There’s a lot of discussion in the world of evidence-based policing on the question of how you embed EBP within police organizations. Some measures have included setting up EBP units or designating someone as the local EBP expert (usually termed a ‘research coordinator’ or ‘head of research’). I think all such steps are great; however, I’m not convinced these approaches are either necessary or always the best. In fact, for many smaller agencies, institutionalizing EBP in these ways can entail committing resources the agency just might not have.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately working with small to medium sized police services, and much of the work has begun to take an entirely different approach: participatory research.
What is this, you ask? Participatory research (PR) is an approach in which the participants (ie. the police officers themselves) are actively engaged throughout each phase of research: from research design to data collection and analysis through to putting together the final results, as well as thinking through solutions to issues/problems encountered through the research. This is a technique that is very familiar to anyone who has done community-based research. For a great description, see below:
Participatory research comprises a range of methodological approaches and techniques, all with the objective of handing power from the researcher to research participants, who are often community members or community-based organisations. In participatory research, participants have control over the research agenda, the process and actions. Most importantly, people themselves are the ones who analyse and reflect on the information generated, in order to obtain the findings and conclusions of the research process. Participatory research involves inquiry, but also action. People not only discuss their problems, they also think about possible solutions to them and actions which need to be taken (Participate Initiative 2018).
One of the things I really like about this approach is that when I'm at the table discussing a project with police officers, we are a team, as opposed to each of us feeling instead like I'm a scientist staring down the microscope at some specimens.
Three different agencies we’re working with are either conducting PR projects or have PR projects in the pipeline. Therefore, it makes it easy for me to provide some concrete examples to illustrate how PR can be used.
Example 1: one service has developed its own EBP working group, comprised of officers who have received EBP training and self-selected to be in the group. To avoid issues with scheduling meetings across shifts, we’ve created a Whatsapp group for instant communication among members on project-related issues. This group is working on the research design (with my own team), so that officers will be able to participate as frontline data collectors (using the methods the officers themselves choose). As the project develops, interested officers will also be taught how to analyze the data collected and write up results. Ideally, it would be great to have some of them present the research findings and collaborate on papers.
Example 2: another service has proposed something similar: external researchers (in collaboration with the service) are designing a research grant that would lead to the creation of an EBP working group. All officers will receive EBP training, and those interested in being part of the group will then select their own research topic. Whereas Service #1 agreed to work on a topic that I already had in the works, Service #2 will be coming up with their own topic based on their operational needs. Once they've done that, they will work with outside researchers on creating a research design and execute the research project with some guidance and supervision.
Example 3: a third service has developed their own research grant to conduct a project similar to Service #2. The main difference is that Service #3 also wanted the experience of drafting their own EBP grant proposal (with me on 'standby' in case any assistance was needed to shape the methodology).
Aside from the fact this is a fairly cost-effective approach to embedding EBP within smaller organizations, if managed correctly, there is a huge upside to PR that you often don’t find in other strategies: as a form of active learning, it allows individual officers to better understand and use research because they have first-hand knowledge and experience of how it can work from the inside-out.