Law Enforcement & Research: A Powerful Combo

Law enforcement and academic researchers need to work together to for mutual benefit

By Rick Giovengo, Ph.D.  |   Apr 10, 2017
We could use a few more of these around the station ...

[Publisher’s Note: A while back I published “Calling All Academics!”, lamenting the frequency with which academics and media talk about law enforcement without speaking to actual police officers. Here’s a game response from a man who has been on both sides of the equation.]

This may seem a little unfair on your offer at first, but I happen to be a former law enforcement officer with both state and federal experience for 22 years, and I have a PhD. I agree with you, there is a chasm between law enforcement officers and academics—and both schools shoulder some responsibility for that chasm.

The Chasm
First let’s start with the police officers. I have seen over the many years I was in the field a real reluctance with anything to do with academia. Many officers I worked with over the years generally felt that the academics had no real-world experience; they were viewed as spectacled pocket-protector geeks. They felt the academics just sat up in their Ivory Tower looking down on the lowly law enforcement officer, who in most likelihood did not have much of an education past a bachelor’s degree, if that.

Further, I have seen a real reluctance of most law enforcement agencies to allow academics to peer into their world. Some academics really do want to work with law enforcement to help find answers to real-world police problems, but many times this met with push-back from the agencies. Why?  Well, I have theory.

Good research follows the scientific method: it’s cold, harsh, and unforgiving. The results are the results, plain and simple. I think many law enforcement agencies are afraid that if they allow the academics into their house, they may find out how dirty the laundry is—and no law enforcement agency wants that. Everyone wants positive results that tell everyone how well they are doing.  However, in the scientific world it just doesn’t work that way. The result, remember, are results.

Tell me what law enforcement agency wants published just how bad they are doing? Law enforcement agencies look at research with a jaundice eye, “What exactly will they find, those snobby researchers?” In many ways negative results can be positive results. I do not know about you, but if I am doing something wrong I would want to know what I was doing wrong, and what can I do to correct it. Research lays to waste urban law enforcement legends about the ways of policing and training of police officers. Law enforcement needs to be open to academic research, because academics can assist in providing answers to tough questions.

On the other hand, academics have their issues too. The biggest issue I have found is the attitude of “I have a Ph.D. and you don’t.” The only thing a Ph.D. really means is that you have spent more time and money in school. It doesn’t mean you are any smarter than the everyday working police officer.

Another glaring issue I have found is that many times Ph.Ders act as though since they have a Ph.D. they know all there is to know about everything. That’s a fallacy. Having a Ph.D. really means you know a lot about a subject in the very narrowest sense. I remember as I was starting on my dissertation, my committee chair kept telling to make my research narrower, and narrower, and narrower.

I have experienced this “I know everything” attitude first hand. Since I had 14 years training law enforcement officers I decided to do my Ph.D. on law enforcement training. One of my dissertation committee members had two Ph.Ds, I guess he had more time and money on-hand. On one occasion he started lecturing me about law enforcement training. I asked had he been through any law enforcement training. No. Had he trained any law enforcement officers? No. He mentioned to me he had done some ride-alongs, and did some screening for new hires, but that was it. Then what creditability did he have lecturing me about law enforcement training? None. I removed him from my committee.

Again, this is one glaring issue some Ph.Ders have: knowing all there is to know about everything.  Totally not true. This is notwithstanding that many academics may have done research on law enforcement topics, which could lead to some creditability. But I have seen firsthand some academics speak about law enforcement issues with absolutely no area expertise on what they were speaking of, and that’s a damn shame. There are huge egos in academia just as there is in law enforcement.

Secondly, many academics are intimidated by law enforcement officers. Let’s face it, they are two very different tribes. One is very hands on and operational; the other is more clinical. Thus, their perspectives are quite different. But they can, and should, work together to make the law enforcement profession better. There are some advantages to having academics around—they can be a great asset to law enforcement.

There could be an explanation on why academics are featured in the media more often than police officers. Most law enforcement agencies do not allow officers to speak freely to the press. And even if they are allowed to speak to the press, what they say has been carefully vetted before they can speak. No agency wants anything their officers say that could be misconstrued on the record. Academics, on the hand, are not bound by such policies. In fact, most academics have their own outside consulting firms, which is allowed at most universities. Thus, it’s easy for them to get media coverage as a subject-matter expert.

There is an issue that believe really needs to addressed, and that is the use of private contractors in law enforcement training. There is a booming cottage industry of people hawking methods, equipment, and so on with absolutely no scientific research backing their wares. I’ve seen many private contractors on television as subject-matter experts—but are they? You will see private contractor saying their stuff is based on scientific research. If you see that, ask them to see the research. I bet you get a lot of blank stares and, “I’ll get back to you.”

I get calls all the time from people wanting me to endorse their methods, equipment, etc. Mostly from some former fill-in-the blank Navy Seal with Seal Team 6 (damn Marcinko!). When I ask for their research, I generally never get a call back. This is my biggest concern both as a former law enforcement officer and as a researcher. There are quite a few phonies out there who have no business training law enforcement officers—they need to be exposed.

Conclusion

Law enforcement should try to work with academics who can assist in finding answers. Academics have the knowledge and time in studying things like why officers make bad decisions in use-of-force situations. Science can help in so many ways, and there are quite a few researchers who really want to help.