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Director's Message: Making Change Happen in Policing


I was honored earlier this month to serve on a panel discussion sponsored by CNA about the changing role of policing, entitled: “Making Change Happen — What Must Be Done.” My specific topic was how NIJ’s investments can help move policing reforms in the right direction. This edition of the Director’s Corner is inspired by the conversation at the event.

For research to be meaningful, practitioners and decisionmakers need to take action and make reforms based on scientific evidence. Much of my decisionmaking these days is about what research NIJ will fund. I am keenly aware that the research must respond to real-world needs and at the same time be based on the most scientifically rigorous studies. I am particularly sensitive to these decisions right now because for the last several weeks, we have been deeply involved in funding decisions. Solicitations closed in the spring, so throughout the summer NIJ’s scientists and grant managers and our independent peer reviewers have been reading and scoring proposals and briefing me on their recommendations. (Our expectations are high and our resources are limited: NIJ funds less than 20 percent of the applications we receive.)

When the studies conclude, one challenge is getting evidence to the field in a way that has the greatest impact. Having worked on a number of researcher-practitioner partnerships, I know that it is not enough to be relevant in terms of subject matter or topics; being relevant also means quickly getting the findings into the hands of the right practitioners and policymakers. What police commissioners need to know can be different from what line officers need to know.

One finding from policing research that applies to every level of law enforcement is that trust and confidence start within the relationship between the police and the community. Trust and confidence are vital in healthy relationships between the police and community. To help build strong relationships, a growing number of police executives are opening their doors to researchers for help answering questions about efficient agency operations, about the impact of crime control or prevention programs, about ways to build trust with particular populations within the community.

I must point out that when researchers and police join forces, not only do both parties benefit but that police should be commended for the bold step they are taking toward two principles that lie at the heart of legitimacy: transparency and accountability. By letting researchers look at their data and make recommendations based on analysis, police leaders are helping to promote a culture of transparency. By allowing scientists to study police policies and procedures and the cultural environment in which police operate, police are nurturing the culture of trust the public is yearning for.

In closing, I want to encourage you to read the provocative papers NIJ and Harvard’s Kennedy School have been publishing over the last year. These papers are influencing the discussions about police reform, including the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Several have become extremely popular.

You might also enjoy listening to our Research for the Real World seminar on Legitimacy and Community Cooperation With Law Enforcement by Tom Tyler, whose research shows that citizens of all races show greater respect for law enforcement when they believe officers are treating them fairly.

By supporting research that brings together academics and law enforcement, is based in real-world needs, and answers practitioners’ questions, it is my hope that NIJ will enable science to support law enforcement executives to take action on reforms that will improve public safety and build strong community-police relationships.