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Bridging Research and Practice for Improved Policing

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

By Brenda J. Bond
December 10, 2018

Modern police agencies are under increased pressure to respond to and get ahead of the ever-changing needs and demands of an increasingly complex society. Doing so means serving the public in new ways and delivering effective crime and disorder services. While there will always be critics of the police and legitimate and important reasons to assess the nature and effectiveness of policing, research tells us that in recent decades, the nature and expectations of American police institutions have changed in positive ways, and in ways that are responsive to changing community needs and dynamics.For example, most American police agencies have adopted more community-oriented practices as a result of the community policing movement, and the relentless expectations of their community members. To maintain this positive progress, we must support and foster authentic partnerships between police practitioners and researchers, facilitating mutually beneficial relationships that result in empirical and practical impact.

In today’s public administration climate, the police can no longer address crime using the “trial and error” approach. Fortunately,a very optimistic outlook shows that police leaders and managers are adopting management tools such as strategic management and results-based performance systems for decisionmaking and “value-added management,” evidence-based practices, and “scorecards.” Numerous policing innovations have come to light in recent times, changing the way most police agencies operate. In truth,police in the United States have been the most adaptive and responsive arm of the criminal justice system. And the demand for police to change will surely continue, as we expect the police to be on the forefront of every real and potential threat to society that emerges.

Arguably, complex economic, political, technological and social forces significantly influence what police do on the street everyday, and how they account for their performance. Crime and disorder remain prominent challenges facing police. More recent challenges, such as opioid abuse and related deaths, cyber crime and active shooter incidents are new realities that push the police to learn and behave in new ways. Despite this outlook, there has been a significant amount of research conducted, mostly in partnership with police practitioners, on what works in policing and public safety. This research and insights from practitioners have informed new ways of understanding and tackling crime and disorder priorities, and emerging issues that face the police and their communities. In turn, practitioners are adopting new ways to try out what works, or experiment with new ideas to improve public safety services.

Police practitioners have become (while many had been)great partners in conducting research on policing, and in evaluating new or promising practices. However, there remains a great need to systematically infuse research into all aspects of policing. For instance, infusing research evidence and what works into police recruitment, hiring, selection, training and professional development are necessary ideas for improving public safety services. These types of ideas help build a solid infrastructure for what officers and staff do every day to deliver effective public safety. What works should be a starting point for operational and strategic decisions. Relying on research for street level operations overlooks the opportunity to improve the organization as a whole. Other opportunities for understanding crime and its context come from research in community social psychology, inter-agency collaboration or investigative functions, to name a few. If integration is achieved, police have the opportunity to become good consumers of research, as well as inform a future policing research agenda.

Moreover, given the complexity of today’s society and the nature and characteristics of crime and public safety issues, practitioners must work with researchers from diverse disciplines, such as public administration, public health, computer science, operations research and criminology, to name a few. Resources such as the Center for Evidence-based Crime Policy at George Mason University must become a go-to resource for officers and staff at all levels of the policing organization. Within the Center, practitioners can consult the evidence-based policing matrix, a tool to explore what types of interventions work under what circumstances.

The National Police Foundation, the International City/County Managers Association,the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Police Executive Research Forum are fine examples of organizations committed to advancing policing research and facilitating police-researcher partnerships.  More resources are available, for sure.

Bridging research and practice takes deliberate decisionmaking, planning and implementation. Public and police leaders and managers must push practitioners, or support those already convinced, to integrate research into all aspects of police organizational and service activities. There is a need to build relationships with researchers through local, regional and national academic networks, and through groups such as those mentioned above. Practitioners need to tell researchers what they need, while researchers need to be open to working towards the goals of practitioners. Relationships that work towards common goals, such as crime prevention and community safety, have the potential to propel policing research and practice to new levels.  This is where policing should be headed.

Author: Brenda J. Bond, PhD is Associate Professor in 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]

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