Book Review: Why Did the Policeman Cross the Road?

February 14, 2017

Book Cover I literally knew nothing about Stevyn Colgan's new book, Why Did the Policeman Cross the Road?: How to solve problems before they arise; Matthew simply bought two and gave me one. I was unsure what policing had to do with user experience research, but not one to turn down a book with fun illustrations on the cover, I dove right in.

The story is both a timeline of Colgan’s career as a police officer in London, as well as an in-depth explanation of the methods of crime prevention and problem-solving that he and a special unit known as the Problem Solving Unit employed to lower crime rates. Rather than simply increase the number of patrols (which costs money) and increase arrests, they looked at ways to prevent crime with little to no resources by going through a step-by-step process and by engaging the community in their efforts.

His process is familiar to anyone in design research: Define the problem, research, analyze, act, and evaluate your action. Colgan illustrates every part of this process with colorful examples and surprising results.

He stresses the importance of getting your research data from multiple sources. He cites one example where an area was flagged by their software as a robbery hotspot, which usually results in increased patrols. However, the investigator who knew the area well thought it was strange and investigated further; it turned out a nearby school had started a healthy-eating campaign and had taken junk food off the menu. The kids would then go off campus for lunch, and the bullies would feel free to steal their classmates’ lunch money. The victims’ parents would report these as robberies. Clearly the issue was bullying, not street crime.

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Colgan stresses the importance of actually speaking to the people involved; be it the people who report the crime or nuisance, the source of the complaints, and even nearby businesses and neighbors. Similar to the work we do, understanding the people involved is an obvious, but often overlooked, part of problem-solving.

In one case, local residents of a housing estate filed complaints that the kids in the complex were being a nuisance: graffiti, littering, noise, drinking, and kicking balls around ‘no ball games’ areas despite two nice soccer fields nearby. They wanted increased patrols and possible legal measures; the residents also suggested removing the ball fields as punishment. So Colgan spoke to many of the kids involved and other kids around the complex. As it turned out, the older kids were bullying the younger kids off of the closer ball field, and the younger kids weren’t allowed to cross the big street that separated them from the other field. So they would just loiter around and cause problems. Colgan solved the issue by breaking up the closer field into 2. The older kids wanted the full sized field, so they played at the far one, and the smaller fields gave the various ages of kids plenty of room to play.

“If you can get to know people’s needs, desires and motivations, their habits, foibles and interests, and what informs their choices and decisions, you can design solutions to problems that thwart the bad guys and support the good guys. It means that cops have to become good readers of people. Or they have to work with people who are good readers of people. It’s pointless putting a solution in place if you don’t have any understanding of how people are likely to react to it.”

Overall, the book is a great story and creative way to illustrate design-thinking in action. I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a step-by-step manual, but more of an ethos for problem-solving in any complex, people-centric scenario.

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