solving approach. Yet, in its own way, problem solving is still a more mature form of reaction, as it remains dominated by a repeating reactive response to emergent problems.

Such a transactional approach over many years has shown not to enable growth and is both costly in time and financial investment because it never ends. Solution orientated is a more transformational approach, initially inspired by the work of Professor W. Edwards Deming (1993), which advocates setting a quality outcome goal and then working collaboratively to achieve it.

Yale graduate Professor Deming was an engineer who taught at several institutions including Columbia University, putting an emphasis on achieving quality through integrating effort and focus, working consistently towards a clear purpose. Deming’s work had major successes in several businesses in Japan and the US and was reported to not only improve quality outcomes, but also reduce labour costs and waste at the same time.

A new policing paradigm

Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera and John Coxhead, working from the International PIEL Centre in London, have been researching how to adapt Deming’s principles into modern policing, which involves adopting a new paradigm of what policing is for. A new paradigm for policing is important for the change required; that means a change in how we think about policing, what policing does, and how it does it.

The original Peelian Principles (1829) included the ambition to pursue the absence of crime, rather than an arrest rate, as an indication of policing success. Yet for decades, policing has slid into a reactive arrest metric, with little regard for preventative proactivity.

Peelian principles were an ambitious blueprint but policing has failed to pursue and implement them.

Further, although policing continually reports being overwhelmed by demand and being overly busy, often to the point of crisis, there is much uncertainty over what the role of policing is.

The most recent UK Royal Commission on the police reported in 1962, led by Henry Willink, informing the Police Act of 1964, but since then there have been piecemeal reviews, as well as highly critical reports, such as MacPherson (1999) and Casey (2023).

In terms of assessing modern policing through the lens of Deming, it is confused and too busy to clarify its function.

Policing is wandering reactively in a continual crisis state rather than being focused upon pursuing quality goals: as Clive Lewis, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, famously pointed out, “if you don’t know where you are going it doesn’t matter which path you take”.

Reacting to crisis and problems is not a strategy for growth, but survival. There is little wonder that policing is perpetually buffeted by emergent problems that drain all of its resource and energy, affecting not only performance but morale. Working towards a goal that is the desired state is a strategy, which then can be achieved by applying a form of reverse engineering – but always focused on the solution, not the problem.

Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera has been collaborating with Rashtriya Raksha University, India’s National Police and Security Institution, on how a solution-orientated approach could revolutionise policing policy and practice. Research colleague Professor Dimpal Raval is spearheading the adoption of a solution orientated approach to policy and practice as an exemplar for national adoption across India.

The difference between a janitor and an architect

A former police officer and Bramshill Police Staff College tutor, Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera, explains solution orientated metaphorically, as the difference between a janitor and an architect: “A janitor is employed to maintain a building, often in poor repair, trying to fix an outdated structure with outdated equipment and a good day for them is just to survive it. Then it all starts again tomorrow; it’s a constant cycle of trying to fix failure. By contrast, a good architect understands, then articulates, a vision of what is actually needed for the future and ensures that quality is built.”

The challenge with policing is that it has been so used to being led by problems it has become worn out through its continual reactivity and is now losing public confidence.

Taking a solution orientated approach means it can now think differently about its purpose.

Working out what good looks like so it can move towards it, is an opportunity to make policing by consent real, by working collaboratively on what good looks like together with the communities that policing serves.

Operational applications of solution orientated policing include public priority setting, where communities are asked what they do want rather what they do not want. This initially is often a hard task for people to adjust to because we have become so accustomed to being on the receiving end of failure that we often become cynical: meaning in many ways we have just simply given up trying for anything better.

Goal setting is a vital part of success in that you have to reach out to achieve success, not sit about hoping it may come to you one day. This stretch positivity is used as a core principle in sports psychology for example (Locke and Latham, 1985), where pursuing the art of the (im)possible is exactly how records, once thought unachievable, are indeed broken.

Applying this same vision setting empowers a local community to explicitly voice ‘what does good look like’ for them (even if they have never been able to achieve it before) which is then adopted as a joint goal, collaboratively, at a neighbourhood level, to make it happen.

This is true policing by consent, following Peelian principles, rather than the current ‘public priority setting’ which is, in reality, police priority setting, and at worst nothing more than a cynically tokenistic overlaying of already set police metrics onto a neighbourhood map.

Policing can be about hope and choice

A solutions orientated approach goal is not negatively defined as the absence of a problem, it is about what you really want to achieve.

The challenge for UK policing is it can embrace a solution orientated approach right now but first it needs to be brave enough to both articulate what does good look like (rather than ‘what are the problems?’) and then actually make it happen. Policing too often displays an insular and defensive siege mentality: this really needs to change to one of shared hope with the public, focused upon continual improvement.

Policy-wise, the question is does UK policing, stumbling along its current lost path, wish to work with the public to jointly and purposefully walk towards quality rather than squandering what little public trust in policing is left amidst failing reactive cycles? Solutions orientated mindset is about hope and choice: choosing to take the initiative towards the authentic goal rather than passively resigning yourself to a drudgery of just trying to survive.

Several other countries are now becoming interested in adopting a solution-orientated approach, including Canada and Trinidad and Tobago, because they want to be part of the solution, rather than the problem, in the future.

If you want to get involved in Solutions Orientated Policing or find out more about this high impact research contact r.uduwerage-perera@uel.ac.uk.

Dr John Coxhead SFHEA, FRSA is Professor of Policing Innovation and Learning at the international Policing Innovation Enterprise and Learning (PIEL) Centre, University of East London (uel.ac.uk), hosted at the Royal Docks School of Business and Law, London. 

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