Systematic Pattern Response Strategy
Protecting the Beehive
By Roberto Santos, M.S.
Traditional police strategies for crime reduction have focused on addressing individual incidents, such as calls for service and crime investigations. The goal is to resolve incidents as they arise and arrest offenders so they can be punished for their crimes. Patrol officers primarily carry out this work with the guidance of first-line supervisors. Mid- and upper-level managers focus on the allocation of resources and the resolution of personnel issues, becoming involved in street-level work mainly during critical incidents.
Over the past 30 years, innovative approaches (e.g., problem-oriented, community-oriented, disorder, and intelligence-led policing, along with Compstat) have been developed that seek to apply crime-reduction strategies beyond isolated incidents.1 In 2004, the National Research Council review of police approaches found that crime-reduction strategies that employ data and analysis to identify issues larger than incidents (i.e., patterns and problems); focus their efforts in particular places, times, and on specific offenders; and prioritize police efforts prove much more effective than traditional methods that are not focused.2 Although numerous specific examples of effective crime-reduction efforts implemented for crime patterns and larger problems exist, the basic nature of policing (responding to calls and investigating crimes) has not changed, and few, if any, police departments have institutionalized crime-reduction efforts at a larger level than an incident.3
With the limited and shrinking resources that police executives face today, it is necessary, more than ever, for organizations to employ systematic crime-reduction efforts to become more efficient and effective. One method is the systematic pattern response strategy. This is part of a larger model of crime reduction—the Stratified Model of Problem Solving, Analysis, and Accountability—that addresses immediate, short-term, and long-term problems.4 This model takes into account the results of police research on traditional, problem-oriented, hot spots, and intelligence-led policing, as well as Compstat, and presents a structure for all police ranks within an organization to systematically address a range of problems.5
To address crime and disorder beyond the incident level, the Stratified Model first distinguishes different kinds of problems for which crime-reduction strategies can be implemented. The problems vary based on their complexity and temporal nature (more complex problems develop over longer periods of time). Importantly, to be most effective, a police department must address concerns at all levels because if smaller, more immediate problems are resolved successfully, they will not become larger, long-term ones.6 Thus, the model breaks down activities generating police response into three categories based on their complexity and temporal nature.
- Immediate activity: Individual calls for service and crimes (individual incidents)
- Short-term activity: Patterns (groups of similar crimes taking place in a relatively short time frame linked together by modus operandi, offender, location type, and property taken)
- Long-term activity: Problems (set of related activities occurring over a longer period of time resulting from individuals’ routine behavior and the systematic opportunities for crime created by their behavior)
The primary conceptual component of the Stratified Model is that various ranks within the police organization are responsible and held accountable for implementing appropriate strategies for addressing the different levels of problems. Higher ranks in the organization that have more authority and experience address more complex issues, and the traditional hierarchical structure of the organization ensures that the implementation of crime-reduction strategies takes place.7 Separating and distinguishing the types of problems allows a variety of personnel within the agency to provide different analyses, responses, and accountability. To help illustrate this model, the author highlights one aspect, patterns.
Patterns consist of two or more similar crimes related by modus operandi, victim, offender, location, or property that typically occur over days, weeks, or months and focus on offenses wherein victims and perpetrators do not know one another, such as stranger rape, robbery, burglary, and grand theft.8 Patterns represent the core component of the Stratified Model and crime-reduction efforts because they are realistic and manageable for police response; research has shown that addressing hot-spot patterns, in particular, can prove successful; and the police, the community, and the media are most concerned about their immediate resolution (e.g., a serial robber or burglar operating in the past two weeks in a specific area).9 Because patterns occur in the short-term, effective responses also must happen quickly and with purpose. In addition, if stopping patterns from continuing is important, an appropriate amount of resources must be allocated.
“Patterns represent the core component of the Stratified Model and crime-reduction efforts because they are realistic and manageable for police response....”
The Beehive Effect
The author offers his strategy, the Beehive Effect, as a way that police organizations could react to crime patterns. When threatened, bees respond by exiting the hive with enough resources (bees) to expel the threat and protect the colony. Not sparing any chance of failure, they do not send one or two bees to investigate the threat nor react days after it occurs. Instead, they respond immediately with a significant amount of force. The resources necessary to protect the hive are enormous, immediate, and aggressive. The bees respond with purpose, teamwork, and one goal in mind: to swarm and eradicate the threat. Finally, because every time the response is the same (immediate and severe), everyone knows not to threaten a beehive. The author believes that police organizations also should take this approach.
Similarly, when a pattern is identified (e.g., five related residential burglaries in an area during a week or three street robberies of elderly people by the same suspect), it represents a threat to the community and, as a result, to the police. The Beehive Effect would dictate that police respond immediately to a pattern every time with an appropriate amount of resources to neutralize the threat. All divisions in the police organization would respond cooperatively to patterns based on their capabilities so that a collective and comprehensive response occurs. The response would be automatic and institutionalized throughout the organization. To further break down the Beehive Effect and the approach to pattern responses, four important aspects require specific attention.
- Systematic and appropriate identification of patterns
- Coordination of appropriate and effective responses
- Accountability for ensuring responses occur consistently for every pattern
- Evaluation of successful elimination of crimes and future patterns
Identification and Bulletins
Importantly, patterns are not counts of crime or identified via statistics or percent change but by a crime analyst through a qualitative methodology.10 Police agencies must recognize that officers cannot be responsible for identifying patterns during their normal duties because they do not have the time or the access to crime databases and must focus on other priorities. Thus, to facilitate a systematic pattern response system, personnel must be assigned to conduct pattern analysis on a continual basis. These crime analysts are trained in pattern identification methodology and have specific knowledge of the databases available in a police department. To this end, agencies must invest in the analysis capacity to consistently and effectively respond to patterns.
A pattern is not a cluster of residential burglaries in a particular area, but a group of residential burglaries occurring in a specific location and linked by time of day, day of week, property taken, modus operandi, or other means. Crime analysts identify many types of patterns, as several examples illustrate.11
Detective Lieutenant Santos serves with the Port St. Lucie, Florida, Police Department.
- Series: A run of similar crimes committed by the same individual against one or various victims or targets (e.g., robbery of convenience stores by one offender)
- Spree: A pattern characterized by a high frequency of criminal activity to the extent that it appears almost continuous and seems to involve the same offender, usually over a short time span with no “cooling off” period (e.g., seven cars burglarized along the same street in one night)
- Hot spot: A specific location or small area where an unusual amount of criminal activity occurs committed by one or more offenders (e.g., residential burglaries in a 3-block area in a week)
- Hot product: A specific type of property targeted in the same or different types of crime (e.g., flat-screen TVs taken in commercial and residential burglaries)
- Hot target: A type of place frequently victimized but not necessarily in the same area (e.g., day-care centers where purses are being taken from vehicles while mothers drop off their children)
Once an agency identifies a pattern, it can summarize and format the information into a succinct, relevant pattern bulletin used to direct responses. Although the substantive information within the bulletin changes based on the type of pattern and crime, the format and basic components remain consistent. Each bulletin is actionable, wherein it provides information that compels response and guides resources toward the appropriate times, days, areas, and offenders. The bulletin is disseminated throughout the police organization as soon as it is completed, rather than on a set publication schedule, so that immediate response can begin.
Once an agency has identified a pattern threat, it should immediately and appropriately respond. The patrol division should take the lead because it is operational 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Other divisions, such as criminal and special investigations, crime prevention, and public information can support patrol’s response in ways appropriate to their functions. By sharing the workload, each division contributes a realistic amount of resources that together can result in a significant level of response.
Part of the development of a systematic pattern response system includes identifying the appropriate and effective potential responses for short-term crime patterns. Through research and practice, police have identified many effective tactics for short-term issues. These responses can be implemented whenever and wherever the pattern occurs or during normal waking/business hours.12 They can be broken down into a list or “recipe” of responses and allocated to the appropriate division within the police agency, such as—
- employing, in the areas and times where a pattern occurs, directed patrol (in cars, on bikes, or on foot) that can make field contacts to deter offenders and provide potential investigative leads;13
- using surveillance in a particular area at a specific time to make an arrest;14
- conducting “sting” or “bait” operations where people or property have been targeted in a particular pattern;15
- clearing cases by using an arrest in one case to clear others in the pattern;
- contacting potential victims directly about the crime pattern and ways to protect themselves (according to research, crime prevention education works best when targeted at specific victims, times, and areas);16 and
- distributing pattern information to the public to encourage citizens to provide additional information (“tips”), to warn offenders, and to offer crime prevention advice.17
“Importantly, patterns are not counts of crime or identified via statistics or percent change, but by a crime analyst through a qualitative methodology.”
The author’s agency, the Port St. Lucie Police Department (PSLPD), requires responses to patterns from each division, with patrol taking the lead and overseeing the coordination of them. Creating the resources (e.g., purchasing bait vehicles, creating crime prevention flyers, staffing specialized units) and developing policy on the requirements (immediate and coordinated) ensure the department addresses patterns immediately, as well as consistently.
Not all responses, however, are required or appropriate for each pattern because the type of pattern and the seriousness and number of crimes in the pattern varies. For example, a series of street robberies in a residential neighborhood requires much more resources and response than a spree of car burglaries occurring in a night at an apartment complex. The PSLPD follows standard procedures when assigning the responses to its divisions based on their organizational charts and resource levels:
Neighborhood Policing Bureau (Patrol)
- Directed marked patrol in the pattern area (car or bike)
- Unmarked patrol in the pattern area
- DART (Directed Area Response Team): specialized unit (one sergeant and six officers) stops people in pattern area and conducts surveillance
Criminal Investigations Bureau
- Crimes in each pattern area assigned to one detective
- Known offenders in pattern area contacted
- Bait car deployment in the pattern area
- Unmarked patrol/surveillance in the pattern area
Crime Prevention and Public Information
- Potential victims contacted directly via reverse 911, letters, flyers, and in person
- Media alerts
In the Stratified Model, an accountability system ensures that pattern responses are implemented immediately, systematically, and appropriately. The PSLPD began a Compstat-like process in 1999, but, more recently, has adapted it to facilitate crime reduction as outlined in the Stratified Model. Although district patrol commanders are ultimately responsible for the overall crime-reduction efforts, shift lieutenants (corresponding with when the pattern occurs) take the lead in patrol and are assigned the responsibility of making sure that pattern responses are overseen by sergeants and implemented by patrol officers and that support divisions and units are deployed appropriately.
“By sharing the workload, each division contributes a realistic amount of resources that together can result in a significant level of response.”
Documentation is an important aspect of accountability that not only provides a record of the work being done but also recognizes efforts and reinforces the system. The PSLPD has taken advantage of its intranet system to facilitate documentation of pattern responses. When the crime analysts identify a pattern, they immediately post the pattern bulletin on the agency’s intranet system for sworn personnel to review. A pattern discussion board provides officers the capability to post discussion threads of information about their responses, as well as their knowledge of the pattern area, known offenders, and field interviews conducted. It also allows supervisors to monitor whether appropriate responses are taking place. The threads enable commentary to occur in “real time,” allowing information once passed haphazardly by word of mouth to be reviewed by all personnel. This helps inform all police personnel about the progress of pattern responses.
Officers, detectives, specialized units, crime prevention personnel, and anyone else implementing part of the pattern response record the relevant information on the thread for everyone to see. This information also is archived, and the responsible sergeant or lieutenant creates a summary of the pattern from the thread information once it has been resolved. The patrol captain responsible for the area in which the pattern occurred receives this information so it can be discussed in the monthly meeting.
As part of the accountability structure, weekly “action oriented” meetings are held to systematically coordinate and review progress of pattern-response strategies among the police divisions, and monthly meetings are used to evaluate their effectiveness. The PSLPD’s weekly meetings bring together patrol, investigations, and crime prevention captains and lieutenants to review the responses in progress, evaluate those coming to a close, discuss needed resources, and coordinate new responses that must be implemented. The monthly meetings make sure that responses are implemented consistently across regional areas, that adequate resources are provided, and that the responses are effective. In each monthly meeting, the patrol captains present the responses and their results of any patterns occurring that month. The command staff uses a series of maps and statistics to determine whether pattern responses are effective or whether larger problems are emerging.
Figure 2 is an example of a map of one district for three months illustrating theft-from-vehicle offenses. It shows several isolated patterns in Zones 22 and 23 of District 2, while the reoccuring patterns in Zone 21 indicate that the responses may not be deployed effectively or quickly enough or that a different or immediate approach may be necessary. Importantly, the accountability processes facilitated through the intranet system, as well as in the weekly and monthly meetings, remain ongoing and consistent to ensure accountability and evaluation occur at every level of the organization.
The PSLPD has made substantial strides over the past six years implementing and routinizing the pattern response strategy, as well as the other aspects of the Stratified Model. Some of the achievements include a significant increase in the crime analysis function. Two analysts create five to 10 pattern bulletins and 10 to 20 other analysis bulletins each month. Communication has improved considerably among different divisions through the coordination of responses in the field and the weekly and monthly meetings. Also, major progress has occurred in the number of pattern responses, their consistency, and coordination among divisions, along with accountability at all levels. Accountability meetings are more focused and centered on crime-reduction responses and their effectiveness and not simply bent on reviewing statistics or identifying clusters of crimes on a map.
Some evidence that the PSLPD’s strategies are working is based on the most recent property crime statistics. Theft from vehicle has been one of the most frequent crimes and a major focus for pattern response in Port St. Lucie. A 82 percent increase in these crimes occurred between June 2004 through May 2005 and June 2007 through May 2008 (a 3-year period). From June 2007 through May 2008 and June 2008 through May 2009, a one percent increase of these crimes occurred, during which time the PSLPD implemented the pattern response system and the sharp incline seemed to taper off. The most recent comparison of June 2008 through May 2009 and June 2009 through May 2010 shows, for the first time in five years, a declining trend in these crimes, with a decrease of 22 percent. Also, interviews and discussions with personnel in the department revealed that, overall, officers and supervisors feel their strategies have become more effective. Moreover, they have received positive feedback from citizens about the information being provided on crime and disorder in their neighborhoods.
“Documentation is an important aspect of accountability that not only provides a record of the work being done but also recognizes efforts and reinforces the system.”
Faced with diminishing resources, police executives will need more efficient and focused approaches to implement crime-reduction strategies. The Stratified Model of Problem Solving, Analysis, and Accountability is a systematic approach to addressing crime and disorder at various levels (e.g., incidents, patterns, and problems) that can be infused into the existing structure of police organizations with little cost. Patterns, arguably, represent the core component of the Stratified Model, as well as police departments’ crime-reduction efforts, because they are realistic for police response, they rely on existing police resources. Also, research has shown that police can successfully address them, and everyone is concerned and supportive of their immediate resolution.
An effective systematic pattern response strategy is automatic and institutionalized into the daily business of policing and is analogous to a swarm of bees protecting its hive. A police department invests in crime analysis to consistently identify patterns. It responds to patterns with immediacy and coordination, as well as with purpose and teamwork. As part of the accountability structure, weekly meetings are action oriented, and monthly meetings are used to evaluate response effectiveness. As a result, implementing an effective Systematic Pattern Response Strategy in this way accomplishes the Beehive Effect.
“Some evidence that the PSLPD’s strategies are working is based on the most recent property crime statistics.”