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From the Director: Harnessing the Power of Data-Driven, Inclusive Research

Date Published
December 7, 2022
Portrait of NIJ Director Nancy La Vigne, Ph.D.
NIJ Director Nancy La Vigne, Ph.D.

“We don’t need any data. We already know all about what cops do in our community.” The woman’s words were met with nods and murmurs of agreement. I had just presented a map depicting concentrations of police vehicle stops as a precursor to a project designed to engage community members in those areas, along with patrol officers assigned to them, in a survey of community perceptions of—and trust in—the police. It was a rocky start. Fortunately, through the help of a local advocacy partner, we were able to convince stakeholders that high-quality data can be persuasive to decision makers and would also be more likely to garner the attention of police leadership.

The project was eye-opening. It was the first time I had ever involved stakeholders in a survey design process, enlisting both community members and police officers in crafting questions that were important to them as measures of police performance. Our research team learned a lot along the way, and it got me thinking about how rarely research takes the time to engage with the people closest to the issue under study.

My appointment as director of the National Institute of Justice affords me an opportunity to share lessons learned from these and other participatory research projects and elevate what I’m calling inclusive research. Inclusive research is intentional about involving those who are the experts on the topic. They could be patrol officers, investigators, victims, 911 dispatchers, service providers, arrestees, community members—the people are who are closest to the topic or situation that is being researched. While engaging these stakeholders in the research process can take many forms, it is crucial that researchers share the research findings with the people who helped generate them so that these findings can be interpreted and inform improvements in policies and practices.

How does inclusive research relate to policing specifically? The good news is that the field has a long history of police-researcher partnerships in which police practitioners are consulted, at a minimum, and are, in some cases, full participants in the research process. The bad news is that we have a long way to go in improving the nature of those partnerships, as many of them are lopsided, with researchers driving the development of research questions and the interpretation of findings. Recalibrating that relationship requires change.

First, police need research skills, tools, and time in order to be effective partners in evidence-based crime control and prevention. We know, for example, that the problem-oriented policing (POP) process works—there’s a considerably strong evidence base for its effectiveness. Problem-solving is a process 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 in partnership with community stakeholders, and assesses the effectiveness of those responses. But if POP works, why isn’t it more commonplace in police agencies? I believe it’s because that way of doing business is not infused into every aspect of an agency. It needs to be.

Second, police leadership needs to support and endorse these types of inclusive police research partnerships. One strategy is an approach I learned about from IACP Past President Chief Lou Dekmar of LaGrange, Georgia, Police Department, who instituted a process in his agency in which police recruits during field training are required to identify a problem in the community and must work in partnership with community members and stakeholders to solve it. For this concept to work, though, officers need access to data, research skills (or partnerships with crime analysts or local researchers), and time. They also need incentives and rewards for engaging in this type of work. Moreover, it is important that the work of individual officers addressing specific problems on their beats be coupled with broader community-based problem-solving that engages the public in both identifying issues and developing solutions in partnership with police and other agencies and jurisdictional stakeholders.

The solution isn’t as easy as finding a local researcher with whom to partner. 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 publishing in top-tier academic journals. That’s still a rare breed. Just as police officers need to be incentivized and acknowledged for engaging in community-based problem-solving, researchers also need to be rewarded for fostering partnerships that have real-world applications. They should be trained to perform research that makes a difference in people’s lives and credited during the tenure and promotion process when they produce that research.

One way to bridge the divide between researchers and police practitioners is to treat them as one and the same. In 2014, NIJ partnered with the IACP to establish the Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science (LEADS) Scholars Program, to support and empower the integration of evidence and data into law enforcement policy and practice. The integration may come 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 sworn police officers to include civilians working for or with law enforcement agencies and early career academics. LEADS scholars have conducted research on reducing gun violence and traffic fatalities, identifying optimal investigator caseloads, developing predictive policing algorithms, and many other impactful projects. Some LEADS alumni have gone on to obtain doctoral degrees, while others have had an accelerated path to promotion owing to their contributions to their agencies.

I believe that NIJ should not only continue to support the LEADS program, but also encourage both LEADS scholars specifically and police-researcher partnerships of all kinds to engage in research characterized by an inclusive, community-based, problem-solving approach.

In so doing, several topics demand a more credible research base:

Police Culture: Police executives are rightfully doubling down on efforts to recruit a more diverse workforce. However, without attending to the agency’s existing culture, such efforts could backfire, as it may be difficult to retain new staff whose identities and experiences enhance staff diversity. We need additional research on strategies to recruit, retain, and promote more women and people of color as well as ways in which departmental culture can be made more welcoming and inclusive.

Officer Wellness: Law enforcement agencies across the United States have increased efforts to train officers in identifying community members exposed to trauma or experiencing mental health crises and directing them to needed services, which is laudable. But officers are also exposed to trauma—many on a routine basis; if that trauma goes untreated, officers will not bring their best selves to their interactions with the public. We need rigorous evaluations of officer wellness programs to discern which ones work to reduce the stigma associated with help seeking and to improve officer wellness and related outcomes, such as reduced community complaints.

Officer Activity: To encourage officers to engage in community-based problem-solving, we need to understand how they are currently spending their time. How much time is spent responding to calls for service and what types of calls are they dispatched to? Which calls could be diverted to non-sworn responders? How much unassigned time do officers have and what do they do with it? How much time could be repurposed for problem-solving and community engagement?

Officer Training: The evidence base on training is woefully thin, with little research on what types of trainings lead to changes, not just in officer knowledge, attitudes, and skills, but also in officer behaviors in the field. We need more evaluations of how officers respond to training in the classroom as well as the degree to which they apply the training on the ground.

Community Trust: The issue of building public trust in the police remains a number one priority for police executives. Trust consists of many components: how officers engage with community members; how the community perceives their intent; and the actual experiences residents have with the police, as partners in crime prevention, as victims of crime, and as criminal defendants. We need more accurate measures of community trust, particularly among residents of communities with high violent crime rates and heavy police presences. Those measures should be developed through inclusive research and can serve as a baseline from which to measure change resulting from police reforms.

The National Institute of Justice will prioritize these areas of research, but we cannot build knowledge alone. To move forward, the field needs the support of law enforcement executives—you set the tone for your agencies and the field at large. By supporting officers and non-sworn staff in acquiring the skills to engage in data-driven problem-solving and opening your doors to inclusive research partnerships, your leadership can build new evidence on what works to promote safety and justice for all.

Date Published: December 7, 2022