When the Cynic Becomes a Convert (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Fads and Love Evidence Based Policing)

“I’m pretty sure people are going to start writing letters again once the email fad passes” – Willie Geist (2011), US television personality.

“Fad: an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities; a craze” – OED (2015).

Shifting trends in any social sphere often generate a significant dose of skepticism, and usually rightly so. After all, how many people over the age of thirty can’t remember one of the following: chia pets, Rubik’s cube, grunge, wide shoulder pads, Tickle Me Elmo, the ‘Rachel’ or, worse yet, the Mullet? Policing has hardly been immune to this phenomenon. In the fifteen or so years I have been conducting research in the field, I have seen a number of changes to the profession that have been variously termed new and exciting ‘trends’. To name a few, I have seen police organizations variously adopt forms of community policing, intelligence led-policing, Broken Windows, Problem Oriented Policing, COMPSTAT, civilianization, hub models, modes of ‘partnership working’ and/or third party policing, all in a never-ending quest for increasing police effectiveness and efficiency.

While each of the models above has undoubtedly had some staying power in one or more policing jurisdictions, they have also each been decried by academic researchers and police alike as ‘fads’ and, in many instances, exploited, discarded and/or ignored as such. My own cynicism about policing innovations becoming meaningless fads developed in 2000 as a result of an encounter in a police station in California. Once I was buzzed into a local precinct station, I asked the armed officer behind the bulletproof glass for some brochures on his organization’s community policing programs. After explaining to him that I got the idea his agency practiced community policing from their website, he scoffed, “nah, we don’t do that shit here.” When I subsequently asked a precinct Captain in that same city whether his organization practiced community policing, you may be certain the answer did not involve excrement. And yet subsequent interviews with rank and file members confirmed a major disconnect between the ‘party line’ and what was happening on the streets.

To be clear: my experience in that police station does not mean that I walked away viewing community policing as a fad. It does mean that I came to be somewhat more skeptical when a new policing innovation appeared on the horizon. Was ‘model X’ or ‘technology Y’, I wondered, really representative of the possibility of meaningful change that would help to improve the delivery of policing services? Or, was it simply another fad that would come and go like pet rocks and mustard yellow gaucho pants? Cynically, I more often lumped new ideas into the pet rock category.

Fast forward fifteen years and I find myself in the unlikely position of championing what I see as an innovative approach with the potential to effect a significant paradigm shift in policing: evidence based policing (EBP). How did this transformation from innovation cynic to EBP champion come to pass? And why?

I would love to say that my transformation began with a combination of lightning rods, the road to Damascus and dancing narwhals, but I’m afraid the truth is rather more prosaic: it began with my begrudging participation in the creation of a Canadian government commissioned report meant to answer the question: ‘what is the future of policing models in Canada?’ (CCA 2014). What I discovered is that it’s rather difficult to answer such questions when there is little to no reliable empirical data upon which to draw. And the reason why there is so little data available is that for a variety of reasons – including underfunding of criminal justice research and the chronic ‘dialogue of the deaf’ (Bradley and Nixon 2009) – policing research in Canada had gone largely stagnant. As a result, there are many fairly basic questions regarding current and future policing services that we simply cannot answer with any degree of confidence. Something clearly needed to change.

To be fair, it wasn’t only academic researchers who were noticing that Canadian policing research was in a slump. Police leaders and provincial and federal policy-makers were also aware of this fact, as they grappled with questions of efficiency and effectiveness at a time of rising criminal justice costs and shrinking public budgets. As awareness increased within and across each of the usually isolated silos of policy, research and practice, a remarkable shift began to take place: some of us began speaking to each other rather than at each other. In doing so, we started to recognize that if we were to reinvigorate the Canadian policing research agenda to meet the goal of producing actionable research to inform sound policy and practice, we not only needed each other, but we needed to find new, more meaningful ways of working together. What was needed was a solution and it had to have potential for more staying power than lava lamps and leisure suits.

Why EBP? Evidence based policing is an approach that focuses equal attention on the methods used to conduct research as on its subsequent translation and use. It arises as a total concept in work by Lawrence Sherman (1998: 2) in which he argued for the need for police practices to “be based on scientific evidence about what works best.” As a practice, EBP embodies the following core tenets:

  1. scientific research has a role to play in developing effective and efficient policing programs;
  2. research produced must meet standards of methodological rigor and be useful to policing;
  3. results should be easily translatable into everyday police practice and policy, and;
  4. research should be the outcome of a blending of police experience with academic research skills (Sherman 2015).

What makes EBP exciting as a tool for generating policing research, and potentially transformative in the realms of practice and policy, is the emphasis on police involvement (Sherman 2015). Academics, police and policy-makers work together to co-generate and co-mobilize research across information silos, thus ending the inability to speak to each other that has long characterized relations between police and academics (Bradley and Nixon 2009), but also between academics and policy-makers (Haggerty 2004). Indeed, not only are police practitioners active partners with academic researchers, many of them are, themselves, directly engaged in conducting research within their own organizations. Incorporating police as ‘co-owners’ of research and the research process is not only viewed as a necessary step to generating productive research (Willis and Mastrofski 2015), it also increases individual and organizational receptivity to using empirically-based findings (Telep and Lum 2014). Further, it provides police officers with opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge (CCA 2014), while potentially affording universities and colleges the ability to develop programs marrying methodologically rigorous research with forms of experiential learning.

Undoubtedly, there are skeptics out there, and, as I have said, I can hardly fault anyone for casting a slightly jaundiced eye. After all, it is very like that without deep, sustained commitment to preach and practice EBP on the part of police, academic researchers and policy-makers, EBP could easily go the way of the hula hoop. Given its potential to effect the types of real, positive change that policing researchers frequently clamor for, the possibility that we might fail and thus find EBP at the bottom of the dustbin in twenty years’ time should not, however, deter us from trying.

Dr Laura Huey is Associate Professor of Sociology at Western University, Canada. Email: lhuey@uwo.ca

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