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Exploring evidence-based policing
Exploring evidence-based policing

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2 What is evidence-based policing?

In some ways, the term ‘evidence-based policing’ might seem rather odd. After all, evidence is and always has been a crucial element of investigations since the first policing organisations were established. Evidence-based policing is, however, less about the evidence used to support an investigation and more about the evidence to support the effectiveness of the investigation techniques utilised.

The evidence-based approach to policing was first conceived by the American criminologist, Herman Goldstein, when he developed an approach known as Problem Oriented Policing (POP). The POP model ‘is an approach to tackling crime and disorder that involves the identification of a specific problem, through analysis to understand the problem, the development of a tailored response and an assessment of the effects of the response’ (College of Policing, 2017). In developing this framework, Goldstein sought to use research-based evidence to challenge the three main functions of the model of policing utilised at that time namely:

  • preventative patrol
  • rapid response
  • solving crimes to catch offenders
(Goldstein, 1979)

This approach in turn led to the emergence of evidence-based policing, developed by criminologist Professor Larry Sherman. Sherman argues that EBP is ‘a method of making decisions about “what works” in policing: which practices and strategies accomplish police missions most cost-effectively’. (Sherman, 2013, p. 377)

Defining evidence-based policing?

In an evidence-based policing approach, police officers and staff create, review and use the best available evidence to inform and challenge policies, practices and decisions.

As a way of working, it can be supported by collaboration with academics and other partners.

The ‘best available’ evidence will use appropriate research methods and sources for the question being asked. Research should be carefully conducted, peer reviewed and transparent about its methods, limitations, and how its conclusions were reached. The theoretical basis and context of the research should also be made clear. Where there is little or no formal research, other evidence such as professional consensus and peer review, may be regarded as the ‘best available’, if gathered and documented in a careful and transparent way.

Research can be used to:

  • develop a better understanding of an issue – by describing the nature, extent and possible causes of a problem or looking at how a change was implemented; or
  • assess the effect of a policing intervention – by testing the impact of a new initiative in a specific context or exploring the possible consequences of a change in policing.

Evidence-based policing does not provide definitive answers that officers and staff should apply uncritically. Officers and staff will reflect on their practice, consider how the ‘best available’ evidence applies to their day to day work, and learn from their successes and failures. The approach should mean officers and staff can ask questions, challenge accepted practices and innovate in the public interest.

(College of Policing, 2020)

When considered from this perspective, evidence-based policing may seem complex. Yet as Braga (2009) points out: ‘While it is acknowledged that evidence-based policing can serve other useful purposes (for example, improving police training standards, improving police-community relations), the main outcome of interest or “bottom line” is crime prevention.’