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Home > Reviews > Critical Reflections on Evidence-Based Policing

Critical Reflections on Evidence-Based Policing

Author Edited by Nigel Fielding, Karen Bullock and Simon Holdaway

ISBN No 9781138595804

Review date 13/08/2022

No of pages 216

Publisher Routledge

Publisher URL

Year of publication 02/04/2020


Our Review


£ 92

Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) might sound unexceptional - and not only in policing, but in other public fields, such as medicine and health, education and social welfare. It's, as the three academic editors of this collection of essays say at the very beginning, about using 'evidence to inform policy making and professional practice'.

In the British police, in the 2010s it's been done through the College of Policing, under the banner of 'what works'. Another phrase for it might be 'problem oriented policing' (POP). Know the crime, or what police are there for, and apply that to how the police carry out their work; and check it rigorously through research and scholarship, which is where academics like the three editors can come in. However, the real world intrudes; usually academics are not so much interested in police doing a better job but in producing a piece of work to forward their career; and (as the later chapter by Prof Jenny Fleming, University of Southampton criminologist shows) police occupational culture is hardly set up to listen to, decide upon and act on 'what works'.

In a remarkable paragraph early on, the editors say: "Quite simply, in terms of the quality criteria of evidence-based policing, the bulk of contemporary criminological research is worthless." Because; the academic criminologists don't study their subject 'in the field' according to proper survey and experiment methods. In other words, as the editors don't say, too often criminologists go off on left-wing rants against whatever they don't want to like; such as immoral and 'crimogenic' big business.

A striking example of how Critical Reflections isn't based on, or actually that interested in, actual evidence is that its authors don't often say anything about types of crimes; they do have something to say on counter-terrorism and child sexual abuse - yet not the number one volume crime, fraud. Nor do they mention, for instance, restorative justice, which has been around for 15 years at least in the UK; but only in single towns or areas, never consistently or widely. If it works, why not apply it everywhere? Clearly it's not enough for a policy to be rational, or good for society and indeed the offender and victim.

An early chapter by Simon Holdaway - interesting because he was a Met Police sergeant before his second career as an academic criminologist - sets out how EBP has developed in the UK. The College of Policing (CoP) dates from 2012, and from other senior police (such as former chief constable Peter Neyroud, who also has gone into academia). Note as Holdaway does, and exemplifies, that the police and CoP are moving towards becoming a profession, and 'assembling a body of knowledge that could sustain EBP'.

While the book does not say so - the chapters may have been put together before it became apparent - this is also of a piece with entry to the police becoming academic, police having in effect outsourced their officer training to universities and expecting newcomers to be degree-holders.

What could be wrong with that? In her chapter, Jennifer Brown of the LSE (who has been part of a Home Office-funded project on 'pathways' into policing) describes EBP as 'a sticky concept difficult to nail down with any precision'. Is it a process, a philosophy? A mindset, a 'knowledge agenda'? Academics cannot agree on anything - if they could, what would they have to write about?! The College of Policing, as she quotes, does have a definition, that it's an a'approach' to policing, using 'the best evidence available to inform and challenge policies, practices and decisions', with academics and (unnamed) other partners in support.

Note that implied is 'challenge' to change things; for reform, and that buzzword, innovation. That might be to do things better with less money (which has gone down well in 2010s austerity), but as Brown concludes, EBP is 'at present ... a muddle'. What is good policing and what makes a good police officer are two separate questions.

To return to Jenny Fleming's chapter; she neatly shows from interviews with unidentified police officers that for all this grand and hopeful talk of 'evidence based', in reality police work according to a 'blame culture' - more senior officers are all in favour with lower ranks doing things innovatively, until those senior officers looking to climb another rank are asked to sign off on something, which if it fails will embarrass all round and jeopardise careers. Hence any project or trial is 'doomed to success' - no matter how bad the idea or change, the project is pronounced a success so that its head can rise in rank.

In short, bureaucracy and even autocracy are 'alive and well' in the police, and as Fleming quotes an officer saying, 'performance indicators are being misconstrued as evidence' and whether something is working or not. Again, so that promotions are not in jeopardy.

And meanwhile, as the book doesn't say, police don't attend burglaries and crimes against retail, and to repeat, the number one volume crime of fraud is not at all well policed; and if anything, is worse policed than decades ago. So much for progress, for all the investment in research, the College of Policing and so on.

The book does touch interestingly on how 'evidence-based' as an approach is in hospitals and schools, and was taken up by Labour and then Conservative governments alike in the 2000s and 2010s.

But to close with more from Fleming; evidence-based policing is 'ultimately subsumed by pragmatic concerns about time and resources'; whatever the new venture (drones, facial recognition or some other whizzy tech, video cameras in public spaces from the mid-1990s), it is bound to be seen to succeed, leaving a profound workplace gap of feeling and outlook between front-line ranks and the management ranks, with the sergeants (as in the military) the buffers for each.