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Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence: Street Checks

In a report on street checks recently released by Justice Michael Tulloch, he stated, “there is little to no evidence that a random, unfocused collection of identifying information has benefits that outweigh the social cost of the practice.” The short answer is: of course, there isn’t. Simply put, this is because there have been no independent, rigorous* studies of the effectiveness of street checks as a policing tool in the Canadian context. Not one. However, because that is the case, we cannot conclusively rule out the possibility they might have some crime deterrent or investigative value (the efficacy argument), as street check advocates claim. As Carl Sagan once famously remarked, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” or, the absence of proof that street checks 'work' does not mean they don't work**. In essence, what Tulloch is making is a political argument, but not an empirical one, and therein lies the problem: without a strong evidence base in favour of, or against, the efficacy argument, there will continue to be many people who - rightfully or wrongly - will claim that street checks 'work' and will continue to advocate for their use.

By the way, why is there no Canadian empirical research on the efficacy argument? This is where I am forced to get a bit speculative. As some of you may know, each year I compile all of the Canadian peer-reviewed published research on policing into a single searchable dataset. And each year I observe the same thing: there are more studies produced on issues related to police-community relations than on other topics. And, the bulk of the very limited studies on street checks in Canada focus on negative community impacts. Why? My working hypotheses are:

  • Many criminology researchers in Canada skew to the critical criminology side, meaning their focus would be on conducting more activist-oriented research that dismantles practices they see as oppressive or otherwise socially problematic.

  • Many researchers, regardless of orientation, would be afraid to touch such a politically charged topic for fear of being the target of a backlash. I recently witnessed a graduate student being attacked on social media by a community activist for his participation in a report on street checks that had not even been released at the time of the attack. Who would sign up for that?

  • No one in this debate, including most government officials, police organizations** and community activists, wants to seriously tackle this issue through rigorous research for fear of not getting their desired results. (ding! ding! ding!)

In other words: we can’t have good research, because …. politics. So, what’s the upshot? We will continue to circle around arguments as to whether this practice is either effective or efficient ad infinitum. Sorry, folks, but the Tulloch report has not conclusively put this thing to bed.

* If anyone actually wanted to really test the crime deterrent argument, they could run randomized controlled trials and, if anyone actually wanted to evaluate the investigative argument, they could have run file reviews. That no one’s actually done either, speaks volumes.

** Before people starting flooding me with hate mail, let's be clear: I'm not taking this or any other position. I'm saying you cannot rule it out, which is an entirely different matter. I'm advocating for evidence-based policy-making. Novel concept, that.

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