This blog offers another joint effort from me and one of our students – Gareth Stubbs. A police officer from Lancashire Police.
Academic perspective – Emma
I always talk to our students at CCCU about how evidence based policing is not new, the different definitions of it, the different perceptions of knowledge hierarchies (both from a police and academic standpoint), and perhaps, more controversially, the perceived hierarchies within the discipline of criminology about policing academics (their preferred methods and research focus).
I do firmly believe that there is room for all of the different standpoints on the criminology spectrum – let’s face it if there weren’t academics that raised police problems, there would be no platform for those that help further define those problems and generate new theory about them. Subsequently, there would be limited space for those that apply new practices to these issues and evaluate both their impact and process. The relationship in a way should be symbiotic, with different experts in the field (both academics and officers) being involved at various stages of the research process to provide a research outcome that informs all and most importantly, for practitioners, findings that can be applied to their own decision making in practice.
At CCCU, we recently started a new MSc programme in Applied Police Practice. The first module (Evidence Based Interventions) aims to provide students with an understanding of the use of evidence in various areas of policing, the barriers and enablers to making the application successful, how to learn from and reflect on ‘failure’ and the importance of problem definition and local context in planning any kind of initiative. Whilst designing the lecture series for the first year it became apparent that an overview of the history of police research and some reference to the sociology of policing was required to help students see two things:
• That research in the police is not new and that both the relationship between the two worlds and the research ‘type’ has changed over time, and;
• Having an understanding of how this historical context between the researchers and the researched impacts on the relationship between the two parties today, in the current EBP climate.
As we put together the lecture we felt the need to revisit the literature from the classics (Muir, Banton, Skolnick, Hall, Chan, Punch etc. etc.). Despite knowing the stages of research as defined and articulated by Robert Reiner it became glaringly obvious that the politics around such stages of research had a huge impact on the relationships I describe above.
The sociology of the police is the study of people, institutions, human relationships, organisational relationships, communities, cultures, social processes, how social and cultural structures are formed and how they influence the policing of society. In fact, this is exactly what research aimed to do when academia initially infiltrated the police – it sought to identify examples of the police working well with the community around social values and the building of social capital, it sought to explore police misconduct, disproportionality and the causes of it, it explored politics and the role of the police in the power of the state, and then in the late 80s it moved into informing policy making, what works and more operational, practically applied research.
The point here for me, as the academic in this piece, is that all the research that was conducted in the 60s / 70s and 80s is still relevant. It remains highly valued and cited in thesis’ about a range of police topics such as mental health, sexual violence investigation, community policing, stop and search, terrorism, police education and the list goes on. In my own work I regularly cite the likes of Bittner / Banton / Chan. I love the way that one of our students quotes Bittner in his training around mental health to police colleagues – it is so relevant!
But, I see less and less of this type of work being conducted now – this form of criminological research that questions things and raises problems. As Christie pointed out – in the current police research climate, there is a focus on the positive and the discovery of ‘what works’. This negates the role of researchers and research as critical problem raisers over problem solvers. You cannot do one without the other and, as Michael Brown often states when talking about policing and mental health, the focus on solving problems without effective problem raising leads to sticking plaster initiatives that far from increase cost effectiveness and efficiency. Indeed, they can fail, be implemented badly, leave out the needs of the people (both practitioners and the public) and ultimately can require the application of another initiative soon after if it all goes wrong. The impact on the officers themselves can also be risky to their own well being, as outlined by Ian Hesketh.
As a researcher in the Met Police for ten years I can’t tell you how many times I heard officers call me a ‘spy’ looking for wrong doing and bad practice – I wasn’t – but I can understand this when I read quite critical research with no helpful recommendations about how to use the work to inform decisions and implement findings. This is why the collaborative relationships are so important now…. It is not this I contest. It is more the statements about what makes reliable evidence in the hierarchical tree. It depends on the question!
We need an ever growing knowledge bank about police problems / practitioner concerns / organisational structure and the field within which policing operates (see Jock Young’s Voodoo Criminology for one of the best accounts on this). And we also need evaluations, RCTs and the research on ‘what works’ and ‘what matters’. In fact, I would argue that it is often this rich research conducted on the policing ‘field’ that can help explain the reasons why sometimes initiatives don’t work.
So….. I get more and more annoyed when I read blogs describing the importance of one method as the right one…. The two issues of solving and fixing are dependent on each other and also dependant on those officers making the change and the organisation it is operating it. Please can we start to respect each other’s chosen research methods, recognise the benefits of pluralism in this space and work together to create a true and balanced view of the policing world. At the end of the day the method ALWAYS starts with the question!
The practitioner’s perspective
It’s really tempting to read this sort of comment and think, ‘It’s nothing to do with me, who cares about the history of criminological research, tell me about what I can use now.’ I can feel that draw towards the ability to simplify and take what is proved to ‘work’ and simply apply it in the real world. It fits into my practical world well, at 3am when I’m dealing with three high risk missing from homes and some injured officers a solution that I can apply to free up resources is immensely tempting – both cognitively and emotionally.
The thing is – and the more I read, the more I realise this – solutions are political. What do I mean by this? Well, were I to take some of the studies around hotspot policing, I could point out that visibility of police officers has taken primacy of research over and above other solutions for several decades. We have fetishized the uniform and its efficacy, and spent many years investigating how its placement affects crime rates. This is valuable research, and a recent systematic study suggests that presence really does impact on crime. No shocks there – you may say – but the choice to spend a huge amount of resources over recent decades evaluating the concept has been driven by both the service and academia.
So where are the politics you may ask? Well in many cases the answer lies in the opportunity cost of the research. Why have we not been pouring huge resources into in depth studies of child sexual exploitation or the development of the dark net and its impact on crime? I watched a presentation on crypto currency a few weeks ago, and the potential for organised crime groups (and subsequently a large impact on communities) is huge, but the money spent on research in this area is dwarfed by the level of study utilising RCT methodology on things such as Bodycams, visible policing, and diversionary activities at the point of custody.
What does this tell us? It tells us that there is an undercurrent of control present in policing research that follows particular patterns, usually influenced by powerful networks and research consortiums.
I’ve heard conspiracy theories about such networks and influences, but having met many people involved in the active development of research, like most conspiracy theories they are vastly exaggerated. I tend to find passionate academics and practitioners riding the crest of development in new areas of research, building on the work of colleagues and faculties. This creates its own version of groupthink that is present in every industry and isn’t without its value. Who wouldn’t want to know whether bodycams actually have value (millions of taxpayers pounds spent on them) or whether uniform policing affects crime (huge staff reductions due to austerity and Compstat driven culture to put resources physically where the crime is)?
So, what does this mean?
Appreciating that research is based on an agenda – unconscious or otherwise – leads us to critique both the outcome and the method of the research using a particular gaze. I could criticise current uses of RCT methods across the country as lacking in humanistic considerations, missing a large amount of qualitative understanding, and probably for being responsible for a whole host of unmeasured, unintended consequences. I could also critique in depth qualitative research for being myopic and often sympathetic to particular critical causes such as class or gender (which to be fair, I too am sympathetic towards).
The truth is that all research methods have their positives and negatives, the important bit is that you can see them, and appreciate the data/conclusions that you are provided with following their conclusion. Appreciating the history of the research in your area allows critical thinking, providing context to the currents around what is fuelling and directing research. When you are faced with a conclusion from a particular study, it enables you to ask questions such as:
• What is this research telling me?
• What isn’t it telling me?
• Why is it telling me this?
• How can this conclusion inform on practice?
The last question is the important one for practitioners. I have seen research conclusions immediately taken up and implemented without consideration for the previous three questions, that ultimately help to form a more proportionate response to change. Should a single study inform practice? In theory it could, but ideally I would hope that with a little wider learning, practitioners would ask the previous three questions and realise there is more to be done.
As a final point, a great comment from a practitioner in my force was asked on twitter. He asked me whether increasing the level of study/understanding leads to ‘paralysis by analysis.’ It’s an insightful comment, as the more variables you consider, the longer the thought taken before changes or decisions are made. At what point does the immense task of appreciating fully the context surrounding any study or change make decision making impractical? I can’t answer this question, as I suspect it is subjective, but it certainly made me think.
Academia is a little like a trip into Alice’s Wonderland. There’s a rabbit hole there and you can go as deep as you want. Appreciating your context is vital to ensuring informed decision making, but at what point does this level of learning become an impractical ask for practitioners? How do we answer the question:
“How much do I need to know to improve my decision making?”
The answer is elusive, but I tend to fall on the side of Emma, above. If we can’t understand the current political context that informs on academia and policing’s current research agenda, how can we properly evaluate the impact of research? Where should the rabbit hole really take a practitioner? I would say: Far enough to appreciate quite how far they have come, but not too far as to become one of the Mad Hatter’s guests at the dinner party. Do your reading, appreciate the classics, and be prepared to look at your own study and research with that eye that considers why you have made the choices that you have.
Be wary of ‘conventional wisdom’ and the currents of contemporary practice, they inevitably have a political history that drive their development and maintenance. As long as you can see it, you can appraise the results properly, with an informed, critical eye. Being able to consider contextual and personal bias is at the heart of good research, put some effort into understanding it, it’s absolutely worth your time.