Evidence based policing: some concerns…

Evidence Based Policing: the bad bits…

 

I’ve already blogged about the benefits of bringing EBP into the workplace, and I could write another three entries on why it is so important, but balance in this area is absolutely necessary. There will be plenty of people who see some real threat from Evidence Based Decision making:

  • Will it affect my discretion on the frontline?
  • It’s very inhuman?
  • It’s very slow.
  • I don’t understand this stuff. I’ve had no training and it’s just another fad that will go away.

Will it affect my discretion on the frontline?

In a technical way there is no possibility that Evidence Based Policing can affect your discretion. If you are a sworn constable then your decision making is your own, and I would urge you to exercise that independence, especially when confronted with requests/situations that you dislike. Constructive dissent, or to put it another way, constructive challenge, is absolutely necessary to a healthy working environment. Work it through with your supervision and see if you can reach consensus, but if you can’t, don’t be afraid to say no and justify that appropriately.

Evidence Based Policing fits into this very nicely, it’s a bolt-on to your current knowledge. So, for instance: if you knew that arresting 14-16yr olds for criminal damage was actually strongly linked to further damage offences from them, when RJ was proven to reduce them, it stands to reason that when presented with a 14-16 year old who had committed damage, your decision making has now been made more informed. It does not preclude you making an arrest, in fact, far from it. It just advises you that if the aim is to reduce further offending, then RJ may be the way to go.

Your discretion is always there and will not be removed by the provision of better information.

It’s very inhuman?

Do you know what? It is. It can be clinical, it can be numbers centric, it can be complicated, and you need to be trained in it to fully understand it. All of this is true. But as a frontline practitioner, you don’t need to fully understand it, you just need to be able to use it.

I personally think that getting the frontline practitioner involved in research is the way forward. It’s a great way to bridge the gap between academia and policing. It also develops your staff, aids understanding, and adds to the evidence base that the College of Police is collating. The more evidence we collect, the better the decision making for the practitioner.

“So what about the human bit? Coppering is a craft.” Yes, you’re right if you are thinking this. Every situation that presents itself is different. The people are different, the places are different, the relationships are different etc. That’s actually why policing is so special. The police are experts in unpicking societal ills on the hoof, what happens when numbers take over?

I could wax lyrical about performance culture for many hours, and discuss how crime recording brought a public service to its metaphorical knees. It would however, only be a repetition of a subject that has now been brought out into the open. You would be right to mistrust numbers, or perhaps more correctly, you would be right to mistrust the behaviours that sit around the use of numbers. Is there a danger that further use of evidence (in numerical form) may bring about abuse? The short answer is yes. Take the above example for instance. As a line supervisor, if I know that 14-16 year olds are less prone to repeat offending if an RJ disposal is used, I could always sell it as the right thing to do when one of my cops attends such an incident. I could therefore make that a requirement, and begin to utilise compliance behaviours, underpinned by the evidence based policing stick – and I could make that stick as big as I wanted.

Is this a risk?

Yep.

So, how do we address this issue? Bringing evidence based policing into policing requires leadership. Not the sort of leadership that is assisted via the use of sanction, but leadership assisted with knowledge and empowerment. It must be accompanied by trust of the frontline, a bolstering (not an erosion) of discretion, and constant reminders that cops are professional people selected for their decision making ability. Don’t use the numbers for enforcement, mandating change via compliance and sanction. The numbers should be used to enable cops to make better decisions, decisions that will ultimately fit their purpose far better than those we already have.

Evidence based policing is about helping cops to confidently stand alone. It is not about ‘making them comply.’

It’s very slow.

Yes, yes it is. In fact systematic studies can take years and years. The product from them however is far more reliable, than doing any sort of quick and dirty study. A good study may take a year or so, but inform on practice for twenty years ahead. The return on them is good value, don’t write them off. Doing it right is worth far more than anything that ultimately happens quickly but provides nothing. Fast-time decision making is for command based critical incidents, slow paced, informed decision making is for making a difference.

I don’t understand this stuff. I’ve had no training and it’s just another fad that will go away.

I could be mistaken, but if this is a fad then we have got policing very, very wrong. Learning about our profession, our behaviours, and how they affect each other is never a futile exercise. If you are relying on experience and experience alone to inform your views, then it is well worth remembering that your personal experience is a truth visible only to you. No one else has been through those experiences and their best application is in your own world, using your own behaviours. Kicking those opinions out into everyone else’s space may not be the best path to tread, as everyone else’s truth will be very different.

I know that sounds like mumbo jumbo, but it basically says that your experience is yours, it’s not everyone else’s. Collecting, gathering and sifting your experiences, together with many other people’s, is likely to turn up some common themes. It is these themes that can inform on future decision making so effectively. If this is a ‘fad’, then we might as well stop using most of the world’s medicine and medical treatment, as these came from methodical and painstaking study – mixed with tinges of brilliance. I would like to know that if I am involved in an initiative that is unique and truly works, I can prove that it works and the policing can start using it – instead of it going into the pocket of a future leader as a board example (I think those days are gone, but it’s worth remembering them).

I shall finish on the, ‘I don’t know anything about this stuff…’ bit.

Really? If you want to read about it it’s all over the web. Just take some time and learn about it. It will help. Battling from a position of ignorance is a certified waste of time. If you choose not to trust evidence based policing, then that’s cool, just go and learn about it so that you understand your position a little better. The times of spoon-fed training are over, simply because the police can’t afford it. Police and staff can take control of their own development and learn hard every day. The info is out there and it is easy to access.

Evidence based policing may bring up some not-so-distant feelings of mistrust. Before jumping to any conclusions about it, go and find out some more. It’s going to affect every police officer/staff’s job so we might as well know as much as we can about it.

Leadership and evidence based policing go hand in hand in the future. One will simply not survive without the other. The bad bits are mainly there through existing culture in the police, and as a part of that culture, any cop can begin to bring about a change, however small. Change is ours, it’s no one else’s. It’s up to us to make it happen.

The process of improving process…

“A perfection of means, and a confusion of aims seems to be our main problem.” Einstein

Process has been a special beau of the Police since I joined over 10 years ago. It has been conjoined in matrimony with the ever-present spectre of New Public Management since I can remember. What is New Public Management (NPM) I hear you ask? Well it may be better to have a look here for the scholarly run down: http://www.christopherhood.net/pdfs/npm_encyclopedia_entry.pdf or here if you are a Wikipedia lover: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_public_management The basic features involve separating departments/functions into silos and introducing competition, measurement, and performance to improve ‘efficiency.’

Sounds familiar? It should. You will have seen NPM in the benefits sector, healthcare, policing, education… the list goes on. Do you ever wonder why departments don’t speak to each other within the public services? It is because they haven’t been designed to… Luckily, things are on-the-up in this area and there are signs of improvement.

So, it would stand to reason wouldn’t it, that a lot of the processes that we have are based on small areas of public service, measuring small areas of public service. These processes are often insular; they are focused inwards and work to improve micro areas within the department or to further the purpose of only that department.

That was a mouthful wasn’t it? Let me put into some context…

A particular area of the service becomes a priority. This can happen because of public pressure, a review, a change process, or because someone wants it to become one. So if home burglaries became a priority, what would NPM do about it?

Well, the first thing that would usually happen is a target would be introduced. This target would be put in place to bring about ‘efficiency,’ drive activity, and allow staff to aspire towards achievement in the workplace, or that is how it would be sold. The next thing would be introduction of tight processes, with a catalogue of checks and balances. This will mean rigorous monitoring of data, and lots of compliance.

Skip a step in the process and you will likely be spoken to at the very least, make a mistake by missing a step and usually – over time – there would be issues around discipline. This means that error/anomaly/difference will be ironed out and staff will maintain ‘high’ levels of investigatory standards at all times. Managers think that they are doing the right thing by observing their silos, gateway checks, and process, and believe that efficiency comes as a result of it.

Except it doesn’t work like that. Why? Because burglars do not just burgle houses. Burglaries are all different. Cops are not robots. And somewhere amidst all this, is the victim.

Following steps 1-10 will not produce a high quality of investigation. A well trained Police Officer with good training and empathy will provide a high quality of investigation. Will all those steps be appropriate for every investigation? Obviously not. But will cops have to do them anyway to maintain ‘quality?’ Absolutely. What does this produce? Well it produces waste, and lots of it.

It produces waste for the victim, waste for the cop, and lots of waste for the organisation.

From a narrative perspective, what story does it tell the people involved in the process?

  • Cop: You are not capable of conducting a high quality investigation yourself, we have to tell you how to do it, and if you screw up we will be having words. Followers of the process know their job is done when the steps are complete. Numbers and ticks are VERY important, but my individual skill/opinion is not.
  • Organisation: We highly value the correct administration and compliance of our investigations because we believe that if you follow this process, it will assist us to hit our targets. Targets are good because hitting them means we are providing a better service for our victims. There is an emphasis on conformance, and there is a belief that this brings performance.
  • Victims: The police officer that attended seemed to know what they are doing, they had certain steps to go through but they didn’t listen when I told them about how I was feeling. I’m having issues with neighbours across the road and I needed time and reassurance. They said they would ring me in a week, and then again in a month, I wanted them to ring me tomorrow…
  • Supervision: Your Police Officers are good if they can follow process and administrate properly. They are great with their victims as I know they contact them when the process tells them to. The charts say performance is improving so my staff must be doing a good job.

Although simplified, there are so many problems discussed in these last four points that I can’t do justice to them all. Putting people in process related boxes does nothing for bespoke policing and it dumbs down the officer’s creativity and autonomy. It manages people through numbers and tick boxes, and as we all know, people are not – and never have been – numbers or tick boxes.

Now this discussion is missing one very large point. The processes and targets were brought in because overall, the efficiency of the police and other public services was very poor. They were seen as expensive dinosaurs in desperate need of an overhaul. NPM did just that, and process and practices were brought in that did make the profession tighter, more focussed, and it certainly got people working harder.

Now however, is the time to work smarter. The austerity is biting, and resources are becoming scarce. The steps in those processes that represent waste must be cut out from the bottom up and the top down. The only important question here is which steps are waste, and which steps have lots of value?

How do we answer that question? You guessed it; research. Which of those steps that we do daily generate waste, and which locate offenders? Let’s stop focussing on those reactive steps that follow a burglary, and instead look at the ones that follow a successful detection. Where did that detection come from? What methods are we using that are catching and convicting offenders? Can we improve and focus these steps?

Examples would be:

  • Do a large number of detections happen following House to House enquiries?
  • Do a large number of detections happen through CCTV enquiries?
  • Are fingerprints bringing about successful convictions? Where were they found and who lifted them?
  • Is entry and exit route research a contributing factor to conviction?
  • And the real big questions, is convicting a burglar really the way forward? Are there better ways of dealing with them? What is a success for the victim, and is it different to what the cops would say was a success?

I could hazard guesses at the answers to these questions, but I don’t want to do that as that is how many of the processes were brought into being in the first place. Evaluation of work flow, processes, and ‘successful’ outcomes should happen regularly as a matter of course. This means a solid partnership and connection with academia. Society is changing all the time, and as a result, continual improvement should not be a department that drops in and out of particular areas in the service, it needs to be a pillar of a public service’s operations.

Once the data has been collected, evaluated and conclusions have been drawn, this needs to be merged and connected with professional opinion. It would be nice if it was discussed with victims and offenders too. Being transparent is something that public services often do badly, why not open the whole process from the start? Invite opinion, discuss progress with the workforce and the public through social media? There could be a far greater understanding at the end when conclusions are drawn. Down the line, this could result in Policing being something that police do with the public, instead of doing it to them…

So, there you have it, a whistle stop tour through NPM in public services. In a nutshell, let’s look for some meaning in our process. If it isn’t there, don’t do it. Let’s find the meaning with good research and evidence our decisions when we make them with good professional judgement. Lastly, let’s talk about it.

It’s no use being a big secret is it?

If you want to read a little more on NPM, check out Christopher Hood’s writings on it. They are pretty scathing. Also, a lot of the methods I discuss here are actually rooted in Systems Thinking theory. Read up on a man named Deming, and if you are a cop and interested in dialogue like this, check out @SimonJGuilfoyle ‘s book; Intelligent Policing. The link is here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Intelligent-Policing-Thinking-Conventional-Management-ebook/dp/B00C1JUN5A

I work in a force where Evidence Based Policing is becoming daily business. I hope to bring a few examples through as case studies in forthcoming blogs; watch this space.

Thanks to my ever-helpful proof readers – you are all awesome. 🙂