How long division taught me to think about crime

In the intelligence-led policing course I’m currently teaching in El Salvador, we were talking about how to tackle complicated problems. And the problems in El Salvador are indeed challenging and complex. There are no easy solutions. Do we give up and stick with failed responses, or do we learn how to deal with complexity and move forward?

Humans have a tendency to try and brainstorm their way out of a problem, but cognitive psychologists are pretty clear that unstructured thinking is inefficient and error prone. Former CIA analysis chief Morgan Jones (1998) suggests that this kind of intuitive, unstructured thinking can lead to a number of problems, including;

  • Beginning analysis by forming conclusions;
  • Focusing on the solution we intuitively prefer;
  • Settling for the first solution that appears satisfactory;
  • Focusing on the substance and not the process of analysis;
  • Confusing discussing or thinking hard about a problem as being the same as analyzing it.

To his last point, you can see the problems with just trying to ‘think’ our way out of an issue when you watch a child struggle with a math question. If they can’t remember how to solve the puzzle, they either give up or stare intently at the paper hoping the answer will miraculously appear. For example, we can’t solve long division without a structured approach (or a calculator). I’m old enough to still remember being taught a process for long division. Figuring out how many times the divisor (number doing the division) goes into the dividend is difficult, but it’s easier when you only divide a part of the dividend (the number being divided). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, google it. Bottom line is that you take something that is too complicated for most people, and you break it into simpler and more manageable steps.

Today we discovered that the way I was taught was slightly different than in El Salvador; however my Salvadorian police colleague (below) and I still got to the same answer because the key was a structured, methodical approach.

We can learn how to reduce complexity down to manageable tasks, in the same way that pilots use checklists as a structured approach to manage a complex task such as landing an aircraft in dense fog. We can take the seemingly intractable, and achieve what had not been previously possible.

In my training I use numerous structured approaches like this, including VOLTAGE. VOLTAGE is an extension of a simple analytical tool (VOLT) that has previously been used in some British police services as a framework for structuring knowledge about crime problems. Take a complicated crime problem and break it down into simpler components. The VOLTAGE elements, with some example questions you might ask yourself, are:

Component Example questions
Victims Does crime concentrate among a certain type of victim or target? Are there multiple victims or is a particular target the subject of repeat victimization? Does the type of target generate particular public concern (such as children)?
Offenders Is the crime problem created by numerous offenders who are not known to each other? Is it caused by a few repeat offenders and their friends? Are there new offenders in the area (prison releases)?
Locations Are specific places targeted, or is crime distributed more widely? What is special about the place? It is a particular location or a particular street (with a troublesome family), or an area (housing project or nighttime economy zone)?
Times Is the crime problem within normal variation or explainable by annual seasonal patterns? If not, are there specific times when crime is concentrated? Are new patterns evident?
Attractors Are particular locations or places attracting offenders because of the easy criminal opportunities (attractors) or are places inadvertently creating crime opportunities (generators)? Where are the worst places?
Groups Are gangs or inter-gang conflicts a factor in the crime spike? Is there involvement of organized crime? Are school children involved either as offenders or victims? Are there disputes between criminal families, or fans of particular sports teams?
Enhancers Are factors such as drug or alcohol use a factor to consider? Are behavioral (mental) health issues part of the problem?

Instead of just ‘thinking hard’ about a crime problem, it is better to think specifically about what we know about the victims, the offenders, the locations, the times, and so forth. It helps us identify what we know, and what we don’t know. VOLTAGE is discussed in my book on intelligence-led policing, and in my forthcoming book “Reducing Crime: A Companion for Police Leaders” which will be published later in the year.


Jones, M. D. (1998). The Thinker’s Toolkit: 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving. New York: Random House.