The Cult: An Interesting Take on Research
Remember the old days when we had "fads"? I'm not talking about poodle skirts or parachute pants. I'm talking about community policing, problem oriented policing and all those other fads of the late 80s and early 90s. For those of you who don't remember, "fad" was the term used to describe any type of culture or paradigm shift within the policing world. Apparently, fad is out, and the new term for denigrating change within policing is ... *drum roll, please * ... "cult." Yup, that's right, the latest challenger to the status quo - evidence based policing (EBP) - is being described in some circles as a "cult." Or at least it's a cult according to those who fear change. Yanno, it's okay to fear change. It's actually a pretty human condition to fear the unknown and, for many, that's what change represents: potential threats to both status and status quo, having to learn new ways to think and to operate in a fast-paced world, the possibility of redundancy. I get it. But what is it that is actually being feared in the case of EBP? SCIENCE At its heart, evidence based policing is about adopting a lens that, when it comes to creating programs, policies and practices, privileges scientific research over "feelings", "intuitions" and/or "gut". That's it. As I recently said to a group of police leaders, if you don't believe in science, you should probably turn over your iPhones* and Galaxies to me, because that's how we get technology. In fact, you should probably rethink the use of DNA. No need for science, right? Here's the thing to consider: the adoption of new modes of thinking does not suddenly make the old modes irrelevant. Even the most evidence based of policing agencies I work with still make the bulk of their decisions without consulting research or thinking things through using a scientific lens. In fact, I recently estimated that the most evidence based of all of the agencies in Canada is using research, at best, maybe in 4-6% of their operational decisions. Big change, right?
Further, not only does EBP not require the abandonment of experience, it actually enshrines it at the heart of how it works in both theory and practice. The 4 core tenets of Evidence Based Policing: 1. scientific research has a role to play in developing effective and efficient policing programs; 2. research produced must meet standards of methodological rigor and be useful to policing; 3. results should be easily translatable into everyday police practice and policy, and; 4. research should be the outcome of a blending of police experience with academic research skills. By the way, what do you get when you develop programs based on "feels" rather than on rigorous science? You get DARE and a host of other costly training, community-based and other programs that don't work. You get massive waste at a time when police leaders are decrying their lack of resources. And it is such practices that are being defended when individuals raise the specter of science as a "cult." It's not a good look.
Although it might be tempting to end on that unhappy note, the reality is that the cult comment indicates a much more pleasant reality: things are shifting. How do I know? Because few people ever take the time to disparage something insignificant, non-threatening, a non-event. I also know because I have the pleasure of working with, and/or interacting with a number of people within and across policing who openly embrace this change, recognizing in it, perhaps, the possibilities of empowering themselves with new ways to think about old and often challenging problems. These are people who are creative, proactive thinkers committed to creating programs, policies and practices we know work and can therefore feel good about. Who are these people? They're frontline officers, union representatives, police leaders, school liaison officers, crime analysts. It’s the foot patrol officers who want to run a study on local crime and disorder, the Chief who wants to test his new school program, the Staff-Sergeant who quietly teaches himself to run a randomized controlled trial to see if a program really works, and the Inspector with an idea for a study on the increased complexities (and costs) of criminal investigations. It’s all of them and more, and they represent the whole kitncaboodle of policing. And I'd like to thank them. CAN-SEBP members. All 1000+ of them.
*I might have been optimistic on that one. I probably should have said Blackberries.