Eric Halford summarises @wecops debate on evidence based policing

This is the second we cops blog arising from the Wednesday debates. A great summary of a complex and interesting debate on this contentious area. Thanks to @DSerichalford

@Wecops Evidence Based Policing

On the 2nd of March @WeCops held the first online debate on evidence based policing. The guest host was @DCPegram who is the Northwest lead for the Society of Evidence Based Policing. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was a lively debate which reached a total of 708, 121 people which is an absolutely fantastic number considering the potentially divisive subject.

Evidence based policing often suffers from a perception that it is for academics or at best, officers or police staff who are ‘academic’ minded but this debate proved that the interest in the subject reaches far and wide. There was a strong mix of contributors which did meet the stereotype and included some notable academics and many senior officers. However, what was so great about the evening was that there was an incredibly strong presence of frontline staff which was fundamental to making the debate productive. This involvement was particularly useful given the controversy around about this subject, particularly amongst the frontline. Whilst this may be due, in part, to a lack of information about what it means and what it aims to do, the engagement in this debate was both very positive and useful to hear. The main purpose of the police service becoming increasingly ‘evidence based’ is ultimately to use resources more efficiently and to make the job of the frontline easier by offering them options about what might work better when they are making decisions.

As usual the debate focused around three main questions. The first being, do you feel evidence based policing can help those on the frontline?

There was a resounding yes from almost all contributors. It was highlighted that policing as a profession was simply too important a field not to have a strong empirical research base underpinning it. Although it was accepted that embedding this culture is still very much in its infancy. A common theme that ran throughout the debate was that both managers, leaders and the frontline could all benefit most by better understanding what had positive impact and what didn’t;

“Being honest about what works and what doesn’t!” (‏@Scottyatlarge)

This stance was strongly supported by the frontline staff involved in the debate who expressed a desire to better understand why they are asked to do certain things – furthermore, to understand the effect of their actions or inaction. There was a strong undertone to this area of the debate that suggested that much of what frontline staff do is directed by their managers and leaders and as such it needs to be a priority that all key decision makers be better informed about how and why they chose certain solutions;

”Ultimately, you may help frontline by helping management. Is evidence-based management a prerequisite to EBP?” (@Fair_to_Middlin)

Another common theme that was raised was the issue of confidence. It was suggested that due to the subject and culture being relatively new to the police service all but the best versed lacked confidence in fully understanding the concept. This issue of confidence was identified as impacting on staff accessing evidence based material, interpreting it but most importantly its implementation. It was also identified that there is a misuse of analysts within the service to embed evidence based policing and a historical issue with their products being utilised by officers. This is because they are often used for case work or corporate and performance analysis as opposed to conducting effective analysis on core problems and subsequent results analysis.

This lead onto a discussion around where such new ideas are deposited. It was suggested that for frontline staff to be more open to it there needs to be a better portal for depositing their experiences of what worked and did not so that others could learn from their mistakes. Essentially encouraging more reflective practice. This was particularly interesting as it highlighted the wealth of experiential learning that could be tapped into and used more effectively if this could be achieved. It was suggested that such approaches would be invaluable in underpinning people’s professional judgment and add further depth to their own experiential learning.

Question two in the debate went on to ask, has enough been done to ensure that front line staff understand evidence based policing? If not, what should be done? This was a very interesting question which generated a lot of strong emotions within the contributors. Ultimately the question boiled down to just several key themes, training, language and culture.

In respect of training it was highlighted continually that current methods are inadequate to equip frontline staff for the current problems that they face. It was suggested that the fundamentals of evidence based policing need to be embedded in staff at a very early stage, ideally when they are new to the service. In respect of current staff it was strongly argued that the current methods used by the service such as NCALT was completely ineffective and that there was a desire to understand more about the theory behind the practice.

Language was the second major theme. It was suggested by many of those involved in the debate that much of the terminology used by both academics and advocates of evidence based policing alienates the masses.

“There is a danger of the language suggesting we are “all a bit dim” (@nathanconstable)

The use of scientific phrases to explain quantitative conclusions was highlighted. Another fine example was the use of the word ‘evidence’. What this word means to academics and front line staff is very different and this is just a single example that was outlined by the debates guest host;

“I still think the word “evidence” needs more defining around EBP. I feel qualitative and even a community voice are key indicators” (@DCPegram)

This of course is an issue that has always been prevalent within policing, particularly in recent decades. There are many high profile chief constables now calling for less use of jargon fuelled management speak and it was suggested that for evidence based policing to be accepted further there was a need for plain English. There was also some confusion about the pure science approach to data collection and evidence – which is also still debated by academics. There are some forms of research that are critical to policing that may not suit a purely scientific research model.

Finally, but unsurprisingly the issue of culture reared its head. The culture within the police service was identified as causing a ‘top down’ approach to embedding evidence based policing. Senior officers talk about and push implementations but the frontline staff are ignored. Often their skills and experience are not considered during the implementation or evaluation phases. As an example one contributor highlighted that there are many highly skilled researchers within forces with frontline staff even qualified to PhD level. However, they are overlooked and underutilised because they do not possess the requisite rank to influence from the bottom up. Finally, it was suggested that there persists an aura of superiority from many academics and those involved in EBP which puts many front line staff off – this is of vital note if a true collaboration is to develop between the two worlds as there has historical been some conflict. To offset some of these issues it was argued that junior leaders within the service need to take an active role in positively changing some of these issues if we want front line staff to respond;

“EBP needs to be championed by supervisors of front line cops to give purpose & understanding” (@CentralLeicsNPA)

To conclude the debate the final and arguably most important question asked contributors, in what areas of policing could evidence based policing help you?

In respect of this final question the best conclusion that could have been hoped for occurred. There were no themes that were consistent. The debate generated an array of suggestions and ideas that evidence based policing could concentrate on to further assist the police service. A very current suggestion and especially relevant given the recent austerity the public services have experienced in recent years was that more work was required in pushing work away from the police service. This suggestion was less about the service avoiding responsibility and more about other agencies picking up what is universally accepted is their specialism, mental health for instance. It was also suggested that a fundamental review of the service was required. The context this was suggested in was one of ‘why do we do it that way’? What is the evidence basis for this course of action? It was argued that if we strip away the culture around ‘the way it’s always been done’ and for much of what the police do it was suggested there would be a very weak evidence base, if any.

Targets were also a topical subject with contributors calling for further removal of performance indicators based upon evidence of their inadequacy at protecting the public. Other bureaucratic burdens were also suggested for further research to identify what value they add, or more likely do not. For instance, learning and development, training and the methodologies used for assessing risk. There were also strong requests for a greater evidence base around protecting vulnerable people such as victims of child sexual exploitation and missing from homes with contributors suggesting they are handled ineffectively because of a lack of knowledge on the subjects. Wellbeing was also highlighted as needing much more work, after all, happy staff are productive staff. Finally, the area of neighbourhood policing and early action was identified. With many services having to cut back on such approaches due to austerity measures a need to make such methods more effective is required and evidence based policing can provide this.

“Problem solving is ripe for EBP, 1000s of projects going on as we speak. Opportunity to identify what works” @MarkBrennan

To conclude it was suggested that a way to begin an evidence based solution to many of these issues was a depository for evaluations of localised projects. Although the college of policing provides the ‘what works center’, this is founded on peer reviewed material. Many pilots never reach such a stage and go unreported further than their localised service. To address this the suggestion of a way for evaluation reports to be submitted for inclusion in a more widely known location or an easier way to add them to the ‘what works center’. This method would also drive a more bottom up approach to the collection of other very important information which is provided by officers themselves. In order for evidence based policing to really take hold, all the evidence suggests that officers themselves need to be fully engaged in that process.



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