Research in the Ranks: Empowering Law Enforcement to Drive Their Own Scientific Inquiry

NIJ seeks to advance the law enforcement profession through science with its innovative LEADS Scholars and LEADS Agencies programs.

By Maureen Q. McGough

Law enforcement is increasingly expected to ground policies and practices in evidence, and evidence-based policing is rightfully encouraged as the new gold standard of practice. Somewhat absent from the discussion, however, has been the reality that most law enforcement agencies lack the capacity to identify and incorporate research results into policy and practice. Policy-relevant research results are often published only in academic journals (many of which are behind a paywall) and written for an academic audience. As such, research articles are often full of jargon and fail to consider the relevance of the findings for on-the-ground application.

Although the relatively recent trend toward translational criminology has put a spotlight on the importance of collaboration between researchers and practitioners, much work remains to ensure that research is relevant to law enforcement practitioners, timely, accessible, and communicated effectively. Further, much of the existing research on policing focuses on larger departments in urban areas (due largely to the benefits of a large sample size), with limited applicability to most of the agencies in this country. This leaves a large number of law enforcement agencies underserved and ill-equipped to ground their practices in relevant evidence.

NIJ has noted an increasing number of law enforcement officers — from those who are self-taught to those who pursue advanced degrees — who are taking matters into their own hands and self-producing the research needed to answer their agencies’ high-priority questions about what works and what matters in policing. These efforts are often nimbly responsive to current priorities and narrowly tailored to specific agencies, negating many of the limitations of traditional research noted above.

To support these officers and acknowledge their unique role in advancing the law enforcement profession, NIJ has partnered with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to create the Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science (LEADS) Scholars program and the LEADS Agencies program. The goal of both programs is to empower law enforcement throughout the country to answer many of their own research questions and proactively integrate existing research into their policies and practices.

The LEADS Scholars program works directly with law enforcement officers to create a community where research-minded officers can interact with like-minded professionals and jointly pursue research interests. Through this program, NIJ supports scholars’ attendance at the annual IACP Conference, an NIJ policing research symposium in Washington, D.C., and the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy’s annual symposium. NIJ also provides scholars with technical and substantive support for research projects, literature reviews, and connectivity to subject matter experts across a wide range of law enforcement issues. The program specifically aims to develop mid-rank officers, with the goal of supporting tomorrow’s law enforcement leaders. (Hear from a current LEADS scholar in “Using Officer-Driven Research to Meet Policing Challenges.”)

Inspired by the dedication of the scholars and their significant impact within their departments and beyond, NIJ launched the LEADS Agencies program in 2017 to help agencies increase their effectiveness by improving internal capacity to collect and analyze data, conduct research, and use evidence to inform policies and practices. Currently in its first phase, the program is supporting evidence production and integration in eight police departments of varying size, capacity, and geographic location. NIJ aims to integrate lessons learned and promising practices from these efforts into a practical guide for evidence-based policing later this year.

NIJ acknowledges that even practitioner-driven research has limits in applicability and suitability, and it is just one of many relevant factors to consider when developing policy and practice. However, there are no better judges of whether and how best to apply research to practice than the practitioners themselves, and NIJ is committed to ensuring that law enforcement has both the capacity and ability to make these crucial decisions moving forward.

For More Information

Learn more about the LEADS programs and the work of LEADS scholars over the years.

About the Author

Maureen Q. McGough, J.D., is senior policy advisor in NIJ’s Office of the Director.

NIJ Journal No. 280, posted October 2018
NCJ 252034

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Date Created: October 29, 2018