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Director’s Corner: Pushing the Edge on Evidence-Based Policing - Reflections on Research for the Real World


“Most of what we do has never been tested,” pointed out Dr. Angela Hawken, before going on to explain how her organization, BetaGov, is working to change that through hundreds of rapid-implementation randomized controlled trials (RCTs). BetaGov is an innovation hub out of New York University that supports public sector practitioners conducting evaluations of their programs. Dr. Hawken has a deep research background and is a longtime advocate of a grassroots model of practitioner-led research. “Homegrown research is prospecting for practices that work for you and your organization,” she said. “The people closest to the problem, those on the front lines, are often closest to the solutions.”

Dr. Hawken’s work with law enforcement agencies is positive proof that it is possible to do RCTs in operational agencies, and that these studies don’t always have to be big or expensive. Dr. Hawken’s model of practitioner-led research goes hand-in-hand with larger studies — departments aren’t always ready to participate in large-scale studies, and these studies aren’t necessary to test everything within an agency. BetaGov’s model is ideal for agencies to get fast answers to preliminary questions about what works. When studies do need to be on a larger scale with correspondingly larger budgets, NIJ is committed to making them happen.

Dr. Hawken is one of four esteemed panelists NIJ recently hosted as part of a Research for the Real World event to discuss evidence-based policing and the importance of research and evidence. These panelists are leaning out over the edge of evidence-based policing, doing groundbreaking work to advance the policing field through their commitment to programs grounded in data, evidence, and rigorous research. I was honored to host them at NIJ to learn from them and hear them speak about their work.

Two of our panelists represented NIJ’s Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science (LEADS) Agencies program sites. Chuck Tyree is the program manager with the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, which is doing extensive work to reduce gun violence in New York state. Through the Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE) Initiative, the state is implementing evidence-based practices that are effective in reducing gun violence, such as hot spots policing, focused deterrence, and crime prevention through environmental design. “Reducing gun violence needs to be a collaborative effort to engage all resources to combat this problem,” he said. “For our evidence-based program to reduce gun violence, we look at people, places, strategy alignment, and stakeholder engagement.” The state funds police agency education, technical assistance, and academic programs to support officers as they embrace evidence-based policing.

Out in Oregon, Ryan Keck is the coordinator of the state’s Center for Policing Excellence, a second LEADS Agencies site. The Center promotes evidence-based policing as part of a core curriculum delivered to all new law enforcement officers in the state. “Officer education is a key piece of evidence-based policing,” Sergeant Keck said. “We’re asking practitioners to do things they might not traditionally do, so we want to help them learn.”

The Center for Policing Excellence also provides agencies across Oregon with technical support, networking opportunities, and micro-grants to support evidence-based policing projects. “Among lessons learned from our evidence-based policing work, trainings should include practical exercises that challenge officers to apply research concepts in real life situations,” Sergeant Keck said. I am thrilled to have the Center for Policing Excellence as a LEADS Agencies site, and I look forward to NIJ continuing to work closely with Sergeant Keck and his team to further evidence-based policing.

What they are doing in New York State and in Oregon is remarkable and could be a blueprint for other jurisdictions. But there are two points we need to keep in mind. First, remember to keep evaluating. Evaluation is a process, and sites should make sure they are collecting and analyzing the data they’ll need to show that programs are working — and to know when they need a course correction. That leads to my second point. We can all learn from what they are doing in New York and Oregon, but we have to remember that every jurisdiction has unique factors, which can make replication tough. Consider the specifics of your jurisdiction. Even an evidence-based practice can fail if the implementation is blind to local circumstances.

Chief Louis Dekmar is the chief of police in LaGrange, Georgia, and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). He served as our panel’s discussant, speaking from a chief’s perspective to bring up issues that are heavy in the minds of law enforcement executives across the country. He pointed out that, “Often, research is not caught up with the emerging issues that we deal with today.” Chief Dekmar emphasized the importance of translating research into relevant, practicable solutions for police executives. He also spoke about the importance of collaborative research. “Research needs to be a clear and vibrant partnership between the field, the decision makers, the researchers, and the community,” he said.

NIJ began our Research for the Real World seminar series back in 2009 to feature research that is changing our thinking about criminal justice policies and practices. At Evidence-Based Policing: The Importance of Research and Evidence, I was thrilled to host such an esteemed group of panelists for our first seminar in more than a year. The event was part of Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science (LEADS) Scholars Summer Session, in which our 30 LEADS scholars visited Washington, DC, for two days of programming on evidence-based policing and professional development.

Research isn’t just an option or a fad in policing; it’s an ethical responsibility. As the evidence-based movement continues to grow and take hold in criminal justice, I hope the models that our panelists have implemented will be an inspiration and example for others to soon follow. I think Sergeant Keck puts it well in his panel remarks when he said, “Research can be used to ensure that services contribute to public value and continually improve effectiveness of the system.”