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Enhancing SARA: a new approach in an increasingly complex world


The research note describes how an enhancement to the SARA (Scan, Analyse, Respond and Assess) problem-solving methodology has been developed by Transport for London for use in dealing with crime and antisocial behaviour, road danger reduction and reliability problems on the transport system in the Capital. The revised methodology highlights the importance of prioritisation, effective allocation of intervention resources and more systematic learning from evaluation.

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Problem oriented policing (POP), commonly referred to as problem-solving in the UK, was first described by Goldstein (1979, 1990) and operationalised by Eck and Spelman (1987) using the SARA model. SARA is the acronym for Scanning, Analysis, Response and Assessment. It is essentially a rational method to systematically identify and analyse problems, develop specific responses to individual problems and subsequently assess whether the response has been successful (Weisburd et al. 2008).

A number of police agencies around the world use this approach, although its implementation has been patchy, has often not been sustained and is particularly vulnerable to changes in the commitment of senior staff and lack of organisational support (Scott and Kirby 2012). This short contribution outlines the way in which SARA has been used and further developed by Transport for London (TfL, the strategic transport authority for London) and its policing partners—the Metropolitan Police Service, British Transport Police and City of London Police. Led by TfL, they have been using POP techniques to deal with crime and disorder issues on the network, with some success. TfL’s problem-solving projects have been shortlisted on three occasions for the Goldstein Award, an international award that recognises excellence in POP initiatives, winning twice in 2006 and 2011 (see Goldstein Award Winners 1993–2010).

Crime levels on the transport system are derived from a regular and consistent data extract from the Metropolitan Police Service and British Transport Police crime recording systems. In 2006, crime levels on the bus network were causing concern. This was largely driven by a sudden rise in youth crime with a 72 per cent increase from 2005 to 2006: The level rose from around 290 crimes involving one or more suspects aged under 16 years per month in 2005 to around 500 crimes per month in 2006.

Fear of crime was also an issue and there were increasing public and political demands for action. In response TfL, with its policing partners, worked to embed a more structured and systematic approach to problem-solving, allowing them to better identify, manage and evaluate their activities. Since then crime has more than halved on the network (almost 30,000 fewer crimes each year) despite significant increases in passenger journeys (Fig. 1). This made a significant contribution to the reduction in crime from 20 crimes per million passenger journeys in 2005/6 to 7.5 in 2016/17.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Crime volumes and rates on major TfL transport networks and passenger levels

Although crime has being falling generally over the last decade, the reduction on London’s public transport network has been comparatively greater than that seen overall in London and in England and Wales (indexed figures can be seen in Fig. 2). The reductions on public transport are even more impressive given that there are very few transport-related burglary and vehicle crimes which have been primary drivers of the overall reductions seen in London and England and Wales. TfL attributes this success largely to its problem-solving approach and the implementation of a problem-solving framework and supporting processes.

Fig. 2
figure 2

UK, London and transport crime trends since 2005/6

A need for change

TfL remains fully committed to problem-solving and processes are embedded within its transport policing, enforcement and compliance activities. However, it has become apparent that its approach needs to develop further in response to a number of emerging issues:

  • broadening of SARA beyond a predominant crime focus to address road danger reduction and road reliability problems;

  • increasing strategic complexity in the community safety and policing arena for example, the increased focus on safeguarding and vulnerability;

  • the increasing pace of both social and technological change, for example, sexual crimes such as ‘upskirting’ and ‘airdropping of indecent images’ (see;

  • financial challenges and resource constraints yet growing demands for policing and enforcement action to deal with issues;

  • greater focus on a range of non-enforcement interventions as part of problem solving responses;

  • a small upturn in some crime types including passenger aggression and low-level violence when the network is at peak capacity;

  • increasing focus on evidence-led policing and enforcement, and;

  • some evidence of cultural fatigue among practitioners with processes which indicated a refresh of the approach might be timely.


In response, TfL undertook a review of how SARA and its problem-solving activities are being delivered and considered academic reviews and alternative models such as the 5I’s as developed by Ekblom (2002) and those assessed by Sidebottom and Tilley (2011). This review resulted in a decision to continue with a SARA-style approach because of its alignment with existing processes and the practitioner base that had already been established around SARA. This has led to a refresh of TfL’s strategic approach to managing problem-solving which builds on SARA and aims to highlight the importance of prioritisation, effective allocation of intervention resources and capturing the learning from problem-solving activities at a strategic and tactical level. Whilst these stages are implicit within the SARA approach, it was felt that a more explicit recognition of their importance as component parts of the process would enhance overall problem-solving efforts undertaken by TfL and its policing partners. The revised approach, which recognises these important additional steps in the problem-solving process, has been given the acronym SPATIAL—Scan, Prioritise, Analyse, Task, Intervene, Assess and Learn as defined in Table 1 below:

Table 1 Defining SPATIAL

SPATIAL adapts the SARA approach to address a number of emerging common issues affecting policing and enforcement agencies over recent years. The financial challenges now facing many organisations mean that limited budgets and constrained resources are inadequate to be able to solve all problems identified. The additional steps in the SPATIAL process help to ensure that there is (a) proper consideration and prioritisation of identified ‘problems’ (b) effective identification and allocation of resources to deal with the problem, considering the impact on other priorities and (c) capture of learning from the assessment of problem-solving efforts so that evidence of what works (including an assessment of process, cost, implementation and impact) can be incorporated in the development of problem-solving action and response plans where appropriate. The relationship between SARA and SPATIAL is shown in Fig. 3 below:

Fig. 3
figure 3


In overall terms SPATIAL helps to ensure that TfL and policing partners’ problem-solving activities are developed, coordinated and managed in a more structured way. Within TfL problem-solving is implemented at three broad levels—Strategic, Tactical and Operational. Where problems and activities sit within these broad levels depends on the timescale, geographic spread, level of harm and profile. These can change over time. Operational activities continue to be driven by a problem-solving process based primarily on SARA as they do not demand the same level of resource prioritisation and scale of evaluation, with a SPATIAL approach applied at a strategic level. In reality a number of tactical/operational problem-oriented policing activities will form a subsidiary part of strategic problem-solving plans. Table 2 provides examples of problems at these three levels.

Table 2 Examples of strategic, tactical and operational problems

The processes supporting delivery utilise existing well established practices used by TfL and its partners. These include Transtat (the joint TfL/MPS version of the ‘CompStat’ performance management process for transport policing), a strategic tasking meeting (where the ‘P’ in SPATIAL is particularly explored) and an Operations Hub which provides deployment oversight and command and control services for TfL’s on-street resources. Of course, in reality these processes are not always sequential. In many cases there will be feedback loops to allow refocusing of the problem definition and re-assessment of problem-solving plans and interventions.

For strategic and tactical level problems, the SPATIAL framework provides senior officers with greater oversight of problem-solving activity at all stages of the problem-solving process. It helps to ensure that TfL and transport policing resources are focussed on the right priorities, that the resource allocation is appropriate across identified priorities and that there is oversight of the problem-solving approaches being adopted, progress against plans and delivery of agreed outcomes.


Although these changes are in the early stages of implementation, it is already clear that they provide the much needed focus around areas such as strategic prioritisation and allocation of TfL, police and other partner resources (including officers and other interventions such as marketing, communications and environmental changes). The new approach also helps to ensure that any lessons learned from the assessment are captured and used to inform evidence-based interventions for similar problems through the use of a bespoke evaluation framework (adaptation of the Maryland scientific methods scale, see Sherman et al. 1998) and the implementation of an intranet based library. The adapted approach also resonates with practitioners because it builds on the well-established SARA process but brings additional focus to prioritising issues and optimising resources. More work is required to assess the medium and longer term implications and benefits derived from the new process and this will be undertaken as it becomes more mature.


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Authors’ contributions

The article was co-authored by the two named authors. SB developed the original concept and developed the methodology and MM helped refine the ideas for practical implementation and provided additional content to the document. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.


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Burton, S., McGregor, M. Enhancing SARA: a new approach in an increasingly complex world. Crime Sci 7, 4 (2018).

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