Research intelligence: Now what have we here?

The police want more research into fighting crime to reach frontline officers and practices. Zoë Corbyn reports

April 1, 2010

Researchers are being asked to turn their talents to fighting crime as part of a push by police to improve their use of new technologies and social science research.

A science and innovation strategy published last week by the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) presents new opportunities for academic involvement.

The document, Science and Innovation in the Police Service 2010-13, sets out a three-year plan to equip officers with new skills.

It also calls for more partnerships with researchers to ensure that the police service is harnessing science, technology and social science research to maximum effect.

Peter Neyroud, chief executive of the NPIA and former chief constable of Thames Valley Police, said the aim is "to develop a more embedded approach to partnership with the academic community and the private sector".

The previous focus was on broadening the use of DNA sampling and expanding the National DNA Database, he explained. While this resulted in "huge" growth in the use of science in frontline policing, it did not significantly increase the amount of new research.

Mr Neyroud, who studied history at Oriel College, Oxford as an undergraduate, said that for too long there had been a "gulf" between researchers and the police.

With emphasis now being put on the importance of the economic and social impact of scholars' work, the NPIA hopes there will be fresh impetus for joint projects.

"We want to end up with more of the research that is being done being useful to the police service rather than ending up in dusty journals where, while it may be peer reviewed, it is not actually being used," Mr Neyroud said.

"What we are trying to do is convert the product of research into ways in which practitioners - police officers, police staff and government ministers - can actually use it."

He admits that the NPIA's annual research fund of £2 million is not large, but stresses that the measure of success will be its impact. The aim, he said, is to drive improvements not just in the creation of knowledge, but its dissemination.

"There is a lot of knowledge about what works but, collectively, both the academic community and the police service have been very poor at disseminating it and embedding it in frontline service."

Arm officers with your work

Mr Neyroud highlighted the NPIA's web-based tool, the Police Online Knowledge Area, as a route for academics to disseminate basic summaries of their work to the 250,000 people working in policing country-wide. "We will give academics a significantly better chance to ensure that what they produce is something that the service picks up."

Research partnerships with the agency could span three broad areas, Mr Neyroud explained.

The first is development of technology, an area in which the NPIA works closely with the Home Office. The second is leadership - the agency is keen to adopt a "more scientific approach" to developing the workforce and leadership of the police. The third is working with social scientists to develop evidence-based policing.

The NPIA's plan is to commission systematic reviews to assess what works in each area.

There have already been six reviews, carried out by the Campbell Collaboration - an international research network that studies the effects of social interventions.

The reviews covered specific topics such as whether crime gets displaced by policing activity.

The NPIA is now looking to commission three more reviews within the broad areas of local policing, serious and organised crime, and the use and impact of technologies such as automatic number-plate recognition, CCTV and forensics.

"We are interested in the hard science, but we are also increasingly interested in how we then deliver a cost-effective service and secure (public acceptance) of the techniques," Mr Neyroud said, citing the intense debate around the use of DNA analysis in UK policing.

He added: "We need to be able to convert the research not just into the tactics and the interventions that the police use, but into the public's understanding of what professional police practice is doing, why and the outcomes it is having."

The strategy, which aims to bring together various disciplines - from engineering to law and social sciences - was put together with help from the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science at University College London.

Gloria Laycock, the institute's director, said: "It is a huge step forward to see the police service, the Home Office, police authorities and the NPIA explicitly wishing to engage with all the sciences - social, physical and computing - and to commit to maintaining a dialogue with the academic community on future research needs."

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