In the Line of Duty
Closing Gaps in Research
Police officers are perhaps the most visible faces of the law, and one of the few groups with the power to use force, if necessary, when dealing with the public. Yet despite the pivotal role that police play in society, scientific research on the fairness or effectiveness of their work has received inadequate attention, says a new report from the National Research Council.
While communities are most often thankful for a police presence in moments of panic or calamity, concerns about misconduct and racial profiling have led some citizens to wonder whether someone needs to police the police. Currently, science provides few straightforward answers regarding the impact of race, class, gender, and other social factors in police-citizen interactions, the report notes. On the whole, policy-making could benefit from more comprehensive studies on police behavior.
Scientific evidence does, however, contradict the fear that an emphasis on fairness and restraint will necessarily weaken crime-control efforts. Fairness and effectiveness in police work clearly go hand in hand, the report says.
Further, there is strong evidence on methods that communities can use to reduce crime while improving support for police. Studies show that the more focused police strategies are, the more success officers are likely to have in controlling crime and disorder. So, instead of embracing one-size-fits-all tactics, police should tailor their work to address specific concerns. To that end, many departments have crafted highly localized approaches to handling problems, or sought the public's input in resolving troublesome issues. Such problem-oriented and community-based policing philosophies do hold promise. Even so, they are ripe for further study because the nuts and bolts of how they work on the ground are not well-understood.
The federal government's National Institute of Justice should spearhead efforts to boost the quality and expand the scope of studies on a wide range of policing issues, the report says. Key areas of investigation should include strategies for recruiting and training officers; policing practices that support or undermine the public's confidence; the influence of organizational arrangements on police work and innovation; and how the demands of responding to terrorism affect local law-enforcement agencies.
Challenges facing today's men and women in blue are varied and complex. Officers serve increasingly diverse populations, fight crime both on the streets and in cyberspace, and fill crucial needs in the event of terrorist attacks. Closing gaps in research on police can only help their efforts, the committee said. -- Vanee Vines
Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence. Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices, Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2003, approx. 300 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08433-4; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $44.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).
The committee was chaired by Wesley G. Skogan, professor of political science, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice.