April 30, 2022

A new DOJ resource that could make a difference on the ground


PERF members,

In January, I challenged the Department of Justice to do a better job of providing local police departments and sheriffs’ offices with practical research they could use to improve their agencies. “Get academic researchers and police practitioners together, and get them to cooperate and get research out fast,” I wrote. “Issue ‘Research in Brief’ papers that put findings in the hands of practitioners. Too often research is relegated to the back burner of policing, but accurate, timely results – even preliminary findings of what works – would make research as valuable as body armor.”

This week, the DOJ took an important step toward meeting this challenge. I traveled to Los Angeles to attend the launch event for the National Law Enforcement Knowledge Lab, which is designed as an information hub for police agencies looking for reliable, practical information to help them improve their operations and work more effectively with the community. This is an ambitious effort that will face some challenges as it gets off the ground, but it also has the potential to be an extremely valuable and needed resource for police leaders.

In her speech announcing the Knowledge Lab, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta identified five objectives for the new initiative:

  • Identify core competencies of constitutional policing.
  • Assist law enforcement in voluntarily assessing their own practices, policies, training and outcomes.
  • Identify gaps in resources, training and services that the department should consider addressing.
  • Provide on-demand consultation, advice, research, and assistance to agencies that are looking to change.
  • And allow for external collaboration with thought leaders regarding constitutional policing and crime prevention – including civil rights advocacy organizations, police experts, community-based organizations, and national and international academic research institutions.

Today, if a law enforcement leader wants to evaluate their agency’s policies, they will probably check a variety of sources, then try to synthesize that information and figure out how to apply it to their agency’s needs. But this process can be time-consuming and daunting for an agency that may be unfamiliar with what information resources are available and reliable. In addition, many agencies may not have the internal capacity to be able to make sense of that information and implement meaningful changes on their own.

Once it is fully operational, the Knowledge Lab should make that process easier. A police chief may have a question about a topic, such as body-worn camera policy. They can visit the Knowledge Lab to see body-worn camera policy recommendations from PERF, DOJ consent decrees, and other sources, as well as research on the impact of body-worn camera programs. This will help the chief assess where their current policy is hitting the mark and where it is coming up short. The agency could then consult with practitioners and other experts on how best to improve the policy and how to collaborate with the community on its rollout.

The Knowledge Lab has the potential to save police executives time, and give them confidence that they are getting the most accurate and relevant information about the challenges they face, as well as access to a range of subject matter experts who can help them figure out the best path forward.

This initiative will certainly face challenges. There are approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, and many of them are small and harder to reach. Engaging those departments is something we struggle with at PERF, and I think it will be a challenge for the Knowledge Lab as well.

And I think the Knowledge Lab may have to make some tough decisions once they start determining which information to include and which information to leave out. If you’ve ever attended a PERF meeting, you know that reasonable people can have differing opinions about complicated policing issues. Academics debate which studies are rigorous enough to provide useful information, and even high-quality research often comes with caveats. These deliberations are how we advance the profession, but the Knowledge Lab will need to sort through these competing sources of information to provide the most reliable guidance possible.

There can also be a conflict between pushing the profession forward and finding consensus, as PERF has found while working on use-of-force issues over the past six years. People bring different perspectives, and consensus doesn’t always bring about the needed change.

But all new initiatives face challenges, and I’m confident that the Department of Justice has the right people in place to tackle any issues they may face while implementing the Knowledge Lab. I’m grateful to Karhlton Moore, Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, for asking me to attend the launch event and moderate a town hall meeting with the attendees. And I thank the Department of Justice for listening to practitioners in the field when they asked for reliable, useful information about the challenges they’re facing.

One final note: I think it’s fitting that this launch event was held in Los Angeles. The LAPD has been through some difficult times, including the Rodney King beating and the subsequent riots, which occurred 30 years ago this week. After the Rampart scandal in the 1990s, the department entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice. Because of that consent decree and the steady leadership of Bill Bratton, Charlie Beck, and Michel Moore over the past 20 years, the LAPD is in a different place today.

As I was preparing to moderate the town hall meeting on Wednesday, I walked into a room down the hall from the meeting room. I saw three large plaques for three different awards the department bestows: the Medal of Valor, the Purple Heart, and the Preservation of Life Medal. All the plaques were at the same level and listed the names of the officers who received the awards.

My takeaway was that this is an agency that honors officers who go above and beyond – those who show tremendous bravery and heroism in the face of danger and those who save the life of a community member. It shows that agency culture can change, as it has in Los Angeles.




Moderating a town hall meeting at the launch event on Wednesday.