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Negotiating Access - Don’t Be an User

A couple of weeks ago the topic of my Qualitative Research class was “acquiring and sustaining access.” As we discussed for the better part of a couple of hours, most potential research participants have zero interest in actually helping researchers. Why should they? We’re often as annoying as those people who call you at 6pm to ask whether you like your current furnace or run market surveys on hair dye.

Probably, my most favourite part of what I do with CAN-SEBP is broker research - that is, I help police services find qualified researchers and, occasionally, I help applied researchers find agencies with which to conduct reserach. Currently, CAN-SEBP is either working on, associated with, or has brokered for other researchers something in the neighborhood of about 35 projects across Canada. Because of this success, word gets around. Not surprisingly, then, I get the occasional inquiry from a researcher asking if I can provide them help with getting access to a service for their research project. The answer is almost always no.

How could I be so mean and heartless, so unwilling to help my fellow researchers? Well, let’s go back to the original vision. CAN-SEBP was created to assist in the creation of rigorous, actionable research from which police services could develop better policies, practices and programs - from better crime prevention techniques to more effective operational strategies to better responses to HR and personnel wellness issues. This is the stuff we call “applied research.”

You see, a long time ago (okay, about 4 years ago), Canada produced very little research of any use to police agencies. We produced a fair amount of theoretical, critical and related research that described problems, but which offered little in the way of concrete solutions.

The turning point for me was my stint on the Canadian Council of Academies report on the Future of Canadian Policing. For anyone who didn’t think much of that report, the real fault lies in the fact that we had very little Canadian research to answer any of the most basic questions. So, if you think it sucks, that’s why. We couldn’t answer those basic questions because, simply put, hardly anybody was studying practical policing issues and producing solutions. They were running surveys on “what does the community think about x, y or z”?

There’s been a lot of discussion over the years that suggests the reason why not much applied research was produced here was because police services closed their doors to researchers. There is likely some truth to that. However, that said, anyone doing research who could demonstrate that it would have some value and/or utility for a police agency, had an easier time getting in. During that same period where researchers were ostensibly shut out, I was producing interview-based research on occupational stressors in police investigative work. Yup, I was hanging with CSI!*

I got in to police services, and so did many of my colleagues (people like Craig Bennell, Benoit Dupont, Sara Thompson and Martin Bouchard, among others). Thus, when some Canadian researchers complain they couldn't or can’t get access to police agencies in order to conduct their work, I have to ask: how exactly did you frame this project? What benefits, products or services did you offer in exchange for their time, energy and/or resources? Did you acknowledge the issue of limited police resources and potential liability issues for the service when you made your request? Or, more to the point, were you being a giver or a taker?

Yup, I’m saying it: academics can be awfully self-centred. It’s often dressed up in idealized language – “the betterment of society”, “democratic accountability”, "speaking for the powerless", etc., etc. – but this language can often be little more than an attempt to obscure the fact that a researcher is being completely self-serving. Let’s face it: how many academics would continue to do research if they weren’t a. compensated for it through merit pay and/or in their base pay, or; b. rewarded with prestige (publications, honours, etc); and c. see a and b. In the immortal words of some dead Greek scholar, “publisheth ab perisho.**”

And, yes, I understand the tremendous pressures on young academics (and some old ones). However, responsible researchers today tend not to think of communities, groups or individuals solely in instrumental terms -- as research "subjects" ripe for our exploitation because "democracy" and "public good." And, yes, policing in Canada is an institution, but it's also a community.

* We don't have CSI in Canada, but they have yet to make a TV show called "Forensic Ident: Special Victims Unit", so you have to work with me on this one.

**Okay, I admit, I made that up.

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