Criminology Blog Series – Narrow the Focus and Precisely Define the Problem

This Criminology Blog Series post review emphasizes narrowing the focus to a specific problem and then precisely defining the vulnerability that will be addressed by a countermeasure or control system. While food fraud is a broad problem, prevention should focus on unique incidents.

Introduction to the Criminology Blog Series

Everyone knows what food fraud is, right? When we approach food fraud prevention through a criminology lens, there are often simple and direct countermeasures to apply. But what are the characteristics from a criminology perspective? This Criminology Blog Series provides these insights.

My 2009 Ph.D. dissertation research was on anti-counterfeit strategy and risk assessment. When considering the root cause of intellectual property rights counterfeiting infringement, it was natural to focus on the specific root cause: the human adversary.

Over the years, we conducted a lot of research and published many articles in the Criminology literature. The criminology topic was so important to food fraud prevention that it expanded to three chapters of the Food Fraud Prevention textbook.

The ‘Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers’ is one of the most respected and widely adopted reports that includes ‘sixty small steps’ to understand and reduce the prevalence of a specific type of crime. In this Criminology Blog Series, we will be reviewing several of the most practical steps. We will also explain the application of food fraud prevention. The excerpt below is the summary published in the Food Fraud Prevention textbook.

After the concepts covered in the previous Criminology Blog Series, the next step starts with focusing on a narrow problem (step #6) and then defining the problem’s details (step #14). In a previous post we reviewed the step of “Know what kind of problem you have (step #15),” which is Identifying the Problem.

Excerpt from the Food Fraud Prevention textbook:

There are several of the “60 Small Steps” that are most applicable to food fraud prevention (Clarke and Eck 2005):

  • “Be very crime specific (#6): “Your department will sometimes mount a crackdown on a particular crime such as auto crime or burglary, and you might be asked to map these offenses or provide other data to support the operation. But these categories are too broad for problem-oriented policing. They include too many different kinds of crimes, all of which need to be separately analyzed. […] You can see these crimes are committed for various motives, by different offenders, with varying degrees of organization, knowledge, and skills.”
  • “Use the CHEERS test when defining problems (#14): “A problem is a recurring set of related harmful events in a community that members of the public expect the police to address. This definition draws attention to the six required elements of a problem: Community; Harm; Expectation; Events; Recurring; and Similarity. These elements are captured by the acronym CHEERS.”

Especially applicable to food fraud prevention from step #14 is the last CHEERS element:

“Similarity: The recurring events must have something in common. They may be committed by the same person, happen to the same type of victim, occur in the same types of locations, take place in similar circumstances, involve the same type of weapon, or have one or more other factors in common. Without common features, you have an ‘arbitrary collection of events,’ not a ‘problem.’ Common crime classifications – such as those used by the Uniform Crime Reports – are not helpful. Vehicle theft, for example, includes joyriding, thefts for chop shops, thefts for export to other countries, thefts for use in other crimes, and a host of other dissimilar events. So a cluster of vehicle thefts may not be a single problem. More information is needed.”

The details of the CHEERS concepts are included here:

  • Community: “Members of the public must experience the harmful events.” Note: “community” can be broadly interpreted to include food consumers, regulators, or others.
  • Harmful: “People or institutions must suffer harm. The harm can involve property loss or damage, injury or death, serious mental anguish, or undermining the capacity of the police. Illegality is not a defining characteristic of problems.”
  • Expectation: “Some members of the community must expect the police to address the causes of the harm. Expectation should never be presumed, but must be evident through processes such as citizen calls, community meetings, press reports, or other means.” Again, the “community” could be a few influential and amplified members.
  • Events: “You must be able to describe the type of event that makes up the problem. Problems are made up of discrete events.”
  • Recurring: “These events must recur. Recurrence may be symptomatic of acute troubles or a chronic problem. Acute troubles suddenly appear, as in the case of a neighborhood with few vehicle break-ins suddenly having many such break-ins. Some acute troubles dissipate quickly, even if nothing is done. Others can become chronic problems if not addressed. […]  Chronic problems persist for a long time, as in the case of a prostitution stroll that has been located along one street for many years. Unless something is done, the events from chronic problems will continue to occur.”
  • Similarity: (See above)”

This concept of ‘similarity’ is fundamental for data collection or review of incidents. The incidents – and use of the data – must be a consideration when evaluating the utility or value of a data set. That said, even an ‘arbitrary collection of events’ has value.

Takeaway Points

  • There are extensive research and support resources for crime prevention activities.
  • After understanding the specific problem (e.g., horsemeat in beef), it is essential to narrow the focus (e.g., frozen ground beef received at a lasagna manufacturing facility) and precisely define the components to address (e.g., reducing the fraud opportunity of receiving beef that is adulterated with horsemeat).
  • To support continuous process improvement, it is essential to document the problem and the vulnerability-reducing countermeasures, and to monitor the system continually.
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