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Back to Archives | Back to February 2006 Contents 

Consuming and Applying Research Evidence-Based Policing

By Carl J. Jensen III, Ph.D., Supervisory Special Agent, Behavioral Science Unit, FBI Academy, Quantico, Virginia




here are many good reasons why successful law enforcement executives will have to be consumers and appliers of research. They do not need to become researchers themselves, but they must use the research in their everyday work. This article will examine why research matters to the police and how research can be used to policing advantage.

Why Bother with Research?
Those who decades ago endured a course in criminology may be skeptical that the esoteric and occasionally contradictory information they received could have any conceivable use in the real world. Times, however, have changed, and the nature of research in law enforcement has shifted. This is due, in part, to the fact that many current researchers are former police officers; still others who have never carried a badge nevertheless maintain a close relationship with law enforcement agencies. As a result, they better understand what the police want and need.

In addition, grant funding and other resources today are directed toward practical, usable research. In 1997, for example, University of Maryland researchers, at the request of Congress, published a massive volume in which they reviewed hundreds of research studies to determine what works in the area of crime prevention. This single volume, which was designed for the practitioner, does not rely heavily on research or academic jargon but rather provides helpful and easy-to-understand information.

Another effort in this area is the Campbell Collaboration, modeled after a similar effort in medicine. Its goal is to summarize all the available empirically based information relating to a single topic, and present a one-paragraph summary, or systematic review, for the consumer. Today's research is not only better but also more accessible. Access to the Maryland study and the Campbell Collaboration, as well as the National Criminal Justice Reference Service's electronic library, are available free of charge on the Internet.1

Today's police, as the saying goes, are doing more with less. Using what researchers have proven to work rather than simply relying on preconceptions and local custom may actually allow that to happen.

Evidence-Based Policing
In 1998 criminologist Larry Sherman proposed the creation of a new model of law enforcement that he called evidence- based policing (EBP). According to Sherman, "Of all the ideas in policing, one stands out as the most powerful force for change: police practices should be based on scientific evidence about what works best."

Based on a model that had earlier been adopted in medicine, Sherman noted that most police practices remain untested. We often do not know whether what we do works at all. In many cases, even after research has shown that something doesn't work, we continue to do it as a result of political pressure, inertia, or ignorance. Sherman's model, as described in figure 1, is simple.3

In reality, EBP is more a philosophy than a model. It can be applied to all facets of policing, including resource allocation, deployment, and investigation strategy. It is also not limited to criminology. One can easily envision research relating to business, engineering, and cybernetics and artificial intelligence to have relevance for policing.

Using the EBP model, when confronted with an issue or problem, an agency determines best practices as identified in the relevant literature. A great deal of cutting-edge research is already available on the Internet and most major city police departments and state police organization conduct research studies. But unless one knows how to judge how well the researcher did the study, one may accept findings that are not accurate. In fact, not all research is created equal. Some studies involve a sufficient number of subjects and use random assignment and control groups; others do not. Understanding how well a study was conducted is crucial for successful application.

The Maryland researchers understood the value of assessing studies and actually created a system of grading the research. Studies conducted under the most scientifically rigorous conditions (such as random assignment and control groups) were given a score of 5 and those with the least amount of rigor were given a 1. The Campbell Collaboration likewise uses a systematic method to rate the efficacy of research and won't say something either works or doesn't work until certain conditions are met. Not every research study reviewed will be evaluated and rank, however. That means that local departments will need to assess the validity of the research, and one of the best places to get help is at the local university or college. Academic researchers can assess the study's methodology to determine whether the local department should depend on the findings.

Once best practices are determined from the literature, the agency must adapt them to fit the particularities of local laws, agency policies, and community realities. After all, what works in one jurisdiction may not work, or may not be acceptable, somewhere else. This is where the experience, skill, and political savvy of the police manager are crucial to knowing what is going to work in the real world. To that end, promising practices inform but do not dictate guidelines for the plan of action.

Once guidelines have been established, they can be used to formulate outputs, or means to accomplish a task. Finally, and perhaps most crucial to the entire process, there must be a means of measuring whether the plan actually works, that is, whether it accomplishes what it was designed to do. To that end, at the initiation of the plan, specific outcomes, or goals, should be established and used to drive every other aspect of the project. Often outcomes and outputs are confused. For example, an outcome for a plan might be the reduction of drug use in a community. One output for accomplishing this could be the aggressive arrest of street-level drug dealers. However, if the agency measures only the arrest rate, the actual effect of the program on rates of drug use remain unknown. Instead, community drug use, as measured through emergency room referrals, drug use surveys, or other means, is the proper variable to be considered.

The EBP process mandates a thorough and ongoing assessment of outcomes, as demonstrated in the feedback loop illustrated in figure 1. But a program's failure to fulfill its creators' initial expectations is not necessarily cause for junking it all together. In fact, it may need only a little tweaking. Because it is systematic and requires ongoing measurement, the EBP process is ideally suited to refining programs as needed. In addition, the end of the feedback loop arrives back at promising practices that are constantly refined and updated as a result the EBP system of operations.

Involve the Community's Academic Institutions
Universities and colleges serve most communities and can be a tremendous EBP resource, from compiling and assessing research, to assisting in formulating outputs, to measuring outcomes. In fact, establishing a collaboration with a local academic institution can be a win-win situation: the police benefit from the labor and expertise of the faculty and students while the university gains a laboratory in which to conduct meaningful research.

Both the police and the academic community thrive on grant funding. Today, because many grants require practical research, it is almost a requirement that a researcher work with a police department. The title of the 2005 National Institute of Justice conference was Evidence-Based Policies and Practices. To some, this title clearly indicates that grant funding will be contingent upon establishing programs that are both practical and based on evidence.

In order to bridge the gap between universities and the police, the IACP hosted a roundtable in 2003 that brought together experts in both fields. Part of the group's task was to study what made for successful police-university collaborations. The following attributes were considered essential from this effort.

  • The problem had to be one relevant to the law enforcement agency.
  • Researchers and law enforcement leaders had to share responsibility for the overall project.
  • Researchers and law enforcement leaders had to be qualified work in the partnership.
  • Researchers and law enforcement leaders had to devote time and interest to the project.
  • Researchers had to offer practical recommendations.
  • Law enforcement leaders had to be in positions of power in order to act upon the recommendations for operational change that resulted from research.4

In addition, the IACP provided recommendations for areas that needed to be addressed:

  • Selecting and supervising skilled researchers
  • Training law enforcement leaders in evaluating and performing research
  • Designing and formalizing the research agenda
  • Developing and sustaining relationships between law enforcement leaders and researchers
  • Evaluating and responding to research results
  • Managing funding for research partnerships

At the FBI National Academy
A course at the FBI National Academy on applying criminal justice research is based on Sherman's EBP model. Students are presented with tools to consume research and are required to critique various famous criminal justice studies. Based strictly on nonempirical observations (a dicey approach, given the theme of the present article), certain trends have emerged.

One emerging trend is that most police managers appreciate research that is well done and meaningful. In fact, many are quite good at dissecting and critiquing the research. The generally inquisitive nature of law enforcement officers, combined with their many years of real-world experience, has led to the exposure of holes and flaws in some well-known and highly regarded studies. Indeed, many of the FBI National Academy students have been able to suggest significant improvements. If more police managers were directly involved in research endeavors in the early planning stages, it's likely that there would be fewer problems for researchers down the line.

As part of the course, students are required to complete a project of real-world significance to their agency. Perhaps surprisingly, little criminal justice research has been conducted on many of the subjects they pick (although research often exists in other fields, such as leadership and management). This underscores the IACP finding that a research agenda must be jointly formulated. While researchers may think they know what the police want, they may not always be correct.

Finally, National Academy students who have enjoyed good relationships with universities point to a common theme: mutual trust established through regular contact. As in many other arenas, personal relationships still dominate most other factors. To that end, police managers may facilitate positive relationships by setting up internship programs and by inviting academic personnel to serve in reserve components or to attend their citizen police academy. They may also encourage their own personnel to reach out, by funding attendance at local colleges, by providing flexible scheduling, and by inviting local faculty members to provide training.   

1 The Internet sites for these entities are as follows: Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising (The Maryland study): (www.ncjrs.org/works); the National Criminal Justice Reference Service: (www.ncjrs.org); and the Campbell Collaboration: (www.campbellcollaboration.org).
2 Police Foundation, Evidence-Based Policing, by Lawrence W. Sherman (Washington, D.C.: 1998), 2.
3 Police Foundation, "Evidence-Based Policing," 4.
4 International Association of Chiefs of Police, Unresolved Problems and Powerful Potentials: Improving Partnerships between Law Enforcement Leaders and University-Based Researchers (August: 2004).

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From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 2, February 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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