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Reading the Room: How to Get it Wrong in a Crisis

Several years ago, myself and an academic colleague asked for a meeting with our then local police Chief to discuss the possibility of doing some collaborative research. I had just started bleaching my hair blonde, and turned up to the meeting to find that my male colleague had bleached the ends of his hair some weird shade of yellow-white. We looked ridiculous. Adding to the absurdity of the meeting was the fact that we had not prepared well and rushed in with a pitch for a potential project idea something they were already doing internally. The Chief looked like he could hardly wait to push us out the door.

I would never make that mistake again. Now when I conduct research the very first thing I do is look to see what other researchers have done on the topic. Then I do some basic research on the police service I'm pitching a project too in order to ensure I am not duplicating their efforts and am actually proposing something the agency needs and will therefore see as having value.

And now we get to the Covid crisis and the role of experts. I'm seeing lots of experts offering advice and predictions on all sorts of crime and disorder related issues and I can't help but think there's a few people who need to learn another lesson I've learned over the years: how to read the room.

What do I mean by that? As a field researcher, my work is centered on observing people. In any situation, no matter how much anyone thinks I'm not paying attention, I'm actually secretly watching people and trying to get a read on them. I want to know what they think, what they value, what they believe, what motivates them and, sometimes, what buttons I can push if I need to to get different types of reactions. The ensuing analysis is drawn from what people say and what they do.

For the past few weeks of my quarantine, I have largely sat back and watched police officers on social media post about their experiences, their concerns, their frustrations and their fears concerning the current crisis. I have distilled these into two major themes:

- concerns over personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing, including:

access to testing, access to PPE, how and when to use different types, issues around possible discipline for failure to use PPE in different situations, whether different forms will protect officers, whether different forms will protect the public.

- the emotional toll on officers, including:

heavier workloads with existing personnel, increasing demands for service with fewer officers due to illness, emotional labour (having to deal with managing public, institutional and personal anxieties), fears on bringing disease back to their families, having to deal with stress and burnout and its impacts on families.

None of this is unique to frontline officers, by the way. I have had a few phone calls with senior leaders, who are also struggling to deal with the above. Add to all of this, by the way, the uncertainty of possible extra-enforcement activity, as increasing numbers of cities, states, provinces and whole countries start placing the burden of quarantine enforcement on police officers.

What not one single stressed, increasingly burnt out police officer in Canada has asked for is: "could some experts pipe up and tell us whether they think domestic violence rates might go up? Or give us a script on how we can speak to the public when we encounter people having a barbecue in the local park?"

Not one.

If you are a researcher, and you want to be relevant and trendy but completely tone deaf: pipe up and offer your unsolicited advice.

If you are a researcher and want to be helpful and do something impactful: read the damned room.


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