Why Police Fear Evidence-Based Research

While almost every sector of society in the 21st century recognizes the importance of evidence-based decision making, police organizations are caught up in outdated policing approaches that are devoid of empirical evidence.  The major reason police are so resistant to the new regulations on carding announced by the provincial government is the fear that they will be subject to increased scrutiny.  

In short, it’s not carding that they fear but evaluation and evidence-based policies that will be able to measure their effectiveness.  Jeff McGuire, president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, argues that the new carding regulations will strain ties with the community and lead to an increase in complaints against the police. This is as devoid of empirical evidence as the misguided argument that carding helps police solve crime.

So why do police fear evidence-based approaches to policing?  First, police organizations in the past have functioned with relatively little outside scrutiny as to how they conduct their operations.  This independence has helped them avoid being evaluated and criticized for the way they police the community. For example, it’s a well known fact among academics that police organizations are very wary of letting researchers carry out empirical research on how they police.  This resistance is one of the major reasons there have been so few studies that look at police use of force, racial profiling, carding, police community relations and race relations, to name just a few.

Second, police organizations are generally very conservative and are more interested in preserving the status quo than making major changes to how they police.  This abhorrence to change comes from the fact that many police chiefs came up through the rank and file where compliance and conformity is rewarded and innovation and creativity is discouraged.  Staying the course is easier than adopting new methods of policing and it’s so ingrained in the police culture that any change is actively discouraged.

Third, police leaders are afraid that evidence-based research that reveals flaws in the way they police may lead to them being fired or removed from their jobs.  As a result police agencies see empirical research as a potential threat to their occupation.  This is particularly true for police leaders who have no formal education or understanding of the role that research can play in improving their organization’s overall effectiveness in policing.  Many police chiefs still have stereotypical ideas about crime, punishment and criminality that bear no actual resemblance to research evidence in the 21st century.  Some police officers still see themselves and society gridlocked in an ‘us versus them’ dichotomy when dealing with the public.

Fourth, many police organizations are ignorant of the value that evidence-based research can play when it comes to improving their relations with the public and in reducing crime.  Carding is a good example.  While some police chiefs claim that the new carding regulations will negatively affect their relationship with the community they completely overlook the enormous harm that carding has caused in the discriminatory manner in which it has been used by police to bully, intimidate and label minorities.  Police have repeatedly ignored the fact that carding is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that it is a non-transparent form of surveillance that records and retains data on non-convicted people.  It has absolutely no place in a civil and democratic country that is governed by the rule of law.

Before stepping down as the Chairperson of the Toronto Police Services Board, Alok Mukherjee outlined a new model of policing for the City of Toronto.  His policing model was not based on antiquated concepts and ideas that are 40 years out of date but rather on solid empirical evidence about policing in the 21st Century.  Most people are not aware that less than 20 per cent of a police officers time actually deals with law enforcement related activities.  In fact, studies show that police officers spend 80 per cent of their time filling out reports, facilitating traffic at construction sites, responding to noisy parties and helping mediate neighborhood disputes.  Does it make sense that we should be paying a police officer $80,000 a year for these duties when they could for a fraction of the cost be transferred to bylaw officers or other people to perform these tasks?  In the nation’s capital the Ottawa Police Service is responsible for enforcing the rules governing bicycles.  Is this a productive and cost-effective utilization of their time?  The fact is that if more people were aware of what police do with their time some people might actually start questioning the costs of policing in their neighborhoods.

Under the Canadian constitution it’s not the role of the police to make laws in society and police chiefs and police associations should not be accorded any special status, privileges, treatment or influence in directing government policy in Ontario that is not equally afforded to the average citizen.  The fact is that police organizations must change the way they police citizens in this province by adopting innovative policing measures in the 21st Century that are evidence-based, progressive and cost-effective.  Citizens should expect and demand nothing less.

The views expressed are those of the author in his personal capacity and they do not necessarily represent the position of Carleton University.

Darryl T Davies is an Instructor in criminology and criminal justice with the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University.