By: Kristie R. Blevins, Ph.D.
During the first meeting of a research methods or criminal justice analysis class, I always ask the students about their preliminary impressions of the course and its relation to the field. Over the years, the response for many students is consistent:
“I am going to be a police officer and knowing about research and data analysis is not relevant to that job.”
The truth is that having a good foundation in the basics of research methods and data analysis is, in fact, very pertinent to policing. Today, most law enforcement administrators strive to use evidenced-based strategies to prevent and respond to crime and disorder. That is, they want to use the most effective techniques possible. So, how do they know what is or may be effective in their jurisdictions? The answer comes through research and analysis.
As an example, let us assume that you have completed your degree and secured a job as a police officer. During roll call, you and your colleagues are brainstorming ideas concerning how to combat increased crime in the area. The consensus among the group is that a good solution would be to increase the size of the police force so there would be more officers on the street. That makes perfect sense – it is logical that a more visible police presence should result in less crime. Given your foundation in research and analysis, you agree to search for reports and articles from agencies who have implemented similar practices. After locating the reports, you read them, critically analyzing the methodology and findings, and then produce a summary report for your supervisor and colleagues. Your summary clearly indicates that, overall, scientific research shows that increasing the number of officers or implementing more patrol has minimal effects on crime. That is, contrary to popular belief, the empirical evidence supporting preventive patrol is weak.
In the previous example, material you learned in research methodology and data analysis classes allowed you to correctly interpret existing research. There are times, however, when you might formally or informally collect and analyze data for your own agency. For instance, modern law enforcement is much more than simply responding to and managing calls in a reactive manner; today, most policing agencies incorporate proactive crime reduction approaches with techniques such as problem-oriented policing (POP). When using proactive techniques, law enforcement agents must answer some questions in deciding how to identify and prioritize problems, design interventions, and initiate responses. They must explore items such as:
- What types of crimes are being committed?
- How has the amount of crime in the area changed over time?
- What do we know about the people committing these crimes?
- Where are the crimes being committed?
- How are the crimes affecting the community?
- What is the best strategy for preventing and/or responding to certain crimes in this jurisdiction?
Having a strong foundation in research methods and data analysis techniques will help you to properly collect, analyze, and make sense of the data pertaining to these types of questions. Once a response or intervention has been implemented, you have the tools to evaluate the strategy in terms of outcome (is it effective or not effective?) and process (why is it working or not working). In turn, these assessments can be used to modify and improve policing strategies in your agency and similar agencies facing the same types of problems.
Currently, many law enforcement agencies are trying to do more with fewer resources. The ability to combine existing scientific evidence with community-specific information will help agencies design and implement the best possible approaches to prevent and respond to crime and disorder. There is an important connection between research and policy, and it is imperative that we direct valuable resources toward policies that are based on interventions that have been shown to be effective. Whether you are a line officer or police administrator, a strong foundation in research and analysis will allow you to help identify and implement the best practices available. These practices will prove beneficial for your agency and the community in general.