Reality Check: Indigenous Policing Research
I had an interesting exchange on Twitter the other day with one of my fave indigenous police leaders, an exchange that got me reflecting yet again on the state of indigenous policing research in Canada - both policing by indigenous officers and the policing of indigenous communities.
In 2016, I produced a scoping review of the Canadian policing research literature. For the period of 2006 to 2015, I identified a whopping total of 5 relevant studies on what was then termed 'aboriginal policing.' Correct, five (n=5) actual pieces of research in which someone went out and collected and analyzed primary data on anything roughly related to indigenous policing.
In a recent, totally unsystematic study, I plunked in a variety of search keywords - including 'first nations policing', 'indigenous policing' and 'aboriginal policing', to see whether that number had increased much over the past five years. My university library system turned up 3 relevant articles and a book. So, no ... not much better.
Trying, in my own feeble way, to work to rectify some of this huge deficit over the years, I have been a close-up witness to several well-intended projects going absolutely side-ways. There was:
a. an international partnership with experts on behavioral science to study how to develop culturally relevant safety messaging for indigenous kids. This project tanked when its key proponent left.
b. a project with one of the major indigenous police services on culturally relevant drug safety messaging related to the opioid crisis (this time with local behavioural science experts). This project tanked when ... you guessed it ... the Chief left.
c. a partnership with an expert on indigenous governance and a police service aimed at looking at how best to increase the number of indigenous applicants in potential recruitment pools. This project tanked when the main funding body for social science research declined to fund a $20k grant that would have allowed for ... wait for it ... indigenous students to participate in data collection, analysis, etc. Then the Chief left.
d. a multi-phase project on policing of missing persons cases with a postdoc for an indigenous scholar to work specifically on risk factors and prevention pathways failed to attract any interest from indigenous scholars. Then we didn't get the funding.
e. two different evaluations of projects aimed at helping to identify and prevent at-risk youth (many of whom are indigenous) from being reported missing tanked when community groups were not convinced of the merits of the program.
I don't tell you this so you'll feel sad for me. Projects going side-ways is par for the course. Instead, I tell you this so you can see that the production of knowledge in this area is subject to a variety of both common and unique pitfalls.
- key personnel leaving
- lack of funding
COMMON TO COMMUNITY BASED RESEARCH:
- lack of group resources and capacity for taking on another project,
- suspicion of the motives of outsiders*
PAINFULLY UNIQUE TO INDIGENOUS RESEARCH:
- lack of indigenous criminologists in general, and in policing research in particular. I'm not even talking about applied policing research, I'm talking about ANY policing research.
Why does this matter? Some, but not all of the other problems identified, could be alleviated through the creation of greater numbers of indigenous researchers looking at policing issues. Certainly, this would be the case with issues around community trust and well-being.
Now here's some more reality check: there are some fantastic indigenous researchers out there - I can easily name two in graduate programs in my own faculty - but they're working on equally important issues, such as healthcare and land use. And, without means to more clearly identify potential candidates for recruitment, better ways of targeting them for our programs, as well as incentives to attract and keep them away from other competitive programs, indigenous scholarship in this area will continue to suffer.
In the meantime, one potential way around this impasse - while we work on the issues above - is for researchers to consider supporting indigenous officers who wish to conduct their own internal research projects, providing any needed theoretical and methodological support.
And therein lies the crux of what myself and others have been working on over the past few years: finding ways to empower individual police officers who want to step up and help us to collectively fill in some of these critical knowledge gaps. And this is also one of many, many reasons why calls to defund, suppress, direct or otherwise dictate policing research for or with police officers are fundamentally short-sighted and ill-informed.
*This should not be surprising: I've seen a LOT of researchers exploit communities for research purposes and conveniently forget to provide any value for communities' investments in these projects. Indigenous communities have been particularly hard hit by such exploitation.