The skill and remit of evidence based policing

EMPAC here features a blog sent to us by Dr Almuth McDowall, an occupational psychologist at Birkbeck College, University of London, who has been working with the College of Policing on the development of the new Police Education and Qualifications Framework. Almuth makes the point that policing is a complex profession and injecting an overly rigid or conceptual interpretation of ‘evidence’ in evidence based policing is not the way forward: only by building upon the existing policing applied skills set alongside critical thinking skills will progress be made. Take a read and let us know what you think!

Let me make a confession. I am not a police officer. I have never worked directly in a policing context. So what qualifies me to write about policing? I have been researching policing related issues on and off for about 14 years now. I am a psychologist who looks at the world of work with a keen interest in applying behavioural science to make work a better place. As a democratic citizen (not that I can vote in the UK as a German national, but don’t get me started on Brexit!) I also have a keen interest in a law enforcing profession which safeguards the well being of the population on the British Isles. Personally, I have had very positive experiences in personal encounters with the police. They came up trumps arresting a paranoid schizophrenic literally within minutes who broke into our house in broad daylight when I was 38 weeks pregnant with my first child. A local community support officer came up trumps when my then five year old had her scooter stolen in the local park, personally checking in the day after (whilst off duty!) to make sure she was ok.

Yet, headlines of late would make you believe not all is well in policing; including the often cited shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes[1] and its aftermath, or more recently allegations of failure to disclose evidence in rape trials[2]. Yet, policing is inherently difficult, unpredictable and situation specific. Officers and staff will always have to make decisions in the absence of complete, or sometimes any evidence. But how can officers learn what evidence is and how to use this?

The new Police Education and Qualifications Framework (PEQF) published by the College of Policing [3] says that from 2017/18 onwards, all officers embarking on policing training should be educated to undergraduate level standard. This is a radical departure from current policing training, which has a strong focus on ‘what to do’ (also called ‘craft’). A core principle of the PEQF is the notion of ‘evidence-based policing’. Through policing education, future officers should acquire the knowledge, skills and right attitudes to appraise evidence but also generate their own.

This is a tough ask. Knowing what evidence is and what ‘good’ evidence is requires sound critical thinking skills. Having taught undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral level students for some 12 years now, I can vouch that such critical thinking skills do not develop overnight, and it’s really hard to ‘cram’. They are a result of much thinking and engagement, considered input and questioning from others, and also reasoned debate and discussion with others. A critical stance on evidence is absolutely vital, as otherwise it will be hard to gage what is ‘bad evidence’, what is ‘incomplete evidence’ and what is ‘good’ or ‘sufficient’ evidence. Some thinkers in policing argue that only ‘randomised controlled trials’ or very large scale integrations of small studies provide us with good evidence, this school of thought has also informed the College of Policing’s ‘What works’ centre.

But as we have argued in a recently accepted academic paper (see below), such reliance on particular methods is incomplete and potentially misleading. If we are to educate future officers with an evidence-based mindset, a wider perspective is needed to instil a real commitment to using and appraising facts and research, as well as professional judgment and intuition where the situation requires this. This requires a collaboration between professionals in education and also serving officers in the actual education and training. Academics bring expertise in how to educate in critical thinking. This is better done using case scenarios and encouraging hands on reflection, than bombarding students with lecture based material. But relevant material absolutely has to come from an actual policing context. Serving officers will know what the actual difficulties are in day to day policing and how these might need to be addressed. Let’s use the previous example of the disclosure of evidence in rape investigations. Current statistics show that there are hundreds of cases where evidence was not disclosed to the defence. But rather than pointing fingers at individual officers, there needs to be systemic learning. Why the failure to disclose? What were the barriers? Did officers involved actually realise the omissions at the time? These are complex questions, which require complex and considered answers.

The pending article will be published has been written by, and submitted to:-

Brown, J., Belur, J., McDowall, A, May, T. & Hunter, G.

Extending the remit of evidence based policing. Submitted to International Journal of Police Science and Management (accepted):-