Huey, L. & Ferguson, L. (2022). Building empowerment: The Canadian approach to evidence-based policing. In E. Piza and B. Welsh (eds.), The Globalization of Evidence-Based Policing: Innovations in Bridging the Research-Practice Divide (pp. 122-135). Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge.
In response to what federal and provincial policymakers deemed a crisis surrounding the sustainability of current funding levels for public policing, Canadian governments turned to researchers in pursuit of evidence-based solutions. Several commissioned studies subsequently documented an inescapable conclusion: successive waves of government de-funding of criminological research had significantly gutted domestic capacity to produce the necessary research. In 2015, one of the authors launched the Canadian Society of Evidence-Based Policing (Can-SEBP) with one goal: to grow the Canadian policing research field by creating tools and programs aimed at empowering policing practitioners to generate, consume, commission and/or participate in research on “what works.” In this chapter, we explore the different strategies Can-SEBP employs to foster a culture of learning within Canadian policing, one in which police begin the process of taking ownership in the field police science and academic researchers play a supporting role by helping to encourage that growth.
In 2012, the Canadian federal and provincial governments announced a new joint policy platform to tackle what they saw as a looming crisis in Canadian policing. Tagged as “the Economics of Policing,” the crisis was constructed as one centering on issues of funding sustainability and resource levels. Fairly quickly, the entire enterprise became derailed as a result of one glaring fact previously overlooked: the chronic underfunding of domestic policing research at every level of government. This meant that there was no significant body of applied Canadian research upon which to draw, few schools of applied research, and a noticeable lack of high-quality Canadian academic researchers working on policing and/or community safety initiatives (Huey 2017; Council of Canadian Academies 2014; Griffiths 2014).
In 2015, the Canadian Society of Evidence-Based Policing (Can-SEBP) was launched to achieve the goal of rebuilding Canada’s capacity for applied and evaluative policing research. Our focus, however, was and is not on increasing the number of Canadian academic researchers, but, in keeping with Weisburd and Neyroud’s (2011) dictum that the police should own police science, we target our research knowledge and creation efforts at police and civilian policing practitioners. In other words, we develop and distribute free educational tools and products to empower police organizations to conduct their own research.
Our empowerment model is composed of four key components, best summed up through a simple equation: E = e + a + q + i (see Figure 8.1 below).
Figure 8.1: Empowerment model
In this chapter, we explore how we have operationalized this model through a series of products and programs aimed at increasing police knowledge of how to create, commission, and/or employ research. These tools, as we demonstrate, are based not only on differences in learners’ knowledge levels but also on different learning preferences (for example, visual versus auditory). Walking through several examples, we highlight different outcomes achieved – from new research and evidence-based policing (EBP) training developed by Canadian police officers to a variety of new collaborations. This, we conclude, is incidentally helping us also to create a new generation of academic policing researchers.
In terms of becoming advocates for evidenced-based policing and figuring out how we were going to pull off our ambitious plan to remake Canadian policing research when Can-SEBP launched in 2015, we were the new kids on the block. The Australian Society (ANZSEBP) had started the previous year, and the United Kingdom (UK) Society of Evidence-Based Policing (SEBP) had been around for some five years previously. Both groups had at least three clearly identifiable educational platforms they used to promote EBP:
Courses taught through university programs (for example, Cambridge in the UK) or as “master classes” by University-level researchers (such as Lorraine Mazerrolle at the University of Queensland);
Local collaborative partnerships between police agencies and academics; and
In 2016, the American Society (ASEBP) similarly adopted the use of conferences, hosting its first annual meeting in Phoenix. What did Can-SEBP do? Given our unique situation – that is, the general lack of high-quality research produced domestically – hosting an annual Canadian conference made little sense. In fact, we ran a series of one-day workshops across Canada in which we tried relying on both local academics and police services to present research with mostly mixed results. To illustrate: our most successful event was due to the inclusion of two American researchers, for whom we received a ton of favorable feedback. At another event, one of the authors sat next to Alex Murray, the head of the UK SEBP, cringing through a presentation during which a Canadian police officer spoke on how he deliberately tried to “cherry-pick” the research literature to support his pre-determined view that his service should invest in body-worn cameras. The fellow was quite dismayed as his results were not the clear slam dunk for which he had hoped. Other research presented tended to be basic, descriptive, and/or methodologically problematic.
When it was apparent to us that our workshops were not working, we also attempted to steal an innovation from our ANZSEBP colleagues: the “master class.” These are one- to two-day intensive courses intended to introduce practitioners to the basics of evidence-based policing. For these classes, one of the authors delivered seven to eight hours of lecture, after which attendees were asked to fill out our version of the famous “face sheet” to indicate whether they felt they had learned anything of value. As is often the case with this type of course evaluation, we received excellent reviews. However, more telling was the fact these courses did not generate new members, lead to further research projects, produce new collaborative partnerships, or, basically, do much of anything. Clearly, it was time for a strategic refresh.
To better understand the direction we ultimately took, it might be helpful to know a little bit about Can-SEBP and what makes us unique. Can-SEBP was founded by an academic as a voluntary research network comprised of approximately 1,300 members. We are not a non-profit; we charge no membership dues or other fees. We never have. In fact, all our products and services are entirely free. We do not even have a bank account. All our activities are supported in two ways:
Through labor donated by the core team and our members; and
By seeking research-based or other related funding for special projects.
Undoubtedly, some people might find it strange to offer products and services for free. Indeed, both authors have been told on multiple occasions that “people only value what they pay for.” We have never ascribed to that belief and, quite frankly, have always found it a bit ridiculous. There are many important things in life to which it is impossible to attach a monetary value, and we do not devalue those things, so why accept that police education aimed at improving community safety should be one of them? Of course, this is a fairly Canadian point of view. And that was one of our points when the “you must charge or people will not value your work” argument was put to us – this rhetoric is a culturally rooted belief that may predominate in the US, but we are Canucks!
As a result of our size, structure, and resources, we knew we were going to be limited in terms of what we could do. Like our Australian counterparts, we were also going to have to fight with and against our geography – Canada being a vast country that can be a bit expensive to get around. And, unlike our Australian counterparts, we also had to factor in weather conditions. In particular, for the few months out of the year, when there is a genuine possibility of jammed airports and cancelled flights and ferries due to masses of snow and ice, highway travel is a dicey proposition.
A reasonable question at this point might be: how did an organization with no resources, no staff, no funds, and a series of disastrous workshops and pretty-okay training sessions across a big, snowy country develop into a network of around 1,300 members? We actually did it through our online presence.
The first step was to build a comprehensive website packed with (FREE!) resources. Then, we developed social media accounts across several platforms, including Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Of these, Twitter was the most useful, particularly because police typically use Twitter for interacting with the general public and organizations because it is free, easy to use, and one of the fastest and largest information sources worldwide (O’Conner 2017; Heverin and Zach 2010). This meant that Twitter allowed us to reach the audience we were attracting and for police, pracademics, and academics to network and interact with us easily. We began by creating a Can-SEBP account run by Laura. This was followed by a Can-SEBP Community Engagement Team account, which involved a team of ten or so individuals managed by Lorna, that eventually splintered into a series of separate, personal accounts run by Can-SEBP members. What we think made our accounts stand out was that they were clearly run by real people, who treated police Twitter like a real community of which we were a part.
Armed with the insight that social media had been helping us to promote our work and EBP, we then did what researchers do: we turned to the research literature on engendering social movements (online and in the real world) and business books on how to excel in niche markets. We read everything from Everett Rogers’ (2003) Diffusion of Innovations to Bo Burlingham’s (2016) Small Giants and Mike O’Toole and Hugh Kennedy’s (2019) The Unconventionals. Of the books that began to make a rather large stack in Laura’s living room, the most well-used was Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms’ (2019) New Power. Using the #MeToo movement as a paradigmatic example, what these authors chart is how new social and political movements can harness social media platforms to coalesce and energize a base. Much of what this book focused on was particularly helpful to us: how new power opens avenues for small groups to create and sustain new communities. Equipped with these insights, we became almost entirely virtual overnight. We would focus on promoting and encouraging EBP uptake by practitioners through social media and newsletters, and we would empower them to actually do that by building quality educational tools and products that would be freely accessible to any member with the click of a button.
There is another reason why Can-SEBP has never hosted an annual conference. Simply, Laura hates them. Laura, who has spent the past 25 years in classrooms, does not prefer to learn through visual or auditory means and finds it virtually impossible to sit through lectures and podcasts. Neither can Lorna. Lorna much prefers quick and brief snippets of information and then being left to figure the rest out on her own. These little distinctions provided another moment of valuable insight when we were having a discussion one day about our YouTube instructional series, “Hands-On, How-To.” Lorna, who formats these videos, asked Laura a question about them which she could not answer; she had to admit she had never watched one. This led to an exchange about preferred methods for consuming information, with the core team realizing that by focusing on one or two of the more conventional modes of online education and instruction, we were leaving out other potential learners.
Turning to the marketing literature for inspiration, we then began to develop tools, products, and programs that could cater to the many ways people prefer to learn. From this, we came up with the following categories: visual, auditory, readers/writers, and hands-on. We also decided we would create a few things for what we see as an emergent audience: “the 20-seconders.” These individuals, much like Lorna, are the people that prefer to be reached with new ideas or ways of thinking about things as they rapidly scroll through social media.
Visual products are for those who prefer to learn through instruction either solely or partially based on visual content. It should be of little surprise that most of our work has tended to focus in this area, given that it was our first category explored as a learning preference. Our visual learning content often takes one of two forms: taped seminars or lectures on basic elements of evidence-based policing – including key concepts, terms, ideas, and available knowledge – and detailed instruction on how to accomplish a research-related task.
Early in its operation, Can-SEBP undertook a national survey of police knowledge on evidence-based policing by sampling major municipal services from across Canada (Blaskovits, Bennell, Huey, Kalyal, Walker & Javela 2020). That survey yielded important information as to the level of knowledge many practitioners had at the time on what constitutes evidence-based policing. It also turned up many erroneous beliefs and misconceptions. As a result, much of the visual content has been concentrated on providing introductory knowledge to those who are new to EBP. To that end, all our workshop lecture materials have now been taped and are widely available to anyone with Internet access. These materials include basic information on everything from scientific reasoning and critical concepts in evidence-based policing to political and institutional issues related to evidence-based decision-making. These seminars are supported by five-minute animated research methods videos – called “The Methods Series” – featuring cartoon versions of some of the Can-SEBP core team. The purpose of these is to provide comprehensive introductions on different types of research methods, including randomized controlled trials, systematic reviews, and scoping reviews.
Key concepts in EBP are further explored in our new video series “The ABCs of EBP.” The ABCs series came about as the result of a video assignment for an undergraduate policing course submitted by the series host, Alexa Maude, who created a fun and snappy discussion of evidence-based policing. This new product is a joint venture with the Barrie Police Service, who commissioned this series as a knowledge tool to help their people better understand what evidence-based policing is, and how it can be used to inform a better understanding of crime and crime prevention topics. The ABCs series covers topics such as “the 3Rs,”1 “the 4Cs,”2 and “B&Es.”3
In the instructional category, we have our “Hands-On, How-To” Research Tutorials series on YouTube. These are approximately ten-minute tutorials that walk viewers through the process of accomplishing a given research task. For example, one video teaches viewers how to create a pivot table in Excel using police data; another demonstrates how to use the free software Zotero to catalog research articles. One of the more recent types of visual learning we have begun to offer is the infographic. The idea for the infographic comes from the previously mentioned Can-SEBP team discussing that not everyone likes to watch a five- or ten-minute video to learn how to do something. Taking our cue from the various step-by-step instructions available to learners on the Internet, we created infographics as a tool to distill the same content as The Methods Series videos, but now in the form of graphics that walk someone through the information required (Figure 8.2).
Figure 8.2: Pre-test/Post-test Infographic
For people who prefer to listen to educational or other content rather than to read or view it, we have also developed a product that offers auditory education. This is a podcast series hosted by Laura that is available on Anchor, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, and RadioPublic, which tackles many topics to do with policing and stems from Laura’s undergraduate policing seminar class. Some examples of topics explored in our recent episodes are “Passive Deterrence,” “Policing Classics,” and “Where Do Police Programs Come From?” (see Figure 8.3). From these, we are also developing some “key takeaways” infographics that will work well for those that prefer to learn visually.
Figure 8.3: Podcasts on Spotify
We have also been working on a virtual opportunity – the EBP Academy – for police officers, crime analysts, and anyone else who is interested in participating in policing research but does not really know where to begin. The EBP Academy is perfect for those who are just starting out with research and EBP, and who prefer to learn through auditory means as it consists of several podcast series, with the first being “An Introduction to Developing a Research Proposal,” which provides a step-by-step walkthrough of various aspects related to conducting research. Examples of some of the matters explored within this first series are writing a literature review, identifying new ideas/topics and research questions, and data collection and analysis.
For people who are drawn to more absorbing information through reading, we have a few very different products. The first is Square 1. Square 1 is a new approach to providing rapid assessments of the research base on a given policing program. Where it differs from other assessment tools, such as the What Works site (College of Policing, 2020) or The Matrix (Lum, Koper, & Telep, 2011), is that it is program specific. In other words, rather than evaluating a type of crime prevention strategy as these and similar other tools do, it assesses the strength of evidence available on a diverse array of popular policing programs in Canada – from wellness programs (Road to Mental Readiness [R2MR]) to training initiatives (Verbal Judo) to crime prevention (Lock it or Lose It) (see Figure 8.4). The goal is to assist police practitioners and policymakers in understanding the extent to which their current programs are evidence-based (or not). Each assessment is undertaken by an independent assessor who is tasked with synthesizing the available peer-reviewed published research literature to answer five questions:
Is the program based on existing research?
Has the program been independently evaluated?
Was the program rigorously tested? (Level 4 or 5 on the Maryland Scientific Scales or Ratcliffe hierarchy of policy-relevant evidence).
Has the program evaluation been replicated/reproduced?
Was the program tested in Canada?
Once the review is complete, a blinded version of the assessment is then sent to an expert in the field for a secondary review before a decision is made to release the assessment or not. As relevant research becomes newly available, the assessments are updated and/or sent out for reassessment.
Figure 8.4: Square 1 Assessments
The second product we have available for people who prefer reading is a weekly blog on policing and policing research topics written by Laura. This lively and topical blog covers a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the research on emotional labor within policing to the pitfalls of trying to inject evidence into public policy discussions. Recent topics have also included the state of missing persons research in Canada, the politics of public health approaches to violence, the misuse and abuse of the term “best practices,” and how police could better leverage their investments in training and conferencing by increasing attendance at major academic research conferences.
For anyone interested in Criminology, our next product for readers/writers is “The Classics Library” in which we curated a series of classic papers and books in criminology and policing, as well as on research methods, into an easy-to-access library. In keeping with our goal of providing accessible materials, we made sure only to include sources that were readily available for all to read and have stored them on our website. For example, readers who are particularly interested in criminology classics will find some texts by Robert J. Sampson, Edwin M. Lemert, and Egon Bittner.
Lastly, each month we send out a newsletter to anyone signed up as a member (for free!) of Can-SEBP. In each newsletter, we provide a variety of relevant and recent updates and information, such as book and article recommendations, upcoming workshops, new products, and program releases, conference calls and calls for papers, invitations to participate in research, and other exciting happenings.
Hands-on programs and products are for those who much prefer learning by being actively engaged in direct activities. We currently have two programs that offer this mode of learning: the recently launched Virtual Scholar in Residence program and the Law Enforcement Advancing Data Science (LEADS) Scholars Canada initiative.
The Virtual Scholar program is one of the most clear-cut examples of how we can engage potential learners in research activities across Canada without the time or expense of anyone having to be physically present for meetings, mentoring, or supervision. It is a joint initiative with the Canadian Police Association (CPA) and the Police Association of Ontario (PAO) that provides an opportunity for Canadian police officers to enhance their knowledge and understanding of policing research through participating as a co-investigator on a research team. Each year we select a limited number of applicants, pairing them with an established researcher to collaborate with a team on creating, executing, and presenting a piece of research. Scholars also contribute to knowledge creation and mobilization by participating virtually in the EBP community through webcasts and other activities aimed at promoting EBP and sharing their growth as a researcher with other practitioners. For 2020, we selected two Scholars, Sin Kim (Toronto Police Service) and Wendy Picknell (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and paired them with researchers at the University of Western Ontario to work on projects related to our theme for this year: missing persons in Canada.
Our second hands-on program is the LEADS Scholars Canada initiative. In 2018, we teamed with the US National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to create spaces within one of their EBP programs for Canadians. Over the past few years, the NIJ, with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), had been promoting evidence-based policing to US law enforcement through its LEADS Scholars program. Each year the NIJ selects applicants to participate as LEADS scholars in a series of seminars, workshops, and events aimed at:
Strengthen[ing] the Scholars as researchers and strengthen[ing] the use of research and evidence-based practices in policing; and
Build[ing] the next generation of police leaders who champion these practices in their agencies. (NIJ, 2020)
Our current group of LEADS Scholars are excellent representations of how active learners thrive when they are put together with others who prefer to learn in the same way: the Canadians have teamed up to start doing research together and advance EBP across Canada. After the LEADS team (Rich Johnston, John Ng, Nick Bell, and Stan MacLellan) attended the IACP Conference in 2019, they all agreed to get some projects under their belts and opted to focus on testing commonly held myths in each of their agencies. What has come from this? Well, they are currently working on a fantastic project that applies routine activities theory to examine the impacts of dynamic variables (i.e., weather) on crime incidents (i.e., stolen autos) across several cities and agencies. Not only are they presently working on research together, but they are also starting to build internal capacity for Canadian LEADS Scholars (both present and future Scholars) to form a national communications network to assist others with research and making connections.
Let’s face it: not everybody has the time or energy to sit through a 30-minute video or webcast. And, for those who may be slightly addicted to their Twitter or Instagram feeds, we have become conditioned somewhat to acquire information in 140 characters or less, or in the form of a picture, graphic, or meme. While it would be easy enough to say that “we do social media” to educate people about EBP, our approach to social media use is sometimes a little bit more thoughtful and strategic than that. Aside from passing on information about the latest research or upcoming EBP events and workshops, we have three other learning-based strategies: Analyst Series Day, use of infographics and memes, and TikTok.
In our experience, a lot of EBP promotion is directed at uniformed officers; however, we see crime, intelligence, and other analysts as our natural allies in the fight for improving research uptake and increasing reliance on data-driven strategies. Thus, we thought it essential to create an inclusive space online for analysts and to use that space as an opportunity to showcase what analysts can do to support EBP and embed evidence-based decision-making within police organizations. To achieve this goal, we asked one of our most highly active members, John Ng, to join the team and take the lead on bringing analysts into the fold, and what he created was the Analyst Series Day on Twitter. Each Tuesday, through his personal Twitter account (https://twitter.com/JohnNg50019199), John draws on one or two pieces of provocative research to pose essential questions aimed at generating much-needed dialogue, not only among analysts but also between analysts and police practitioners. The types of open-ended questions John asks enable people to share information about studies, books, ideas, and/or new research projects, of which the audience might otherwise be unaware.
Various aspects of policing research can seem tedious or boring to the novice learner. We understand. We also know there is a tendency to see academics and some EBP practitioners as a little too serious and occasionally a bit too pompous. We get this too. To counteract some of that inadvertent messaging, which can have the effect of switching people off to the possibilities of EBP, we believe that it is not only important but also vital to be able to sometimes communicate knowledge in a way that is fun, if not a little bit cheeky. Returning to what we said previously, when working virtually, it is essential to remind the audience there are real people behind the screen. We are not simply bots pumping out ads to join our group for the low, low price of $49.99. Nor are we that equally repugnant stereotype of stuffy academics intent on lecturing on what we view as the unwashed, uninformed masses. How to communicate all of that? We rely on common forms of Internet communication, including constructing our own memes. To illustrate: in Figure 8.5 below, Lorna took an image from the logicofscience.com detailing the scientific view of what constitutes weak to robust research evidence and turned it into a joke that most people would be able to relate to, a joke about the random know-it-all spouting their opinion on the Internet.
Figure 8.5: The New Hierarchy of Scientific Evidence
We are also creating quick educational videos for TikTok (see here https://www.tiktok.com/@can_sebp). Why TikTok? Well, we are obviously trying to #StayRelevantAndHip. But, as previously mentioned, we are also putting our focus on the next generation of police officers and police scholars by spreading awareness of EBP through social media apps they are more likely to access. To do this, Alexa Maude has been creating fun TikTok videos that are both relatable and accessible to young folk, as well as being entertaining for others who also enjoy sarcasm and cute animals. These educational videos range from 15 to 60 seconds long and include content such as “EBP myth busters,” where we have animals demonstrating EBP terms. For example, the basic elements of classical deterrence theory are enacted by cats who seek to avoid punishment (time out in the cat crate and garner rewards in the form of cat treats).
The Can-SEBP approach to evidence-based policing is one that very similarly reflects what Canadians represent as a unique cultural identity: inclusivity, diversity, sharing, opportunity, and a view of ourselves as a great big community. In line with our empowerment model (E = e + a + q + i), we have focused on developing free and easily accessible tools, products, and programs that cater to different learning levels and consuming preferences. Our comprehensive variety of products and services like blogs, collaborative research projects, and training opportunities, as detailed above, is how Can-SEBP shows its support for police organizations and the stated mandate of Canadian police to embody policing excellence.
Through adopting this approach, we are furthering the goal of a police science that is owned by police and not solely by researchers (Neyroud & Weisburd 2014). Our preferred method is, however, different from other organizations: we do this through the creation of content aimed at assisting policing practitioners in consuming, conducting and/or operationalizing research on their own terms and at their own speed. Further, by using social media tools such as Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, we have established an efficient and effective way to also educate the younger generations on what it means for policing to be “evidence-based” and how to interact with researchers and research. In short, we are empowering not only current practitioners, but also trying to create a sustainable environment for the future so as to avoid becoming one of those policing fads that practitioners look back upon as yet another failed policing experiment.
Blaskovits, Brittany, Craig Bennell, Laura Huey, Hina Kalyal Tom Walker, and Shaela Javela. 2020. “A Canadian Replication of Telep and Lum’s (2014) ‘Examination of Police Officers’ Receptivity to Empirical Research.” Policing & Society, 30(3): 276–294.
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