Last year I was invited to speak at an event hosted by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. At first, I assumed it was a mistake. A new version of an advanced fee fraud involving something slightly more sophisticated than the usual appeal from Mrs. Mobuto SeSe Seko to help retrieve her gold bullion. No, it was legit, and my role was to speak from a research perspective on the issue of privatization of policing functions, the underlying assumption of my hosts being that ‘public policing is broken’ and the private sector can fix it.
Anyone who knows me, knows I don’t stick to anyone’s script, so the message I actually delivered was that Canadian policing isn’t broken, per se, but that Canadian policing research certainly is and that’s why we’re in the current muddle we’re in trying to figure out ‘what works.’ In other words, I was taking direct aim at the premise of the entire conference. Not to fear, though, because one of my co-panelists, a private sector consultant, was happy to leap to the Chamber’s defense and so she did.
She began by narrating her experiences as a former senior official in one of the provincial Ministries of Health. In her role with the Ministry, they were very much evidence-based, she assured us, and so she herself strongly believes in the need for ‘evidence-based decision-making.’ However, this does not mean Canadians needs to generate our own research, we could simply continue borrowing research ideas and innovations from the U.S., as they do in healthcare. Then she sat back and smiled.
I have zero recollection of what I said next. All I know is that afterwards she avoided me like the plague. Oh, well.
Why tell this story? Because I hear and see versions of this claim from individuals and groups over and over again. Everyone is ‘evidence-based’. It’s the 2010’s version of community policing. Anyone else remember in the 1990s when every single police agency said they were community policing, and most actually weren’t? It’s becoming like that all over again.
Let’s review what it means to be evidence-based. Generally, one believes:
scientific research has a role to play in developing effective and efficient policing programs;
research produced must meet standards of methodological rigor be useful to policing;
results should be easily translatable into everyday police practice and policy, and;
research should be the outcome of a blending of police experience with academic research skills (Telep and Lum 2014; Sherman 2015).
I don’t see, ‘we should import research from other countries’ on that list. In fact, I would argue that, to the extent that different countries have different policing models, different laws, different geographical, historical, economic, and socio-political contexts, a lot of what might work in, say, San Francisco, might not work in Medicine Hat and thus wouldn't be either effective or efficient. You could, as some people do, argue that the San Fran program is ‘evidence based’ and that’s good enough. However, it’s not really good enough. In fact, it’s kinda lousy. Unfortunately, it's also kinda the norm these days.
While I'm at it, for those institutions, organizations and groups that claim to be evidence-based, how do you stack up against this list (from Wilkinson 2017) as to what it takes to be an evidence-based organization?
Your organization is a learning organization, meaning focused on:
Understanding the nature of evidence-based practice,
Developing a learning focused, evidence-centric culture and,
Developing networks that help to find and build both evidence and skill in using it.
Staff have developed the knowledge and skills to be change agents. This means employees:
Have a level of self-efficacy or have the self-belief and confidence that they have the knowledge, capacity, and capability to engage productively in evidence-based practice,
They also need to have the ‘analytic competence’ and tools of critical thinking and,
The cognitive and other tools to productively participate in the process.
If you’re not trying (even just a little bit) towards achieving these goals, then please stop saying you’re evidence-based. You’re not.