Earlier this week I attended a workshop involving representatives from across the police-academic collaborations, funded by the College of Policing, Home Office and HEFCE Police Knowledge Fund (PKF).
Hosted by the University of York which leads ‘Connect, Evidence Based Policing’, this brought together academics, police officers and police staff to build insight and evaluate practice relating to issues of mental health and vulnerabilities in communities.
In addition to discussing emerging findings from research, we explored some of the challenges we have experienced in undertaking research and driving evidence-based approaches in the policing context. Whilst very different approaches are being utilised across projects, including – for example – systematic and narrative reviews, pre- and post-intervention assessments, randomised controlled trials and social media analysis, a number of common problems were identified.
In particular, the accessibility and reliability of police data – which fuelled debate about how far we can drive evidence-based policing whilst we have data systems which do not readily produce information in ways which support interrogation. It was suggested that we could learn from colleagues in health services, where data collection is beginning to be built to facilitate both analysis and business processes.
Whilst police staff and researchers work very hard to clean and interrogate data to provide insight, this is an unsustainable and unreliable model if we want to drive evidence-based policing. We need to have big ambitions about the potential for data systems going forward and academics need to support policing to work with system providers to develop products which genuinely take us forward.
Beyond data issues, research methodologies were also discussed, recognising the cultural, ethical and moral conflict often generated for police officers who want to improve practice on an on-going basis, rather than waiting to reach the end of a long data collection period.
The challenge to design approaches to research and evaluation which meet the demands of policing will not be resolved by one academic or one successful project – the variables in policing issues are ever-changing and require a constant-learning approach which builds on the successes and failures of previous work. We can only know about successes and failures if we work together and communicate, even about the difficult stuff.
Issues were also raised relating to sponsorship and support of research within policing, which is often sanctioned and facilitated by officers who move into new roles mid-project, triggering demand for researchers to replicate the process of generating support, buy-in and access to the right people and information before projects can get going. The high demands placed on police officers also means they often have limited time to support research projects and to undertake research themselves.
Whilst fellowships and skills development programmes are often very well-received by officers, the context in which they work and the time they can make available for their own research may negatively impact on their opportunity and ability to achieve accreditation and recognition of their development. This is likely to be measured as a ‘failed’ outcome for these programmes, which in itself demonstrates the difficulties of measuring success in police research.
Further collaboration is required to tackle these issues. The majority of my interactions with colleagues across the PKF do not reflect competition, but recognise the benefits of sharing experiences, approaches to solving problems, opportunities to test methods, tools and thinking in new contexts and environments. No single university or police force can solve the problems inhibiting evidence-based policing.
The workshop this week provided both cathartic release for colleagues up and down the country facing the same problems and developed our thinking about what is needed to progress beyond the issues outlined above. Most importantly, we generated energy and enthusiasm in the room to think big about what is needed to improve research in policing. These are important outcomes of the PKF and should be recognised as progress.
The College of Policing were not present at the workshop, and it is difficult for representatives of all agencies to be represented at these types of events nationally – particularly as they grow in number – which is another indication that greater collaboration is required to support the College in maintaining reach and engagement with research in policing across the country.
The impact of the Police Knowledge Fund is yet to be assessed, but from within the system I have seen greater connectivity between the police and academics, which is creating opportunities for impactful research, new ideas for practice and stimulating a desire to create an evidence-base for ‘what works’ in policing.
Greater collaboration is needed to drive this agenda forward, to learn lessons more quickly, to gain momentum around new ideas and to encourage resilience to overcome the challenges of researching in a policing context.