Lack of Evidence on Police Reform Programs Proves to be Deadly

By: April Feng

In July 2015, criminologist Robin Engel, despite lacking police experience, became the sole official overseeing the police reform program in Cincinnati after a shooting. When looking towards research for guidance, she found herself with few resources to help her.

Near the University of Cincinnati, where Engel taught as a professor, Officer Ray Tensing, 25, shot and killed musician Samuel DuBose at a traffic stop. Engel had commonly been called to help police departments manage police violence, and this time was no different. However, Engel soon found herself as the leading official in the response to the crisis and establishment of reform programs.

Attempting to research for any information or studies regarding police behavior and reform, Engel turned up empty-handed. “I thought most certainly we would have an evidence base that I could follow,” Engel says. “I was incredibly disappointed at the lack of evidence that was available. I was really disappointed in my

own field.”

According to Science News, Engel and colleagues discussed the effectiveness of de-escalation trainings and four other reform programs: “body-worn cameras, implicit bias training (meant to reduce decisions and actions that arise from unconscious stereotypes), early intervention systems that identify problematic officers before a crisis and civilian oversight of the police.” However, there was close to no evidence pointing any police reform program towards resulting in an observable behavior change in police officers.

This lack of data comes from many factors, but the main factor lies in “the pressure for police departments to act fast when an instance of police violence captures national attention,” says Engel. For instance, the Minneapolis Police Department was immediately called to be dismantled in response to demands from activists after the death of George Floyd.

Police research also proves to be difficult due to the fact that “researchers who conduct the sorts of studies needed to evaluate reforms and police officials often have different priorities”, according to Science News. A police chief may not be willing to work with an academic scholar who will publish reports and may garner significant attention from the press, says Erin Kerrison, a legal scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

Money and funding for police research is also fairly limited. While the National Institute of Health provided $39 billion for research in 2019, the National Institute of Justice only provided approximately $214 million for the same cause.

Yet it is clear that a response is needed. Thus, Engel began to conduct her own study of an implicit bias training program, of which results will be out later this year. Regarding the challenge of maintaining an ethical relationship between researchers and police officials, Kerrison published Police Practice and Research in August 2019 to help with the matter.

It is clear that without research, police responses will default to non effective solutions that happen to be the quickest. Engel says, “That is a very dangerous position to be in.”


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