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Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Police Ethnography

A few years ago, the esteemed policing researcher Peter Manning wrote a paper that documented in rather stark terms the decline of ethnography in policing research - from its relative heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, when incredible work was being produced by people like Egon Bittner, Maurice Punch and John Van Maanen, to the present era, where it had largely fallen into disuse*. Now you might reasonably ask yourself, “what is ethnography?” and “why do I care?”

Let’s start with the first question. Ethnography is a field-based research method in which the researcher embeds him or herself into a space or situation to conduct observations. By adopting the role of the observer, the researcher is given an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of their subject. Let me use an example drawn from the classic policing literature, Egon Bittner’s (967) “The Police on Skid Row.” Prior to Bittner’s research, policing tended to be viewed solely as law enforcement and police officers were, simply, ‘law enforcers.’ By observing police officers in two different skid row communities, Bittner discovered what had been previously missed by other researchers: a lot of policing within these communities is geared towards ‘peace keeping’ or ‘order maintenance.’ The style of policing in skid row, Bittner argued, reflects structural demands placed upon the police to engage in discretionary decision-making that not only keeps ‘problems’ contained within that space, but also seeks to minimize the potential for conflicts and other issues to overwhelm the skid row community. Some 50 years later this might occasion a ‘duh’ response from readers, but keep in mind that in 1967 this was incredibly ground-breaking work in policing research.

So, why care whether policing ethnography has been on the wane? Because there are some very important research questions that could be best answered using this technique. Violence against police is one of them.

A few weeks ago, I wrote my second ‘state of Canadian policing research’ analysis in a blog. Keen-eyed readers will notice, when it comes out at the end of the year, that among the ‘missing’ topics was violence against the police. This is a significant practical and public policy issue, and it’s one that might seem to have generated little interest among researchers, as we have no big, published Canadian studies on this issue. Given the importance of this topic, and my own interest in working with complex issues, I decided it was worthwhile for me to consider going back to conducting field research. Putting my ethnographer cap back on would allow me to capture data and insights through observation that I could not gain from police HR records, criminal assault charges and/or self-report surveys. Simply put: police anecdotes suggest that a lot of violence against police goes unreported, because it is dismissed as ‘part of the job.’ I want to know more about that phenomenon and its potential individual, organizational and societal effects.

Now here is the fun part. I am proposing to a police service that they have a researcher sitting in a police car for 10-12 hours at a time, observing cops getting hit, spit on, kicked and so on. What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s just two of many things:

  1. The project never gets off the ground because getting approval from an university Research Ethics Board on projects like this is virtually impossible.

University REBs are notoriously squeamish about granting approval to any type of study that carries anything greater than zero risk to researcher or participants. Field research, in particular, is perceived by many Boards to be especially risky because of the observational element and is thus frequently subject to much more intense scrutiny by Board members (many of whom are unfamiliar with this methodology). I can see the questions now for my proposed project: how will you gain informed consent to participate in your study from the people who are kicking, spitting on the police? What will you do if you observe a crime? What measures will you take to ensure your participants (the police officers) are not psychologically harmed by your questions about them being spit on? What are your risks of being kicked and spit on and what steps will you take to minimize those risks? Ad infinitum.

The questions above, by the way, are drawn from previous experiences I've had with several REBs over the past almost 20 years. Such experiences include drafting multiple iterations of research proposals because of constantly changing Board members, and, my personal favourite, the time I couldn't get something approved for about a year and a half.

How to get around this? Conduct the research using one of my other institutional affiliations, such as the Director of CAN-SEBP. However, that means I have zero university backing if things go side-ways (see below).

2. You never get approval from a Police Services’ Legal Department because … liability

Undertaking this kind of observational work means that you may be involved in a situation that could potentially place someone in legal or disciplinary jeopardy, even if their behaviour was perfectly exemplary. Aside from internal reviews, there’s the SIU process and then the ever-present threat of being subpoenaed in a legal proceeding, or legal demands for your field notes from defense lawyers. Breaking the anonymity of your participants without their permission, or otherwise revealing information about them, is a cardinal sin among researchers. The entire research enterprise requires us to protect our participants or, if we can’t, to be able to tell them upfront the circumstances in which we might have to reveal information about them to authorities. This, of course, pretty much kills the trust required in the research relationship.

To possible skeptics out there who might think these are far-fetched concerns, let me assure you, there has already been some fairly high-profile cases involving these types of threats to Canadian research. For his MA work in 1994, Russel Ogden conducted interviews with individuals engaged in breaking the law on assisted suicide. He quickly found himself being subpoenaed by a Coroner’s Court to testify about his research. His refusal led to protracted legal wrangling to protect his work and recoup legal expenses from his University. More recently, police investigating the Luc Magnotta case were tipped off that he had been interviewed five years previously as part of a research project on male escorts. They demanded the interview data of two researchers at the University of Ottawa, who refused to turn it over. A subsequent judicial decision gave the researchers limited legal protection with respect to keeping participant confidentiality. However, the legal burden is on the researcher to show they meet the criteria of something called the Wigmore Test.

If you were a researcher, would you knowingly want to put yourself into this situation?

And this, kids, is why we can’t have nice things.

* I note that a group of British researchers have been working to bring policing ethnography back from the verge of extinction. To them, I say: Mazel Tov.

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