Guest Blogger: Sergeant Greg Stewart, Portland Police Bureau, Oregon
There is an ongoing debate about the role of data, research, and science in policing. While many officers believe that policing is an art, there is an increased call from the public, politicians, policing leaders, and others for the profession to become more data-driven and scientific. Both views have merit, but it is inarguable that with increased access to stops data, use of force data, big data, and social network analysis, as well as the growing traction of predictive policing and evidence-based policing, police work is becoming subject to the tools of science. Understanding and addressing this fact is essential if police officers are to help inform and steer the direction of research and the study of their profession.
Practitioner Research: Why Bother?
Currently, the majority of police research is about police, rather than for police. Research on police tends to emphasize the things police are doing right or what they are doing wrong. However, this type of research does not always tell police how to do things better. From mental health to homelessness, the police have inherited many of society’s problems. It’s time to start researching the solutions.
The lack of research conducted for police is a direct result of our profession’s hesitancy to engage in the research process. Without active police participation, researchers start by conducting research about policing, rather than research that will necessarily be relevant and useful to departments. Academia’s professional structure rewards the production of scientific articles over more accessible material, and officers lack incentives to value or pursue research as well, because research is not seen as integral to policing. This leads to a disconnect between the policing research and the policing profession.
By taking a seat at the research table, law enforcement can help shift the academic research focus to the immediate issues facing policing: issues such as how to accomplish de-escalation without a subject becoming violent, how best to police persons affected by mental illness, or how to conduct effective proactive crime reduction activities without harming community-police relations[i]. The policing field needs constructive, forward-looking research that addresses how to police better, as opposed to research that simply points out what is being done wrong.
From Theory to Practice
Having identified the need for greater police involvement in police research, the question remains: how will the profession accomplish this? In theory, the solution to this problem is easy: more training. In practice, however, this proves challenging. Very few agencies have sufficient training time or other resources to meet their current needs. Developing and maintaining the skill sets of both a researcher and police officers will be challenging. However, there are three main areas of focus that departments can pursue without overwhelming agency resources.
First, agencies should consider establishing and fostering relationships and formal research partnerships with existing police researchers. Developing these partnerships requires patience and clear communication about motivation, expectations, research interests, and research goals. Close partnerships allow for mentoring and skills transfer and help focus a research project to be relevant to departments, as well as academically rewarding for scholars. Such partnerships are challenging, but possible. There are resources available to support this work, such as the National Institute of Justice/International Association of Chiefs of Police guidebook: Establishing and Sustaining Law Enforcement Researcher Partnerships[ii]. Police agencies from Philadelphia, PA; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; and other cities have taken this route and have benefited.
Second, agencies should consider rethinking what constitutes training. Police training opportunities are almost entirely centered on traditional skills such as driving, tactics, shooting, as well as crisis intervention and community police relations. Agencies need to think creatively about how to train a portion of their personnel on research-oriented skills. My own agency has allowed me to partner with Portland State University on several projects. These projects have benefited the agency while allowing me to develop my skills as a researcher. It may seem odd to train an officer on research methods, but thirty years ago, so was the idea of training officers to focus on mental health.
Third, agencies should turn to state and national-level resources to support their efforts. The fragmented nature of policing in the United States—with 17,000 independent departments across the country—leaves many agencies without the resources to develop research and data analysis skills. At the national level, programs like the National Institute of Justice’s Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science (LEADS) Scholars and Agencies programs, as well as the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Innovations Suite Fellows Academy, support officers and departments working to develop research and analytical skills. My own participation in both LEADS and the Strategies for Policing Innovations Academy has proven invaluable in terms of training and networking opportunities which would not otherwise have been available. My participation in the program was possible because my agency recognized the value of this training. Departments should leverage these trainings, officer development programs, and other resources.
At the state level, some Police Officer Standards and Training Boards have started to introduce this material through the use of supervisory classes. As officers advance in rank, there should be an increasing emphasis on understanding the research behind their work. In my state, Oregon’s Center for Policing Excellence has started such a training. Despite being relatively new, the Center is already helping advance policing in Oregon through programs such as the Oregon Knowledge Bank[iii]. Agencies should ask their state legislatures to support the growth of these programs.
The public’s expectations of police are expanding and the profession will grow to meet those demands. Research and data analysis skills are part of that growth. It’s no small task for officers and departments to develop research skills and implement evidence-based policing, but engaging in partnerships, rethinking training, and leveraging national and state resources can help facilitate this important process. It is my hope that law enforcement’s active participation in policing research will help guide and grow this research in a way that will make it relevant to officers and departments, thus providing greater benefit to the communities we serve.
[i] This research does exist, and is frequently conducted by former police turned researcher, but the quantity of such research is lacking.
For more information on the Center for Police Research and Policy, please visit http://www.theIACP.org/research.