Monday, July 11, 2011

Can research help cops prevent crime?

Research seems to be the last place cops look for solutions. They appear to implement most new approaches without supportive research to back them up.

Having co-researched and co-authored (with Gerry Cleveland) the Police Training Officer program - first adopted in Reno and then nation-wide - I am sensitive to this argument. The PTO program (and its grown-up progeny, the Police Problem-Based Learning program) was fully funded by the COPS Office. They both were thoroughly researched and pilot tested prior to implementation. Along with Problem-Oriented Policing a few decades earlier, I believe this to be a rarity in the police world.

It is the same with crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED). CPTED was studied and evaluated many years ago by researchers. Studies exist today on its effectiveness and some progressive police agencies have adopted CPTED based on this.

But usually not.

Now there is a new movement called evidence-based policing that seeks to fix the disconnect between science and policing.

This week I chatted with Harvard's Malcolm Sparrow. He has just published a brilliant and provocative response to the Evidence-Based scholars in a paper called Governing Science.

This is a must-read for informed leaders. It is a must-read for social scientists too.

Here's one tasty tidbit:

"…the relationship proposed by proponents of evidence-based policing offers virtually no benefits for police. The best they can hope for is that the scientists they have invited in…will finally confirm what police thought they knew already: that an intervention or program the department had previously deployed did actually work. The downside risk for police is much greater."

The article explains why he says this and how he thinks it should work. Read it HERE.

4 Replies so far - Add your comment

  1. While in Boston last month, I had the good fortune of meeting and briefly discussing with Dr. Sparrow this very topic. He clearly placed very little trust in the effectiveness of the Evidence-Based Policing Matrix tool which also happens to be utilized by the National Policing Improvement Agency of the United Kingdom (Sparrow's native country). Dr. Christopher Koper (who co-authored the matrix) also authored 'Just Enough Police Presence: Reducing Crime and Disorderly Behavior by Optimizing Patrol Time in Crime Hot Spots.' THIS is a strategy that seems to already be paying dividends in Milwaukee as we; like many other American police agencies; strive to become both more effective and efficient in these economically trying times. I wonder what Sparrow's thoughts are/would be on this particular strategy?
    Aaron Raap
    Milwaukee Police Captain

  2. AnonymousJuly 14, 2011

    No doubt EBP, like any other policing trends past or present, is prone to certain pitfalls if accepted without question. I suspect the attractiveness of it has a strong connection to choice and human nature. More choices actually makes choosing any particular one more difficult. The fewer the choices, the easier it is. EBP, like Consumer Reports, does all the research for us and appears to present us with a small list of "best buys." I can say that I haven't always been happy when I purchased a "best buy."

    I do think it's important, however, that when we implement crime reduction strategies, we take some effort to determine if it is effective, particularly in these difficult economic times. The public deserves to know that we are being good stewards of the resources they provide us. We really ought to be pushing partnerships with local universities to assist us in evaluation. We've been very pleased with our friends at Kansas State University. The future of EBP may lie in "going local."

    Tim Hegarty

  3. AnonymousJuly 23, 2011

    I was recently asked by a researcher if I could prove the PTO program was producing better police officers. The words "control group" even popped up. On another occasion an internal Use of Force Analysis report was questioned because it involved low numbers which had not been subjected to rigorous statistical examination.

    In Mindsight, Dan Siegel pointed out that in certain circles one is expected to not speak (or even internally entertain a line of thinking) unless your words (or thoughts) can be backed with clear evidence. I am increasingly finding myself falling into the evidence driven camp within policing, but what a small world we are boxing ourselves into if all human experience is not allowed to exist prior to validation. Somewhere there has to be an acceptable middle ground between experience and evidence. I think Sparrow may have helped open the door to this pragmatic, yet information driven operations room for policing.

    Josh Kyle

  4. Thanks for the astute comments, Aaron, Tim and Josh.

    In his famous article, "Barking up the Wrong Branch" Harvard's famed sociologist Stanley Lieberson puts it this way: "the standard for what passes as scientific sociology is derived from classical physics…that is totally inappropriate for sociology. As a consequence, we pursue goals and use criteria for success that are harmful and counterproductive."

    Nowhere is that more true than with evidence-based methods.

    In short, examining the social world - of which police/crime studies are a small part - is not at all like an experimental pendulum measuring the rotation of the earth in a controlled laboratory! The methods that apply in the physics lab, experimental controls, hypothesis-testing, prediction, parameter estimation, are just window dressing for the real thing when it comes to the social world.

    As Sparrow notes, at the end of the day that form of science may not really tell us more than we already know from "less rigorous" tests.

    If we want to move forward, we need to keep our eyes on the prize.


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