Problem Oriented Policing

This activity is an online simulation designed to help police officers learn about the “Problem Oriented Policing” approach. Students complete this simulation activity on their own time, outside of class, and they write a short analysis of their performance.

The first half of this course involves a lot of conceptual and theoretical work, drawing on ideas from social theory, cognitive and moral psychology, and philosophy about the role of morality and justice in the social world. The second half of the course involves applying taking these various ideas and concepts and applying them in a variety of institutional and organizational settings. This activity takes place at the beginning of the second half of the course. This means that they have significant conceptual toolbox for thinking about moral intuitions, institutions, and other sociological and psychological concepts related to human behavior and motivation. 

The students complete the "Problem Oriented Policing" simulation module found here: The simulation takes about an hour or so. It involves two key components: research/analysis and a plan. In the first half of the simulation, the student is allotted a budget to figure out what is going on in a neighborhood that has seen an uptick in crime and citizen complaints related to a growing street-level prostitution problem in the area. Importantly, the simulation places constraints on just what the student is able to find out about the problem, mirroring real world limits on research and information gathering. 

The simulation's "research" budget is limited. It costs some number of units to interview people, get access to crime reports, maps, etc.--all materials that are potentially helpful in figuring out the nature of the problem and how to solve it. The students cannot interview everyone or see every report; moreover, not all of the informants or reports are actually helpful. The students must be deliberate and methodical in their choices for sources of information given their limited research budget. Once you are done with your research/analysis, the students need to pass a little mini-quiz to move onto the second half of the simulation. This ensures that students must actually pay attention to what they learn through their research. 

In the second half of the simulation, the students are given new (limited) budget to plan the response to the problem. The response options that are available to the student are tied directly to the information that they unlock in the first half of the simulation (in other words, the student will only be able to act based on what he/she knows in the simulation).  These response options vary in cost, and the budget is limited, so the students must again be deliberate in their choices.  Once they develop a plan, the students submit it to the fictitious city’s mayor, generating a response from the simulation memo from the fictitious mayor, a “year later” table of relevant statistics, and a comparison to the ideal plan. Many of the available courses of action do not work or work in only a limited way. Very few students actually come close to picking all of the options that match the "ideal plan" (NOTE: This ideal plan is based on real criminological research). Some students do very badly. And some students do just okay. This is intentional. One of the goals of this exercise is to induce a feeling of failure.

The students are then instructed to analyze their own performance through the lens of the class in a short (5-7 page) paper. The students provide a brief synopsis of what they did during the research/analysis stage, their plan of action, and the results provided by the simulation and then analyze their own performance. The students are told that they are not being judged on their performance in the simulation, but rather that the goal of this assignment is for them to engage in critical and thoughtful self-reflection. They are instructed to critically examine their own assumptions at each stage in the simulation process and think through what the simulation results reveal about how they thought about the problem. They are asked: What worked? What did not? And why? What did you miss and why? What might you do differently if you did it a second time? Reflect on what assumptions you made about the problem, about how to fix it, what good(s) was/were at stake, and what kind(s) of justice was at stake in the problem. What, if anything, does the “morally messy” world offered in the simulation tell us about the challenges of “doing justice?”

The simulation is extremely well done and very easy to use. Despite its simple appearance, it actually has surprising depth. When used effectively, it does induce real learning in the students. Some of the most thoughtful papers that I have read come from students who do terribly on the simulation. It can really cause students to pause and reflect on how their models of how the world works are possibly wrong. Students should understand that this assignment is not a regular research paper or essay, but more of a personal examination and reflection of what they learned from their results of the simulation. 

wakeham.pdf512 KB