Sunday, November 12, 2017

Thoughts on researching police

Photo by Oppaints at English Wikipedia (Creative Commons)

by Tarah Hodgkinson

It is difficult to discuss community safety without discussing the police. That means we need unbiased research about how they operate. For example, Jerome Skolnick’s book Justice Without Trial (1966) and William Westley’s 1950s research looked inside the police blue wall. They spent months studying officers as they did their jobs, observing them where they worked and interviewing them in the field - a rare style of research called ethnography.

While much research exists on policing in North America, there are few in-depth ethnographic studies. This is happening at a time when, as police scholar Monique Marks suggests, large scale changes in policing demands in-depth and objective knowledge on how this change is occurring and where it should be headed. She reminds us that most of our understanding of the underlying processes in these organizations relies on out-dated studies.


Why do so few take on ethnographic policing research? This is largely a result of university research budget constraints and the pressure to publish in academia. Ethnographic studies take a significant amount of time and resources, and may only result in a few publications. There is also a concern that police organizations are not open to research, a perception not completely unfounded. However, in my PhD research, that has not been my experience.

Most police organizations I researched rolled out the welcome mat. I was brought in by all levels of management with varying levels of experience. They were eager to hear about my research goals, connect potential research participants and even come in during their vacation to participate.

Toronto bicycle police officers in Yonge Dundas Square, Toronto.
Photo by Ian Muttoo (Creative Commons)

Perhaps the world of policing is changing and with it the players? Police leaders are more educated than ever before and increasingly understand and value the research skills outsiders offer. But it may also be because my research goals appear relatively benign.


In fact, some police organizations are less open to certain kinds of research. One obvious example is research that has potential to investigate problematic behaviour or portray police in a negative light. Unsurprisingly, officers continue to be reluctant to disclose everything to an outside researcher. As one constable stated “We are going to hold things back. If we don’t know you, we aren’t going to spill our guts on the first round. We need to know we can trust you.” 

Trust is essential in the policing world, as characterized by another interviewee who said “you get lied to constantly. Every day! Multiple times a day. You learn to hold back and question everything.”

This openness to research, but only certain types of research, often results in simple and descriptive conclusions that fail to critique or innovate. Much more interesting, and promising, are those able to spend time to build the trust necessary to see behind the curtain of the policing world – and not lose their objectivity in the process.