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Supporting Ongoing Innovation and Reform in American Policing

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brenda Bond
March 7, 2017

Communities across the nation face great challenges in improving police-community relationships. While most communities have positive police-community relations, media coverage has been building salience for law enforcement reform on a national scale. This development motivated the Obama Administration to prioritize review and reform under the direction of the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). The COPS Office has facilitated federal policy support for community policing through grants and technical assistance, as well as through formal reviews and, in some places, even consent decrees. Notwithstanding the positive change that has come from these arrangements, institutional shifts have mostly been reactive.

According to President Obama’s COPS Office Director Ron Davis, the future of policing innovation should include shifting the dialogue away from individual cases to the cultural and structural changes needed to empower the collaboration of law enforcement and communities. Such reforms have sought to not only improve police-community relations, but also to introduce myriad institutional practices necessary in 21st century policing. The adoption of new technologies, innovative police-business partnerships and increased attention to performance measurement are just a few examples of this police reform. Despite the uncertainties that come when federal administrations enact priority shifts, an important question remains — should there be an internal mechanism for driving continuous police improvement and change?

Police agency priorities are typically expressed through structural police-1665104_640and financial practices. Drug units, domestic violence units, or school resource officer units are symbols of institutional priorities. We might imagine if police organizations had an internal mechanism through which they could systematically contemplate and understand community challenges, forecast community needs and adjust or reinvent police policy and practice accordingly, perhaps police could be nimbler in meeting evolving community and professional expectations. Indeed, there is a general lack of attention directed at how police organizations systematically address community needs through innovation, but recent research shows promise for advancing police organizations and the institution as a whole. We suggest police agencies that invest in “research and planning units” may be better equipped at addressing the constantly changing needs of their communities, as well as changes in the policing profession.

In the private sector, research and development units are customary to foster change and innovation in pursuit of organizational goals. As it turns out, some, but not most, police organizations have their own research and development — or planning units, dedicated to organizational improvement. Police research and planning units are known for their work on capital planning, equipment management, policy development, professional advancement, organizational strategy, grant writing and overall performance of the institution. Yet, whether or not research and planning capacity can facilitate change and innovation has not been given due attention.

I have been studying police research and planning units for over 20 years. Last year I published a study called “Research and Planning Units” in the Criminal Justice Policy Review with my colleague Kathryn Gabriele, which explored whether police organizations with research and planning capacity reported the adoption of innovative police practices at higher rates than those organizations without such capacity.  While the answer to this question may seem obvious, there is really no evidence institutional support for certain change and innovation functions actually leads to more change and innovation.

We looked at over 800 American police agencies and found police organizations with a formal research and planning unit, or even some staff dedicated to research and planning activities, reported higher levels of innovation adoption than those police agencies without staff dedicated to these tasks. By innovation, we mean new programs, technology, strategies and administrative practices. We did not find a causal path, but we observed a relationship between the formal structure and innovation outputs. Noticeably, the prevailing challenge of police research and planning has been articulating the value of funding spent on innovation under public sector financial constraints, and there has been an unexplored gap in knowledge of the best practices to increase this value and articulate it most effectively.

Public leaders have come out in support of police organizations under criticism with many pressing for a greater dialogue on how to improve policing practices and renew community relations. The call to support internal innovation has arrived at an opportune moment for citizens and public managers to respond to uncertainty at all levels of government with a renewed sense of what is valuable in the search for more responsive and effective law enforcement in American communities. One way to support law enforcement’s ability to respond to criticism, and to proactively serve the ever-changing needs of their communities, is through institutional mechanisms designed to do just that. Research and planning units within police agencies would not only support innovation and change, but would show the public the police prioritize such work to help to achieve organizational goals.


Author: Brenda J. Bond, PhD is Associate Professor and Chair of the Institute for Public Service in Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School. Dr. Bond’s research centers on the introduction and implementation of organizational change and evidence-based practices in public safety institutions. Email: [email protected]

Special thanks to Charles A. Young, an MPA Candidate in Suffolk University’s Institute for Public Service projected to graduate in Spring 2017.

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