Articles Transforming policing through science

Transforming policing through science


Peter Neyroud questions commonly-held opinions about addressing and reducing crime, revealing that our intuition and collective assumptions do not necessarily sit easily with the evidence.

One recent US police chief, when asked why he was refusing to test a policing initiative by conducting a proper experiment, responded by saying “it might tell me it doesn’t work!”  Unfortunately, that is one problem with using rigorous scientific tests. They may disprove your long held hypothesis.  For example, Science did, indeed, prove that a popular policy of taking first time offenders and showing them the prison – the so-called ‘scared straight’ strategy – had precisely the opposite effect to the one intended. Far from “scaring them straight”, the policy backfired and increased offending, however there are still Chiefs and Mayors who think that this is good crime prevention. One British Chief proudly told me about his local “scared straight” initiative and, sadly, remained proud of it even after I had given a copy of the systematic review which should have told him he was making things worse.

The reason for this reluctance is not difficult to find. All of us think we know about policing and crime; we have intuitions and morally framed opinions about crime and offenders that we think or ‘know’ are right. They come out in demands for “more Bobbies on the beat” or, as in one particularly badly drafted local Police and Crime Commissioner’s Crime Plan that I read recently, an assertion that the police are “at their most effective in reducing crime when they are catching offenders”. Before you ask, both the demand for more Bobbies on the beat and the assertion about “catching criminals” do not sit easily with the evidence.

Why does this matter? It has always mattered that the police deploy only those policies that work effectively, but as resources decline dramatically as a result of the economic downturn, the failure to use evidence to focus policing where it can have greatest effect is an abject failure to protect our communities. In the 1960’s police leaders like O.W. Wilson in the USA argued that the police would be most effective if they patrolled randomly (to create a deterrent effect), responded rapidly to calls (to catch offenders) and investigated crimes reported to them. Wilson’s recipe for effective policing was demonstrated not to work effectively by a series of studies in the 1970’s. Random patrol is just that – random and not very effective at reducing crime. Rapid response rarely catches offenders – it is not the speed but the strategy of attendance that can deliver this. Reactive investigation, in the 1970’s, produced little more than witnesses provided (DNA has since changed this for the better). Moreover, Wilson’s model had some substantial ‘backfire’ effects: random patrol was often a spur to stop and search practices that provoked accusations of racism from minority communities. Rapid response built a ‘fire brigade’ mentality that avoided a more thoughtful problem solving, which might have prevented repeated attendance. Finally, the detections culture led to administrative corruption with creative accounting on the crime figures.

In the 60 years since Wilson published his seminal book “Police Administration”, there has been a revolution in evidence about what works in policing. There are some academics and commentators that assert that the police don’t prevent crime. Politicians are apt to pay them more attention when they are making deep cuts to police numbers. However, the weight of evidence now suggests that the police can be highly effective at crime prevention if they adopt a set of strategies and tactics utilizing techniques such as problem solving and focus on high crime places, highly prolific or risky offenders, the most vulnerable victims and on sustaining their legitimacy in the eyes of the public they serve. If you doubt me, I suggest you have a look at the Matrix (no relationship to the film of that name!).

This research is not necessarily intuitive. Most people – including most police officers –, when asked what happens when the police focus their efforts on a “hot-spot” of crime, will say that the crime just “goes around the corner”. In effect, the police, they suggest, just move it to the next area rather than prevent it. The evidence – the recent systematic review can be found here – is, however, pretty clear now that our collective intuition is wrong. Crime happens in hotspots because they provide a unique conjunction of opportunity, offender, victim and a lack of capable guardianship (such as the presence of a police officer). If the police step up their presence, more than 30 studies now show that police will prevent a significant percentage of the crime. But this means that police need to concentrate their efforts, not try to patrol every estate or every village.

A major problem in using this evidence has been that police officers are not brought into policing because they know it nor are they required to develop that knowledge in their training or even to become a Sergeant or Inspector. This is not just a UK problem. Across the world, police become ‘qualified’ as police officers or as police managers by knowing a mountain of law, legal regulations and legal processes. It is clearly important for police officers to act within the law and enforce it. However, it is equally important – some might say more important –  for police officers to know the best ways to achieve the outcomes that those laws and regulations are intended to achieve. Presently, there are very few police forces in the world that insist on police officers knowing that evidence.

This may be about to change in the UK. The police service has been an occupation without a professional body for 180 years. But in December 2012 that all changed. By far the most important amongst all the welter of police reforms imposed by the Coalition government in the UK has been the setting up of the College of Policing in response to the Review of Police Leadership and Training in 2011. For the first time the police service in England and Wales has a single body, which includes all those working in policing. For the first time there will a body dedicated to enhancing the knowledge and evidence supporting good policing and ensuring that the qualifications and accreditation of every practitioner reflect that evidence. For the first time – anywhere in the world – that body will provide the occupation of policing with a credible professional framework of personal accountability for practice.

I predict that in 10 years time we will look back on December 2012 as the moment when the “last unreformed public service” (to quote David Cameron in 2006) fundamentally reformed itself into an evidence-based profession in order to serve the public better.


The views are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence.