A LEN interview with Professor Herman Goldstein, the “father” of problem-oriented policing.

“In many respects we’ve been immature in the way we’ve viewed change in policing. One of the weaknesses is the feeling that in order to advance the field, we’ve had to discredit past approaches. I don’t think that follows.”

Law Enforcement News interview
by Marie Simonetti Rosen

Herman Goldstein is, quite simply, a legend in his  or any  time. Law enforcement officers, whether they know it or not, engage in police work everyday that has been profoundly influenced by the critical thinking of this one unassuming man. It is no overstatement to say that much of the “revolution” that has taken place in policing over the last 20 years is attributable to Goldstein.

In a sense, Goldstein is a fascinating study in contrasts: a police expert who never wore a uniform; a law professor who was never a lawyer; a giant in his field who prefers to mingle with those in the trenches.

It was in 1960 that Goldstein, then in his early 30s, began observing what police do at all hours of the day and night, in all areas of the city of Chicago, where he worked. Serving as executive assistant to Superintendent O.W. Wilson, himself a policing legend, Goldstein was not the type to sit contentedly pushing papers from one side of his desk to the other. His firsthand observations of the police function would lead to what is recognized as one of the seminal scholarly articles in modern-day policing: “Police Discretion: The Ideal vs. the Real.” Published in 1963, the article was the first to acknowledge that police officers possessed and exercised considerable discretion in their day-to-day activities. Nowadays, police discretion is all but taken for granted, but such was not the case in the 1960s. Goldstein’s observations were nothing short of an epiphany for the police profession.

Goldstein left the Chicago Police Department in 1964 to join the faculty of the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he has stayed to this day, currently as a professor emeritus.

A prolific writer, Goldstein’s works, like the text “Policing a Free Society,” continue to be required reading for those with a serious interest in policing. But it was another article that Goldstein wrote, this time in 1979, that would pave the way for policing in the 21st century. “Improving Policing: A Problem-Oriented Approach,” which appeared in the journal Crime and Delinquency, prompted a number of progressive police departments, including those in Baltimore County, Md., Newport News, Va., and Madison, Wis., to experiment with this bold new method of thinking about and conducting the business of law enforcement.  In 1990, he wrote the book “Problem-Oriented Policing,” which expanded on his earlier article. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In the interview that follows, Goldstein talks with Law Enforcement News about a variety of topics, notably the past, present and future of his intellectual progeny, problem-oriented policing.

LAW ENFORCEMENT NEWS: You’ve often been called the father of problem-oriented policing. Generally speaking, how is the offspring doing?

GOLDSTEIN (laughs): It’s rather hard to say. It’s a big country. When one floats an idea, and it takes off in many different directions here and abroad, well, I think I would have two  no, several  observations.

One is that, clearly, problem-oriented policing and problem solving have sort of become part of the vocabulary of policing. That has some very great benefits, but I also have some great concerns. The benefits are that, in a very uneven sort of way, police, sometimes at the top and more often at the beat level, are doing a lot of creative work in looking systematically and analytically at pieces of their business, and given the license to do so, are coming up with some very innovative responses to longstanding problems. I think that’s generated a lot of creative thought and has tapped the expertise, the energy and the resourcefulness of police officers, and has given the officers a great deal of satisfaction on the job.

The down side is that ideas of a conceptual nature tend to get trivialized. There are many situations in which claims are made that departments have adopted problem-oriented policing, where the progress, in fact, has been very superficial and often lacks an understanding of what it is that we’ve been trying to achieve in pushing for a greater focus on the substance of policing.

LEN: Many departments lately, and certainly New York City is a good example, have incorporated an aggressive crackdown on quality-of-life offenses under the auspices of community policing. And such an approach is generally felt to have contributed to decreases in crime over the past few years. So the question becomes, is aggressive policing compatible with community policing, especially in crime-plagued neighborhoods where residents have demanded a tougher posture?

GOLDSTEIN: I think you’ve identified one of the most critical aspects of current change. Much of it relates to the question of what we mean by being aggressive. If you have a police department that has been sort of sleepy, and has retreated to just being observers, rather than being active, then aggressiveness really can be translated into just energizing a sleepy department to the point where they are now actively handling the more minor offenses, but in ways that other departments around the country have been doing for years as a matter of routine. I worry a great deal about the capacity of a department to move quickly from one posture to another in a catch-up sort of manner, because I think it often results in a lack of refinement. That absence of capacity to do it naturally over a period of time in a refined manner can lead to a lot of negative consequences. While you produce some short-term benefits, you may create some very serious long-term costs in terms of aggravating relationships with the community.

There are agencies that have had a much more mature progression of style or operations, in which they’ve had the time and the resources with which to refine their procedures, so that one would look at the end product and conclude that this is a department that does deal with quality-of-life offenses. It is in every respect aggressive, but aggressive in a way that is totally consistent with what we’re trying to achieve in community policing, and with no serious costs in terms of disrupting a relationship and irritating the community and creating pockets of hostility toward the police. It’s one thing to realize a quick dramatic decrease in some types of offenses, but if that’s at the cost of creating great antagonism toward the police on the part of youth and future generations, then police departments are going to have to deal with the consequences of that hostility.

LEN: What do you think are the biggest obstacles coming? What does your crystal ball say in terms of what lies ahead?

GOLDSTEIN: One of the biggest obstacles is that enlightened, committed leaders will burn out and be replaced in police leadership positions by individuals who take a much more simplistic approach and satisfy political pressures, achieving short-term gains, but incurring long-term losses.

While I’m troubled by the bigger picture, I have enormous admiration and respect for what’s happening in policing. I think that perhaps because they are closest to the problems that our society is experiencing, police have the capacity to contribute enormously to dealing with these problems that we are experiencing now and may yet experience in even more acute form.

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Excerpted from Law Enforcement News
Feb 14, 1997. 
© 1997, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]