A cautionary word on evidence-based policing

Blog post

A cautionary word on evidence-based policing

As recently reported on PoliceOracle.com, ACPO vice presidents Sir Peter Fahy and Sara Thornton have called for more research on what works in policing, highlighting the need for police leaders to cultivate an atmosphere in which ideas can flourish. But how easy is it to shift to a culture of evidence-based policing and what precisely would need to happen within police organisations to achieve it?

I recently spent two years observing the day-to-day management of policing in a London BCU while conducting research, and attended countless tactical tasking meetings.

As a professional researcher interested in understanding how policing contributes to tackling crime, I think there are at least three issues that would need to be addressed if the rank and file are to actively contribute to the learning and for policing to become more evidence based.

Removing barriers

First, short-termism. With resources managed from one two-week period to the next, a long-term view being 12 weeks, and a constant process of reorganisation going on in the background, there is virtually no prospect of being able to say anything meaningful about the relationship between strategy, tactics, resource allocation and crime trends. Understanding what works’ requires a genuinely long term view.

Second, the paucity of analysis to explain trends. Crime type A was up in area one and the superintendent chairing the meeting would ask the relevant inspector for an explanation. Particularly in respect of volume crime, the answer given was invariably linked to police resources.

Crime was up – it was because’ of abstractions/sick leave/annual leave/training. Crime was down – it was because’ of an operation or an arrest. The reality? The elephant in the room was that nobody really knew why crime was up or down, but that didn’t remove the need to provide an account, however speculative (albeit the script varied little).

This wasn’t their fault – it is genuinely very difficult to draw robust conclusions about the impact of policing on crime, especially in the context of operational cycles. As an aside, those tasking decisions were almost completely dependent on the contribution of local civilian analysts, and they almost all subsequently lost their jobs to the cuts.

Third, the reluctance to try anything new unless it was imposed from above. I remember hearing a superintendent say, in respect of a potential innovation, “We looked at it, but didn’t want to risk a hit on performance”. Sticking to what Peter Fahy calls “accepted doctrine” was seen to insulate officers from criticism, even if that meant not trying something that might be more effective. The need for leadership couldn’t be clearer.

Quality analysis

Confronted with very difficult decisions to make about cuts and desperate to understand what works’ in order to deliver value for money it is clear that the demand for an evidence base is greater than ever.

However, officers of all ranks, but especially those in leadership positions, need to be realistic about what it means to identify and implement evidence based policing.

Police must invest in quality analysis. It’s no good having a protected frontline’ if the evidence isn’t there to deploy resources there effectively; decisions can only be as good as the information on which they are based.

They must reward innovation and encourage risk taking, but ensure that experiments are monitored closely to identify potential harms as well as benefits (another role for analysts) and not punish officers when ideas don’t work.

And they must resist the urge to constantly reorganise if they want to learn anything meaningful. Identifying what works’ (and, importantly, when it works) is a long-term project, not a short-term fix.

Gavin Hales, Deputy Director, The Police Foundation

This blog was originally published on 17 July 2014 byPolice Oracle