Bridging the Gap Between Policing and Academia

I have had the pleasure of serving in law enforcement for more than 17 years.  For the first half of my career, I was an exemplar of the proactive policing practitioner.  I was committed to making a difference the only way I knew how, through arbitrary self-selected forms of enforcement.  And I was good at it.  I honestly was not aware of any alternative path.  It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that there is a deep disconnect between police training and police science.  Police academy cadets receive instruction about the law, not about what works.  During field training, probationary officers learn about discretion, not problem solving. Rookie cops working the streets are socialized by veterans regarding the unwritten rules of the agency, not about their role in bringing about outcomes.

Officers may eventually come across some aspect of the policing knowledge base through a college course, an article in a trade magazine, a colleague, or even social media.  Depending on the individual officer, their encounter might be characterized by curiosity, skepticism, or hostility.  Police are generally agnostic if not outright atheistic when it comes to police science.  Perhaps it is an imperfect analogy, but the shift in thinking that some policing practitioners go through is not unlike a religious conversion.

My own path to the evidence-based policing movement did not come from the police academy, but academe.  I earned a bachelors degree before becoming a sworn officer, but my major was not in criminal justice.  The agency that hired me had an exceptional contractual provision that reimbursed officers 100% of the cost for books and tuition.  Not wanting to let this benefit go to waste, I enrolled in a masters program at a local state university.  Graduate school forced me to engage with academic literature and wrestle through empirical realities that sometimes conflicted with my perception and personal experience as a working cop.  My law enforcement colleagues and I balked when our research methods professor (citing the National Police Foundation’s seminal study in Kansas City) stated that random patrol was ineffective.  The study findings diverged sharply from our personal anecdotal experiences, where random patrol had seemingly placed us in the right place at the right time. Confirmation bias prevailed for many in the room, but the seeds of doubt were sown in my own mind.

I eventually pursued doctoral study where I encountered criminal justice students who, to my great surprise, wanted anything but to teach after graduation.  I was largely unaware that professors did far more than educate and that teaching itself is not held in particularly high regard.  Assistant professors on the tenure-track are expected to balance competing and ever-growing demands on their time. Heavy course loads, committee work, student advisement, and other bureaucratic responsibilities reduce time and energy for scholarly research.  In the same way that cops eschew certain types of calls for service to focus on “real police work”, teaching can be a distraction from “real” academic work- the type of work that garners recognition from peers in the academy, wins awards, and ultimately secures tenure.

Admittedly, grading unimaginative term papers and preparing lectures for credential seeking undergraduates can be tedious work, yet the classroom must be elevated beyond a transactional space where teaching contracts are fulfilled and knowledge is (hopefully) conferred.  The criminal justice classroom should be viewed as an occupational mission field, a place to win the hearts and minds of present and future criminal justice practitioners.

The sleepy cop in the back of the classroom who just came off of a night shift could one day become the chief of a major city police department.  It is true that not every student has the potential to be a future Commissioner of the NYPD, yet that student may one day work or train with someone who is on that very path.  Much like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, once officers have seen the light we are compelled to go back and engage with our peers and superiors about the nature of crime, offenders, and the efficacy (or lack thereof) of police practices.  As Plato predicts, this will be met with ridicule and scorn.  Still, the zeal of a new convert is hard to extinguish.  EBP converts do what we can to advance the faith by inculcating evidence-based practices at our individual levels of responsibility and beyond.  There may not yet be a deep hunger for scientific research in police organizations, but true believers can at least make sure that research is served up at the policy table.

How should academics go about proselytizing cops? The following insights were gleaned through my experience as an enrolled student in a variety of post-secondary academic programs paired with my teaching experience in a large criminal justice program.

Academic freedom gives professors wide latitude in the classroom, yet ideological rhetoric is a clear turn-off.  I personally know police officers who have dropped out of graduate programs because their professor’s individual expression of public sociology/criminologyconsists of bashing cops and conservative politicians.  Anti-Trump tweets and politicized classroom soliloquies may be cathartic, but what if these protected activities serve to functionally undermine social justice?  Police are arguably in the best position to advance justice in underprivileged, overpoliced communities; alienating practitioners only pushes them deeper into an anti-intellectually tinged occupational culture.  This is not to say that academics should become apologists for bad policing or unjust criminal justice policy.  Rather, creating a classroom environment that encourages the free expression of ideas will bring out diverse perspectives and foment the types of interaction that build relationships, self-reflection, and empathy.

Besides remaining winsome, there is room to exploit some of the stereotypically negative aspects of police culture. Practitioners have a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the efficacy of current police practices as well as anything new on the horizon. Highlighting research that aligns with their skepticism about flavor of the month policing, technology, or the newest policy idea their chief brought back from a conference will enliven even the most calcified practitioner in the class.

Most academics have a sincere wish to be impactful. Unfortunately, solo authored publications in top journals and a large h-index does not necessarily equal relevance in police practice.  There are several steps that academics can take to impact the field beyond traditional scholarly publication.

First, present research in the classroom that has practical significance for practitioners.  All good research has policy implications, but not all implications are relevant or realistic.  By highlighting research that is germane and actionable, academics can change the trajectory policing at the local level.

Secondly, consider pursuing a research agenda that the practitioner world is hungry for.  This may be easier said than done for junior faculty who must keep publication prospects in mind.  Social science is not something that can be done well by the layperson; policing needs researchers (pre and post tenure) to lend their time and talents in order to move the field forward.

Finally, be translatable!  When a manuscript is finally accepted in a peer-reviewed journal, consider producing a 1-2 page summary suitable for a practitioner audience. This is more involved than simply truncating the manuscript.  Few police officers will understand technical language and even fewer will share my own personal appreciation for Johnsonese.  Martin Luther (1483-1546) recognized the power of common language to convert and edify the masses; a good translational summary must be written in the vulgate.  Based upon what is known about the distribution of police officer education in the United States, this means writing for an associate degree-level audience or below.

I have come to learn that academia is a separate industry with its own unwritten rules and incentive structures.  I will forgo the imagery of the ivory tower in favor of a religious one.  We need scholars who are bold enough to venture from the cloisters of monastic life to reach those of us who yet remain in darkness.

This blog post was developed from talking points delivered by the author at a NIJ roundtable session “Evidence-Based Policing: Bridging the Gap Between Policing and the Ivory Tower” held at the 2018 American Society of Criminology Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

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