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If You Want to Spark Change in Communities of Practice, You Need More than Fluffy Bunnies

October 21, 2019
By: 
Laura Huey
Professor of Sociology
University of Western Ontario
Director
Canadian Society of Evidence Based Policing

I work in a rather interesting space, trying to increase the creation and uptake of scientific research within the field of public policing. It has long been an axiom of policing research that policing is an occupational culture deeply resistant to change, and I frequently see little memes scroll across Twitter referencing this purported resistance in the form of Peter Drucker’s famous saying, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While there is undoubtedly some truth to the role that occupational culture plays in engendering resistance, I think a more apt saying to invoke is the equally famous Facebook status, “it’s complicated.”

Like many communities of practice, particularly within the public domain, the institution of policing is called upon to undergo constant change. Most of that change is reactive, in response to shifting social phenomena, changing legal landscapes, internal personnel changes, swift political currents, new government regulatory and/or policy environments. As one police association leader explained it, it’s not just constant change, it’s actually constant change that is often not supported by any type of evidence base. When an unsupported program or policy fails – not surprisingly, as happens often – the frontline officers tasked with trying to make it work, become cynical and fed up when the next ‘big solution du jour’ arrives some 12-18 months later.

If we want to encourage research uptake among such policy-weary groups, how then to go about it? One thing, I would suggest we could do is to refuse to participate in policy-making processes that anyone could reasonably foresee will produce nothing more than stock platitudes. I know of what I speak, being guilty of this now more than once.

In 2014, I was a member of the Council of Canadian Academies’ Expert Panel on the Future of Policing. If you have no idea about the contents of the eventual report or its recommendations, you are not alone. I don’t think even my Mother read it. Certainly, it received little to no uptake among either policy-makers or police practitioners. The reason for this failure is simple: it was a descriptive exercise producing no useful policy recommendations or providing anything remotely resembling a blueprint, or even a simple set of instructions, for how to enact any type of meaningful change. Instead it was full of really vague bromides:

- Policing needs to adapt to take on challenges in the 21st century;
- Police need to leverage partnerships;
- We need more research;
- Governments have a role to play in ensuring public safety.

There was also some boilerplate lip service to some policing happy bunny stuff – that is, things that sound good, but of which we know very little:

- Police professionalization is good;
- Evidence based policing is good (okay, I may be biased, but I tend to think this one is true);
- We need more community policing.

I’m not making this up. You can read the report online.

Now based on the above, what exactly would you tell a police leader to do to prepare for the challenges of 21st century policing? How exactly should she prepare her workforce? What would constitute sound investments in training, technology, policy or new programs? Exactly.

To be clear: this isn’t an one-off situation for me. I am now involved in another exercise aimed at producing a public policy document to influence changes in police work. And again, there is no empirical evidence in support of any single policy option. None. However, given that it is the fundamental nature of any public policy exercise to produce ‘recommendations’, even when there is absolutely nothing to recommend or no evidence base in support of a given course of action, saying ‘we don’t know’ never seems to be the desired course of action. And therein lies the crux of the dilemma: to stay involved in public policy circles, even tangentially, would seem to require feeding recommendations – no matter how lacking in empirical support they are – to the policy beast, knowing some or all of those recommendations are nothing more than fluffy bunnies that will never be taken seriously by anyone (I apologize for the mangled metaphor, but work with me here). In light of this, myself and, I suspect, many others who have faced the same struggle, have had to think long and hard about what our policy objectives are and what is our arena of choice. For me, I can say unequivocally, that from now on I’ll be skipping the bunnies.