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Workplace Violence: A Police Concern

Millions of Americans report being the victim of workplace violence each year in the United States. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), incidents of workplace violence have reached epic proportions, reaching nearly two million reported incidents annually (U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA], 2002). Although the total number of workplace violence incidents that are reported annually is staggering, only a very small percentage of those incidents end up in serious injury or death. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (Rugala & Isaacs, 2002) reports that shocking workplace homicides or multiple homicides actually represent a very small number of the reported workplace violence incidents. In fact, the majority of workplace violence incidents that most organizations and employees have to deal with on a daily basis are lesser cases of assaults, domestic violence, stalking, threats, harassment, sexual harassment and physical and/or emotional abuse that never make the headlines (Rugala & Isaacs, 2002).

Workplace violence is one of many crisis situations that police officers respond to that not only have risks inherent for the responding officers and individuals caught in the dynamics of the crisis itself, but for the innocent bystanders that are drawn into the scenario through the pure misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. No matter how diligently police personnel train in coordinating their response and controlling their actions to minimize the risk of harm to innocent individuals, quickly evolving and dynamic situations always seem to attract collateral damage and subsequent media scrutiny. Regardless of the extent of training, planning and care that a police organization can employ to keep innocent bystanders safe, there are certain unforeseen system accidents, or failures, that make catastrophic events either worse or harder to diagnose (Perrow, 1999).

In his book, Charles Perrow (1999), posits that in any tightly coupled system with high interactive complexity will inevitably have Normal Accidents. Normal accidents are defined as accidents that are extremely rare, but that are in fact normal, that are created by certain system failures or failures resulting from specific interactions or transformation processes. These interactions can either be tightly coupled, meaning there is a direct and immediate connection and interaction between components, or they can be loosely coupled, meaning there is some sort of slack or buffering between components (Perrow, 1999). Additionally, the interactions and transformation process can be linear or complex. Linear having orderly, easily isolated components and step by step processes that only interact with adjacent steps or complex interactions that have many connections and interrelationships (Perrow, 1999).

Although in Perrow’s theory of Normal Accidents (1999), he focuses largely on technological systems in high-risk industries that are tightly coupled with the complexities of the human-machine, his theory can be applied to societal system and how accidents can be a result of the multiple failures design, equipment, procedures, operators, supplies and the environment. One such accident is when nine bystanders were wounded after being hit by gunfire from members of the New York City police department on August 24, 2012 (Oh, 2012). An accidental police shooting of bystanders on a crowded city street is an example of how the tightly coupled complexities of the human-machine and multiple failures of procedures, operators and the environment can result in a system failure or Normal Accident.

On August 24, 2012, Steven Ercolino, the vice-president of a New York based import company was gunned down outside of his business. The suspect, a disgruntled former co-worker named Jeffrey Johnson, was previously a designer of women’s accessories for Ercolino’s company and had been laid off a year earlier as a result of downsizing (FOX, 2012). Immediately after Johnson shot and killed Ercolino on a busy New York sidewalk, he fled the area on foot. The shooting was witnessed by a construction worker, who then followed Johnson, until he was able to alert two police officers of what Johnson had done (Prokupecz, Dienst, & Cheng, 2012). As Johnson walked near the entrance to the Empire State Building he was confronted by two New York City police officers. Johnson immediately drew a .45 caliber handgun, and while pointing it at the officers, was shot and killed by officers in response to the threat (Deprez, Goldman, & Varghese, 2012). As a result of the shooting, nine bystanders were inadvertently wounded, six from gunshot wounds and three from fragments caused by ricocheting bullets (Ariosto, 2012).

Police officers routinely train for these types of incidents where an otherwise innocuous looking individual suddenly presents himself/herself as an immediate threat to either the officers themselves or the general public. However, it is impossible to train for every possible scenario due to the inherent complexities of people and their ability to think, reason and make decisions that are not always predictable. As Perrow (1999) stated, normal accidents arise from an incident or series of incidents or localized failures that then expand to disrupt or damage the larger system. An incident such as an active shooter is interactively complex and tightly coupled with environmental dynamics that in many instances leaves insufficient time and understanding to effectively control the incident and avoid accidents.

In a public setting, random bystanders create interactive complexity through their mere presence and through the fact that their decision-making during a time of crisis may be erratic, unfamiliar or unplanned and can result in an unexpected sequence of events in a system that are either not visible or not immediately comprehensible (Marais, Dulac, & Levenson, 2004). Bystanders may decide to assist in the apprehension of the actor, do nothing but stand there, or flee from their perceived danger, only to run directly into the path of the drama that is unfolding. Public active shooter events are tightly coupled events that are highly interdependent, yet tightly linked to many other parts operating within the environment and therefore a change in one part can rapidly affect the status of other parts. These tightly coupled events respond quickly to perturbations, but not unlike this event, the results may be disastrous (Marais et al., 2004).

The actor himself is another essential part of the equation. Police officers train constantly using ever-changing scenarios to confront a deadly threat and hone their crisis decision-making skills. There rarely are two real-life scenarios that are ever alike. Some may be strikingly similar, but ultimately the differences in human decision-making can cause a cascading effect that can cause what started out as a routine event, to spiral horribly out of control very quickly, before officers are able to assess the situation and take the appropriate corrective action (Marais et al., 2004). The decision of an actor to draw a weapon and take his own life or to turn that weapon on innocent bystanders or responding officers can occur within fractions of a second. In such systems, what begins as an apparently trivial incident can cascade in unpredictable ways and with possibly severe consequences (Marais et al., 2004).

The police officer’s shooting skill is also a contributing factor to system failure. Most law enforcement agencies qualify with their weapons on an annual basis. However, budgetary constraints tend to limit the amount of ammunition allotted to each officer and the training time dedicated to effective firearms training. That leaves officers on their own to hone their skills in one of the most high liability areas in the realm of public safety, the use of deadly force. Perrow (1999) posits that one of the most effective ways to eliminate hazards and reduce failures is to implement redundancy in the system. In this scenario the most effective redundancy would not be having multiple officers firing at one offender, but to have a well trained and proficient firearms expert placing accurate and effective shots on target. The problem for police administrators boils down to tradeoffs and determining how much risk is acceptable in order to achieve safety and reduce the risk of failure (Marais et al., 2004). However, to the extent that training for these types of incidents can be made safer by the elimination of human error, it will never eliminate the chance for the occurrence of a normal accident simply because of the interactive complexity of this type of tightly coupled scenario.

Workplace violence, active shooter incidents and other rapidly evolving and dynamic events will continue to present themselves within our society. The analogy that safety defenses are like slices of Swiss cheese is exactly how Normal Accident Theory would describe the chances of a system failure occurring in an interactively complex and tightly coupled scenario. No matter how high you stack the slices it is inevitable that organizational movement will cause a set of holes to line up eventually and safety defenses will be compromised (Reason, 1997; Cooke & Rohleder, 2006).





Ariosto, D. (2012). 2 dead, 9 wounded in Empire State Building shootings, police say. Retrieved from

Cooke, D. L., & Rohleder, T. R. (2006, Fall). Learning from incidents: from normal accidents to high reliability. System Dynamics Review, 22(3), 213-239.

Deprez, E. E., Goldman, H., & Varghese, R. (2012). Man slain after shooting ex-colleague near Empire State. Retrieved from

FOX (2012).

Marais, K., Dulac, N., & Levenson, N. (2004). Beyond normal accidents and high reliability organizations: The need for an alternative approach to safety in complex systems [White paper]. MIT: Author.

Oh, I. (2012, August 24,). Mayor Bloomberg addresses Empire State Building shooting, Ray Kelly IDs shooter as Jeffrey Johnson. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Oh, I. (2012, August 25,). NYPD gunfire in Empire State Building shooting wounded all nine bystanders, says Ray Kelly. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Perrow, C. (1999). Normal Accidents: Living with high-risk technologies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Prokupecz, S., Dienst, J., & Cheng, P. (2012). Empire State shooting: Bystanders hit by police rounds. Retrieved from

Reason, J. (1997). Managing the risks of organizational accidents. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing.

Rugala, E. A., & Isaacs, A. R. (Eds.). (2002). Workplace violence: Issues in response. Federal Bureau of Investigation Critical Incident Response Group. Quantico, VA: National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.

The National Center for Victims of Crime. (n.d.).

U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (2002). OSHA fact sheet. Retrieved from



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The Contribution of Research to Policing

For decade’s police organizations throughout the United States and some to some extent even today, have failed to fully embrace academia and their attempts to provide options to criminal justice dilemmas through the use of empirical and scholarly research.  One of the guiding principles of this thought process was the notion that those in academia, merely sat perched in their sterile environments theorizing about how crime could be addressed in a perfect world, and did not really understand the true idiosyncratic complexities challenging officers on the street. Additionally, law enforcement officers and administrators alike, knew that quality research of any kind takes time.  Practitioners were faced with dilemmas in real time and did not have time to wait for researchers to conduct research, compile data, analyze it and publish their results.  Additionally, academics tend to believe that what has been researched and proven scientifically will automatically work, and if not, that practitioners are ignoring research and failing to implement it.  The fact is that many practitioners welcome the research provided by academia.  Unfortunately, the criminal justice system is multi-faceted and there are many agencies, individuals and personalities that must all come together in a “ideological perfect storm” and agree to implement research findings in a collaborative manner.  In any event, the process could literally take years and most police chiefs are appointed annually. So, the inability of researchers to present viable options to real-time crime issues in real-time, and the ability for that perfect storm to form, ultimately proves to be a career ender for many police chiefs who had no alternatives at their disposal.

The facts remain that the police have a difficult and wide-ranging set of ambiguous issues facing them; researching those issues accurately and scientifically is very time consuming; and, unfortunately, even if research results were available immediately, police departments in general have had a history of being highly resistant to change and hesitant to implement new programs.  However, great strides have been taken over the past two decades, to close the gap between how the police perceive research and being able to recognize the value that research can bring to the police operation.  Police departments have become more receptive to research driven innovations to address crime and have begun to regularly collaborate with researchers in an attempt to become more focused in their research efforts.

Breaking the barriers to research has proven to be effective in many ways.  Research has been able to contribute to police work by providing answers to age-old dilemmas.  Analyzing police data has allowed researchers to theorize and suggest critical innovations in the way the police should go about the business of policing.  Innovations such as Compstat, hot spot policing, problem oriented, community policing and evidence-based policing represent just a few. Utilizing these concepts in conjunction with one another will allow the police to refine their crime control strategies and improve their performance.

It would be incredulous to assume that research is the panacea that will solve all of the problems facing the police.  Quality of life issues change, and with them change the strategies that the police will need to use to address those issues. As such, society will continue to set the priorities for the police and the police will need to rearrange their goals and strategies to meet those needs.  Additionally, police researchers will never be lacking for topics to research, and currently only the surface has been scratched.  Martin Innes (2010), in his article asserts that there are four sets of relationship in which police research arises, research by the police, research on the police, research for the police and research with the police.  Now that police administrators have begun to accept research as a viable alternative providing solutions that work, it is imperative that the collaboration between researchers, the police and all government partners remain constant and strong, or policing will lose the toehold they currently have making it even more difficult to gain ground in the future.

The ability to harness fact-based knowledge that can directly impact the effectiveness of police in addressing societal challenges is a rich investment in the stabilization of our communities.  Research provides the catalyst for innovation and increases the value of policing in our society.



Innes, M. (2013). “A ‘Mirror’ and a ‘Motor’: Researching and Reforming Policing in an Age of Austerity.” Policing: 127–134.


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In What Ways Do the Police Fall Short as Crime Fighters?

The police have always been touted as our first line of defense with regard to crime prevention and crime suppression.  For decades policing has employed a standard set of strategies utilized to reduce crime and disorder within their jurisdictions. However, extant research of these traditional strategies, which police agencies stubbornly cling to, has shown that their effectiveness in reducing crime, disorder or fear has been less than desirable.

Increasing the size of police agencies has long been at the top of the list for both politicians and police administrators.  The general belief that more police officers equates to less crime, disorder and fear has been shown through research to be ambiguous at best.  While research has shown (Sherman and Eck, 2002) that the absence of police will increase crime, no conclusive evidence has been found to confirm that increasing police staffing will subsequently cause a reduction in crime, disorder and fear.  Skogan and Frydl (2004) suggest that although more recent studies (Marvell and Moody, 1996; Levitt, 1997) have shown that marginal increases in police are related to decreases in crime rates, much more study is needed to determine how redeployment strategies come into play when additional officers are added and whether or not that has an influence on the reduction in crime rates.  The fact remains that no matter how large a police force is, crime, disorder and fear cannot be reduced if officers are simply a reactionary force that merely responds after criminal activity has occurred and does nothing proactively to attempt prevention of crime.  In today’s environment, where police are under much greater media scrutiny, reactive policing has become the safe-haven where officers hide in order to escape unwarranted attacks of their character and ethics.  Ultimately, who suffers?  In this scenario the community suffers through an increase in criminal activity, a reduction in their quality of life and the realization that the recruitment of qualified police officer candidates has been greatly diminished, as they seek careers involving less unwarranted scrutiny.

Another area in which policing has fallen short of meeting the mark is with the strategy of conducting random patrol across all parts of the community.  According to Skogan and Frydl (2004), random patrol across all police jurisdictions has been one of the areas most enduring in the standard practices of police and one that police administrators have been most stubborn in considering for adjustment.  Landmark studies in this particular area have again produced ambiguous results, with one determining that random preventive patrol can have an impact on crime and the other concluding that random patrol had no significant influence on crime prevention or reduction.  Frankly, random patrol involves being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  Random, high visibility patrol does however, tend to shore up citizen confidence and reduce the fear of crime within the community by assuring the community that the police are present. Random patrol is another strategy that warrants more research in order to make a better determination of its effectiveness.

Police administrators, officers and politicians alike are proud to report quick and efficient response times when they address citizens about crime.  Administrators also like to use delays in response time to argue for the hiring of more officers. During budget formulation, legislators are always concerned if the response times of the police are creeping higher each fiscal year, wanting to be able to make a connection to a perception of safety based on a police department’s ability to be on-scene quickly.  Research has shown that rapid response to calls for service does not reduce crime, or for that matter, even enhance an officer’s chance at making an on-scene arrest.  Studies have shown that most crimes, upwards of 75% of them, are discovered well after the offender(s) have left the scene.  Additionally, citizen delay in notifying the police, many times up to five minutes or longer, adds to the probability that the offender will not be apprehended.

With apprehension in mind, the next areas where the police fall short is in the area of generally applied follow-up investigations and generally applied enforcement and arrests.  Many agencies have no systematic follow-up process in place to revisit misdemeanor offenses that have not been closed or an offender identified upon initial investigation.  Felony cases are usually given much more attention by investigators, and due to their serious nature should be, but neglecting the follow-up of unresolved misdemeanor cases shows a lack of agency focus and is ignoring criminal activity and quality of life issues in the most basic way.

Numerous studies have shown that addressing issues through problem oriented and evidenced based policing is much more effective than generally applied enforcement. Focusing enforcement efforts and coordinating efficient follow-through can reduce crime, build confidence and legitimacy in the police and demonstrate a motive-based trust that is rooted in a social alignment between the police and the community. You have a much better opportunity of hitting a target with a rock than with a handful of sand. Focused field interrogations and have been proven to be more effective than “scattergun policing.”

The fact remains that although much research in the area of policing is needed, the focused approach to this point seems to be the most promising in assisting the police in reducing crime disorder and fear within the community.



Levitt, Steven D. 1997. Using election cycles in police hiring to estimate the effect of police on crime . American Economic Review 87 (3): 270-290.

Marvell, T.B., and Moody, C. (1996). Specification problems, police levels, and crime rates . Criminology 34 (4): 609-646.

Sherman, Lawrence W., and John E. Eck. (2002). Policing for prevention. In Evidence based crime prevention, edited by Lawrence W. Sherman, David Farrington, and Brandon Welsh. New York: Routledge.

Skogen, W.G., and Frydl, K. (2004) Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.


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Why Do Criminals Commit Crime?

Understanding the relationships between biology, family, labor markets, economy and community, and how these forces intertwine with criminal conduct, has been perplexing scholars for decades.   As a result of rigorous study, we tend to have a much wider base of knowledge regarding the patterns and causes of criminal activity on an individual level, than we know about factors that create criminal environments. In as much, we also posses a great deal more insight regarding the factors that create criminal environments than we know about factors that influence trends in crime longitudinally.  Regardless, there appears to be no single theory as to what causes an individual to participate in deviant behavior.

The law and the legal system in general set forth technical standards and expectations that represent an official normative source for defining what is deviant; it is, by definition, legitimate (Mastrofski, Snipes, Parks, & Maxwell, 2000). Throughout ones lifetime, at some point, most people will commit a crime of some sort.  It can be something as serious as a murder, or something as innocuous as violating the speed limit or littering. Additionally, some teenagers in their youthful indiscretion, tend to commit relatively serious crimes, but desist in participating in further criminal activity as they transition into adulthood.  This leads one to believe that engaging in criminal activity is not merely a biological inadequacy or a genetic flaw, but a temporary manifestation fostered by a wide array of available life choices and environmental influences. The task of criminological study in the future will be to further define those life-course influences that shape our being and influence our behavior to participate in criminal activity.  That will be no easy task, because all human beings are different, and their life experiences and exposure to criminal deviance will vary greatly.

One thing is certain.  The factors that cause one individual to participate in deviant behavior may not necessarily be the same factors that cause another individual to participate in deviant behavior.  So, one needs to be careful in how he or she defines deviant behavior and crime, because as previously stated, crime encompasses everything from littering to murder.  Additionally, one needs to examine the current level of public tolerance towards crime and the age composition of the population.  Research has shown that youthful offenders between the ages of 15-24 commit most crime, so one would expect an increase in deviant behavior to correlate directly with the age composition of the population at the time.

The underlying cause of criminal activity and deviant behavior are many to say the least. American policing has entered a time when reformers have shifted the meaning of the term professionalism from being a snappy bureaucrat to being a well-trained decision maker, acting like a clinician serving clients based on their informed judgment of what they need (Mastrofski, Snipes, Parks, & Maxwell, 2000, p. 314; Bittner, 1970)). The challenge for the criminal justice system will be its ability to be flexible, resilient and adept to change in a quickly evolving society.  Of all the ideas in policing, one stands out as the most powerful force for change: police practices should be based on scientific evidence about what works best (Sherman, 1998, p. 2). In today’s economically distressed times, police departments are required to do more with less resources. So, like it or not, it is a huge advantage to have an entire field of research dedicated to the study of what police do, at no cost to them (Engel & Whalen, 2010). The criminal justice system needs to be able to form partnerships with scholars and utilize the wealth of knowledge obtained through research to guide and define their initiatives.  However, researchers need to understand the political environment of police agencies and criminal justice systems, remaining aware that most criminal justice practitioners need quick solutions to their concerns, not something that stems from research conducted that produces a result a decade later.

In any event, inequality, poverty, unemployment, weak social controls, substance abuse, poor parent-child attachment and parental supervision, family factors, influence of peers, increased availability of firearms, public tolerance of crime and inadequate law enforcement will all no doubt have long-term influence over the ability of the criminal justice system to effectively combat criminal activity and deviant behavior.  As such, since it is obvious that deviant behavior is not a result of a single influence or a combined set of influences, it makes no sense to try and force one end-all solution.  In order to truly understand the far-reaching aspects of deviant behavior, it is necessary to observe criminal activity as it unfolds in a dynamic environment (Maguire & Katz, 2002). Varied strategies, including ethnographic research, should emphasize the particular nature of the crime and focus on the formulating options for the time.  Only through the implementation of creative methodologies will the criminal justice system be able to expand their knowledge of the problems they face (Maguire & Katz, 2002).




Bittner, E. (1970). The functions of police in modern society. Bethesda, MD: U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

Engel, R. S., & Whalen, J. L. (2010, April). Police-academic partnerships: ending the dialogue of the deaf, the Cincinnati experience. Police Practice and Research: An International Journal, 11(2), 105-116.

Maguire, E. R., & Katz, C. M. (2002). Community policing, loose coupling, and sensemaking in American police agencies. Justice Quarterly, 19(3), 503-536.

Mastrofski, S. D., Snipes, J. B., Parks, R. B., & Maxwell, C. D. (2000). The helping hand of the law: Police control of citizens on request. Criminology, 38(2), 307-342.

Sherman, L. W. (1998, July). Evidence-based policing. Ideas in American Policing, 1-15.


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  • Users are permitted to read the website and the Information and make copies for their own personal use, for example by printing or storing it. All other use of the website or the information, for example the storage or reproduction of (a part of) the website of Chief Concerns in any external internet site or the creation of links, hypertext links or deeplinks between the website of Chief Concerns and any other internet site, is prohibited without the express written consent of Chief Jody O’Guinn, Carbondale, IL.