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The Kindness of Strangers

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” – Blanche DuBois.

I am probably dating myself a little here with this literary reference, but I’ve always been somewhat taken with the famous line from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Although the original text was intended to be somewhat ironic, in regard to policing and other criminological research, I say this a simple statement of fact. I have found – and relied heavily – on the generosity of the many researchers across the globe who make up the criminology research community. The reality is that no matter how well-versed you are in a topic area, and mine is policing, you cannot possibly know every single thing about every single area. The literature grows exponentially ever year, as researchers create more and more studies, and many on topics that were largely unheard-of only a few short years ago.

Let me provide a recent illustration of how helpful people can be. Not that long ago I received a query through the CAN-SEBP website asking me about a very specialized topic area: how to assess the solvability of murder files. This is a topic of which I know ZERO. Three seconds later I put out a tweet to the EBP community online:

Within a very short period of time, I got a response from Aili Malm at CSULB:

And then, about 4 minutes later, I emailed Kim Rossmo at Texas State. And a few hours later, I received a very detailed response, complete with attached articles and references for papers to look at. After an all-too-short sleep (more like a nap, thanks to jetlag), I had doubly won, because Kim agreed to let me buy him a beer at the next American Society of Criminology conference, which will undoubtedly lead to a greater opportunity to pick his brain.

Now, to be fair, neither Aili or Kim are strangers. Aili and I went to school together, and I’ve met Kim at some conference or another. However, the point remains the same: neither had to help me, but they did. And, in doing so, they helped the police officer, who had sent me the query. This is what a community does.

Where am I going with all of this?

  1. Researchers are not scary people. They are generally just people. Anyone who knows me knows that I have zero interest in having deep discussions on dense theories but will happily natter away about the latest episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Similarly, Renee Mitchell, who knows more about the methodological intricacies of studying hot spots than most people, loves to talk about monkeys. Not sure why, but trust me, she does.

  2. It costs you nothing to reach out and ask a question. Worst case scenario: you won’t get a response. In many instances, you don’t get a response because the person probably can’t help you. I throw out lots of queries on Twitter that get no answers. It doesn’t mean people are snobby, hate me, or think my question is stupid. It means they don’t know the answer and don’t know how to put you in the right direction

Here's another recent example of the kindness of people on EBP Twitter. I had a LinkedIn query from a police officer/colleague in BC about rural road fatalities (not exactly my area of expertise). That said, I vaguely remembered seeing or hearing something related and it had to do with some work by Jeremiah Johnson of the Darien (CT) PD. So, I tweeted a question to him. Within 5 minutes, he told me to check out Ken Clary of the Iowa State Patrol who was conducting research on this very topic. Two minutes later, Gary Cordner (NIJ) had sent me a link to a paper on Clary's work, put out by the Police Foundation. The next morning, I had an email from Ken Clary with more info.

TL/DR: Harness the power of the Internet to get expert advice from researchers on your topics. Most people are more than willing to help, if they can.

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