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NIJ Director La Vigne Addresses the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing

American Society of Evidence-Based Policing
American University, Washington, DC
Portrait of NIJ Director Nancy La Vigne, Ph.D.
NIJ Director Nancy La Vigne, Ph.D.

Thank you, Renee [Mitchell, ASEBP Executive Board Member]. And thanks to American University for hosting us – and of course all the conference sponsors. I am so pleased to be able to join you all today. This is a special opportunity to reach an important audience of applied policing researchers.

Now, I have never professed to be a policing expert. But policing research has found its way into my professional life in many ways over the years:

  • I helped plan the first every problem-oriented policing conference while a research fellow at the Police Executive Research Forum.
  • During my first stint at NIJ, I engaged with many police researchers and practitioners in the use of geographic information system (GIS) mapping. My time there also coincided with the launch of the locally initiated research partnership program.
  • During my long tenure at the Urban Institute, I had the opportunity to work on projects studying the police role in reentry, police use of stop and frisk, public surveillance cameras, body cameras, and gunshot detection technologies. I was also the lead evaluator of the Obama administration’s National Initiative on Building Community Trust and Justice.
  • Most recently, I directed the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Policing, a group charged with assessing the most common policing reform measures against the research evidence and reviewing the research evidence for over two dozen policies.

Throughout these experiences, I have made several observations that I’d like to share with you because they are directly related to efforts to promote more evidence-based policing.

First, police need research skills, tools, time, incentives, and partnerships to be effective. We know, for example, that the problem-oriented policing (POP) process works. There’s a strong evidence base for the effectiveness of processes whereby an officer or team of officers identifies a persistent crime or public safety problem, collects and analyzes data to identify the problem’s underlying causes, devises and implements solutions that address those causes, and assesses the effectiveness of those responses.

If POP works — and it does — why hasn’t it gotten off the ground? Because that way of doing business is not infused into every aspect of the agency. It needs to be. In LaGrange, GA, for example, when new officers begin field training one of their requirements is to identify a problem in the community they are assigned to patrol and work in partnership with community members and stakeholders to solve it. For that to work, though, officers need access to data, research skills, or partnerships with crime analysts or local researchers, and time. They also need incentives — rewards — for engaging in this type of work.

But the solution isn’t as easy as finding a local researcher to partner with. That’s because not all researchers are created equal. The best police-researcher partnerships are with researchers who care as much about informing improvements in policing and public safety as they do about getting published in top-tier journals. That’s still a rare breed. Police fear “gotcha” research. Researchers need to come to the table as equal partners.

But it works both ways. I’ve also conducted studies where I couldn’t get my police partners to pay any attention to the findings, despite the fact that they invited me in to do the research. It’s a two-way street.

Just as police officers need to be incentivized and acknowledged for engaging in evidence-based practices, researchers also need to be rewarded for partnerships that have real-world applications. They should be trained on research that makes a difference in people’s lives and recognized when they produce that research.

It is equally important to promote the “right” kind of research. What do I mean by that? There’s no one right methodology, to be sure — the method has to fit the research question or questions. But there are still right and wrong ways of going about it. The wrong way is to collect data and assume you know what it’s measuring. The wrong way is to produce findings without ground-truthing them with the experts. The experts in this context are the people closest to the problem. They are the patrol officers, investigators, victims, or 911 call takers; service providers and community members — the people closest to the problem that you are trying to solve. This can range from full-on community-based participatory research to research that is largely empirical but still engages stakeholders in interpreting the findings.

The final observation I’ll share is perhaps exceedingly obvious to all of you: the policing evidence base is growing but much more needs to be learned. We definitely know more than we used to, and there are many people to credit for that. But in the past year, I dug deep into the police reform literature and for the most part came away empty handed. Yes, we have some sense of whether and how body cameras work and the pros and cons of hot spot policing, but there’s so much more that we need to know:

  • Police culture: there is much talk about increasing diversity of police rank and file, but if you hire more women and people of color but don’t change culture, you won’t retain diverse staff and reach a threshold that transforms the dominant culture.
  • Officer wellness: We are training officers to be able to identify people in mental health crisis and raise their awareness of residents’ exposure to trauma, but we neglect the fact the officers themselves are exposed to trauma on a routine basis. It’s a two-way street, which means we need to know more about what works in promoting officer wellness and make wellness an essential component in trauma-informed policing.
  • How police spend their time: we know so little about how officers spend their time, both proactively and reactively. We need to unpack responses to calls for service, identify what share of officer time is “unassigned” and how they are using it, discern what’s the best use of patrol time, and measure how much time could be repurposed for problem solving and community engagement.
  • Training: Research evaluating police training on specific police reform priorities, such as de-escalation, implicit bias, and procedural justice, is alarmingly sparse. Most of what exists examines changes in perceptions and attitudes but falls short of measuring changes in behaviors.
  • Community engagement and sentiment. If we care about community trust in law enforcement, we need to improve how we are measuring that trust and from whom. Police satisfaction surveys just don’t cut it – the responses are biased toward educated populations residing in affluent, low-crime communities. We need to develop more valid measures of community sentiment on the part of people residing in the highest crime, most heavily policed communities.

In the course of building this knowledge base, the gold standard of randomized controlled trials (RCT) is not always what is warranted. Don’t get me wrong, RCTs are great, but not every research question is amenable to them, so we need to increase the rigor of quasi-experimental designs. We also need more mixed methods and interdisciplinary research.

Basic research is often overlooked by funders who only want to support findings with causation. That’s a shame because we need to understand the why and how of things. That also means that no evaluation of any topic should occur without a process and implementation evaluation component to it.

So, what’s NIJ’s role in all of this? Our mission is to help build that knowledge and ensure it is translated and widely disseminated so that it informs policy and practice. I am proud to say that NIJ has had a long history of supporting researcher-practitioner partnerships, funding experimental designs, examining variations in police practices, and evaluating crime control and prevention strategies.

Even recently, NIJ has funded policy-related research across a wide array of topics, from hate crime investigation to barriers to recruiting women in policing to identifying the social and psychological factors that lead officers to use force.

As many of you likely know, our current policing research solicitation closes next week on June 3. The budget for this year’s policing solicitation, at $8 million, is more than double that of a year ago. We intend to maintain, if not exceed, that amount in the coming year.

Another essential NIJ investment is the Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science (LEADS) Scholars Program. Since 2014, NIJ has supported and empowered research-minded law enforcement to integrate research into policies and practices. This may be in the form of partnering with researchers independently conducting their own research, or infusing research into policies and practices. In recent years, the program has grown beyond police officer scholars to include civilians and academics.

LEADS scholars have conducted research on reducing gun violence and traffic fatalities, optimal investigator caseloads, predictive policing algorithms, and many other impactful projects, some of which are on display at this conference.

In fact, several members of the ASEBP executive board are former LEADS scholars, 11 of this conference’s presentations feature LEADS scholars, and the LEADS program helped fund conference attendance of 11 police practitioners and four academic researchers.

I would argue that LEADS scholars and LEADS alums are well-suited for the types of independent, rigorous evaluations of Community Based Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiatives that NIJ is soliciting. NIJ seeks to fund outcome and impact evaluations of pre-existing violence intervention sites that are applying to expand or enhance their programs. And consistent with the spirit of engaging people closest to the program, applicants are encouraged to partner with community-based partners serving people of color, including Indigenous people, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders.

Relatedly, you can’t talk about policing in America without addressing the issue of race and racial disparities in the justice system. I’m thrilled to share that, after taking a long hiatus under the last administration, the W.E.B. DuBois grant program is back in business. The program supports quantitative and qualitative research that advances knowledge on the intersections of race, crime, violence, and the administration of justice. The application deadline for this year has passed, but the funding amount was increased significantly over prior years, and we are excited to seed those new research investments.

There is so much more that I am eager to share with you. I view this audience as uniquely suited to promote change in your agencies and departments. You are the leaders in the quest not just to build more credible evidence, but to ensure that research is translated and widely disseminated to reach the people who are best positioned to use it. I know I speak on behalf of NIJ, along with OJP and DOJ leadership, when I thank you for your service. We are here to support you and we look forward to future partnership.

Thank you.