January 22, 2022

Breaking New Ground Between Academia and Policing


Dear PERF members,

When Jeremy Travis was head of the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department’s research branch, he once said to me, “Well, research is your middle name.” And of course, he was right. We are the Police Executive Research Forum.

It was no accident that “research” is in our name. When 10 police chiefs issued a press release in 1976 to announce they were creating PERF, their first sentence said that PERF would be dedicated to the improvement of policing “through research, open debate, and the professionalization of police leadership.”

Not everyone agreed that this would be possible. The legendary James Q. Wilson of Harvard, who had been president of the Police Foundation, was skeptical about PERF doing research. He remarked that an organization of police executives could never be credible in conducting research on their own profession. But 25 years later, when PERF was recognizing Wilson and George Kelling for their landmark “Broken Windows” article in The Atlantic magazine, Wilson said his prediction about PERF was wrong, and that PERF had demonstrated it was capable of conducting independent research. 

Over the years, PERF has worked to make our own research studies practical, understandable, and accessible to police executives and other members of the profession. (Most of the time, I think we hit the mark, although there are probably instances when we don’t.)  There are many other researchers who follow these same principles for making their work useful. Their findings have really improved the way police do business in areas like the effectiveness of preventive patrol, problem-solving strategies, eyewitness identification procedures, and effective homicide investigations, to name a few.

There is another set of researchers, mostly academic researchers, who are also doing a lot of interesting and important work, but their audience tends to be other academics. My greatest frustration has been that some of the academic research on policing isn’t getting into the hands of police chiefs and other practitioners who could really benefit from the findings. Instead, this research too often gets buried in academic journals that most police leaders have never heard of, let alone read.

In 2018, my longtime teacher and friend Charles Wellford was being honored at the American Society of Criminology with the August Vollmer Award. Charles had been instrumental in establishing the PERF Research Advisory Board.  I went to the award ceremony to just sit in the audience and witness my friend being recognized. When I arrived, I saw a number of academic colleagues, and they were surprised to see me. “Gee, I didn’t expect to see you, but it’s great you’re here,” they would say.

And as I walked through the ASC conference, I saw so many interesting presentations on issues like police use of force and evidence-based research. But nearly all of the attendees were other academic researchers and students. I didn’t see any police chiefs, and just a handful of representatives from police agencies. 

And that is when it hit me:  The very people who could benefit from this research were not at the conference.  

Why is that? How did academic researchers and police practitioners become like Venus and Mars? Why isn’t this research translated into a form that reaches the people who could use it the most? And how can we encourage and highlight collaboration between police practitioners and researchers to study issues that will advance the field – especially now!

A recent success story

I want to tell you about a great new example of how a partnership between academic researchers and police practitioners can produce important results.

Several years ago, Steve Conrad, at that time Chief of Police in Louisville, KY, called me to say his department was very interested in adopting PERF’s ICAT training. The Louisville Metro PD had already been to an ICAT introductory program, and now they wanted us to coach their officers in teaching ICAT to the entire department. We gladly stepped up. I sent Tom Wilson, PERF’s Director of Applied Research and Management, to Louisville, and he worked with Sgt. Justin Witt on implementation.

Around the same time, Professor Robin Engel of the University of Cincinnati was expressing interest in evaluating de-escalation strategies in policing, which had not been evaluated in a comprehensive way. Dr. Engel proposed a modified Randomized Control Trial (RCT) study – the gold standard of research – to determine what impact ICAT might have.

Honestly, I was a little apprehensive, because evaluations of police interventions often find that the results are mixed, unclear, or statistically insignificant. Too often, the only finding is that more research is necessary!   

But the Louisville Metro Police Department, to its great credit, agreed to work with Dr. Engel’s team. And this is significant:  the Police Department was willing to structure the implementation of the ICAT training in stages, in order to accommodate the researchers’ plan for an RCT study.  And while I was uncertain about what the results would be, I was excited about the possibility of a study that was evidence-based that could make a difference in police use of force – research that would help a community and its police force find common ground!

In September 2020, the Louisville findings were released in a 132-page report by Professor Engel and her University of Cincinnati colleagues, Nicholas Corsaro, Gabrielle T. Isaza, and Hannah D. McManus. 

The results were impressive, to say the least. Dr. Engel’s team found that training officers in ICAT was associated with 28% fewer use-of-force incidents, 26% fewer injuries to community members, and 36% fewer injuries to police officers.

In the world of academia, researchers are skeptical and always ask, “Is this a peer-reviewed study?”  So Professor Engel and her team submitted their work to Criminology & Public Policy, one of the leading journals for the American Society of Criminology.

Their new peer-reviewed study was published this month in that journal, and is available here.  Importantly, this journal was gracious enough to allow PERF members to view this article. Otherwise, like many journal articles, the results would not be available to those who aren’t subscribers. If you get a chance, take a look at the abstract, and if you have time, the whole article. 

Robin told me that the peer-review process required her team to add several new analyses, to demonstrate that the reductions in use of force were due to ICAT, not other possible factors. Fortunately, she said, “I am thrilled to note that every time we looked at additional possibilities to explain the reductions in the use of force, the evidence led to the conclusion that it was indeed the training that had such a powerful impact.”

The bottom line, Robin told me, is that “this is great news for the Louisville Police Department, but also for the field.”

The challenge we face

All of this is to say that the academic and police communities must get better at working together. Police agencies should open their doors to researchers, and researchers should strive to provide the kind of results that will help police agencies improve what they do. Academics and police chiefs should then work together to disseminate the findings throughout the profession.

Many researchers – especially younger ones – are doing an excellent job of bringing research findings to the public in accessible formats, like blogs and social media. This series of podcasts, for example, offers monthly interviews with researchers and practitioners about reducing crime.

I also see a role for PERF in stepping up our efforts to bring practitioners together with researchers, and in bringing important and interesting research findings to the attention of our members.

Have a great weekend!