Trending Topics

IACP 2023: Why research should be informing police practices

Jerry Ratcliffe provides practical guidance for police leaders to incorporate research-based strategies in their daily operations

Ratcliffe IACP.jpg


SAN DIEGO — In a profession sworn to protect public safety, the importance of evidence-based policing cannot be overstated. Leaders in the field of law enforcement increasingly emphasize the importance of testing the effectiveness of policies and practices associated with criminal justice communities. It has even been argued that the field has a moral imperative to evaluate practices before relying on them to ensure that those practices are both beneficial to the public and minimize harmful unintended effects.

Increasingly, police leaders face scrutiny from communities armed with research findings, questioning the validity of their strategies and tactics, thereby challenging the legitimacy of their decision-making processes.

During a presentation at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference, Jerry Ratcliffe, Ph.D., a former British police officer, college professor, host of the Reducing Crime podcast and scientific advisor to the IACP, provided practical guidance for police leaders to incorporate research and evidence-based strategies in their daily work and operations of their agencies.

Memorable quotes on police research

Here are two memorable quotes from Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe on research and policing:

  • “You don’t have to be a large agency to be involved in research. There is a dearth of research among mid-sized agencies.”
  • “The job continues to change and morph and what we know now isn’t going to prepare your colleagues and your agency about what you need to know in a few years’ time.”

Key takeaways on why police agencies need to integrate research into practice

1. The current political climate demands it

For a long time, explains Ratcliffe, we have treated policing like a game of “schoolboy soccer.” Just like when children just follow the ball around the pitch without a clear strategy, police have just followed where the crime is, clustering around crime hot stops like schoolkids cluster around the ball.

While this approach may have been effective in the past, it is no longer a valid strategy. As police data becomes more transparent and research increasingly accessible, both politicians and civilians are scrutinizing what police research reveals about what works and what doesn’t.

Failure to grasp the actual findings of the research could leave your agency vulnerable to decisions made without a complete understanding of the facts. Moreover, there may be potential liability risks associated with implementing strategies that decades of research have demonstrated to be ineffective.

2. Where policing is going

What will be involved in the future of policing? Ratcliffe shared his HIPE roadmap:

  • Harm-focused

  • Intelligence-led

  • Problem-oriented

  • Evidence-based

As constantly evolving processes of policing require new approaches to policing, focusing on evidence-based practice is key, Ratcliffe said.

There are many things we do in policing that are not supported by any evidence. Ratcliffe used the example of roll call training, noting that there are many variations of training, but no evidence as to what actually works. This is especially problematic when incorporating discussions around officer safety during roll call if there is no proven efficacy.

Ratcliffe challenged the audience to look at a list of 10 practices considered part of long-time crime reduction and to ask themselves how many are actually proven to be effective:

  1. Rapid police response
  2. Drug market arrests
  3. Hot spot policing
  4. DARE program
  5. Focused deterrence
  6. School peer group counseling
  7. Police crackdowns
  8. Wilderness programs
  9. Gun buyback programs
  10. Arresting domestic abusers

The answer, according to Ratcliffe, is only #3 and 5.

The problem is that we often do things in policing because we have always done it, Ratcliffe noted. For example, he cites the numerous times he has heard police officers say they know DARE programs work to keep kids away from drugs, even though research shows these programs do not work.

A recent study by Ratcliffe titled “Quasi-experimental study finding no localised gun crime or call reduction after gun buybacks in Philadelphia,” found that “Extant research has failed to uncover any effect of gun buybacks on citywide gun crime rates. The current results now contribute to a lack of evidence at the local level to this literature. While gun buybacks remain popular with politicians and the public, this study adds to the ongoing question of whether buyback funds could be better spent more effectively.”

This knowledge becomes particularly crucial during periods of financial limitations, as highlighted by Ratcliffe. It allows for informed decision-making when city budgets are being trimmed, ensuring that resources are allocated to effective strategies. By sharing what works with other branches of your city government, you can encourage collaborative efforts to address issues and allocate resources more efficiently.

Next steps for an agency looking to participate in research

If there was one takeaway Ratcliffe had for the audience it was that police agencies must be proactive and actively engage in research. The first step? Reach out to an organization like IACP to work with researchers before you put a project in place and be prepared to answer these three questions:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. How do you measure it?
  3. What do you want to try?

Additional organizations that offer research resources:

Read more on evidence-based policing

About the speaker

Jerry Ratcliffe, Ph.D., is a former British police officer, college professor, and host of the Reducing Crime podcast. He works with police agencies around the world on evidence-based crime reduction, leadership, and criminal intelligence strategy. After an ice-climbing accident ended a decade-long career with London’s Metropolitan Police, he earned a first class honors degree and a PhD from the University of Nottingham. He has published over 100 research articles and ten books, including “Reducing Crime: A Companion for Police Leaders” and “Evidence-Based Policing: The Basics”. Ratcliffe has been a research adviser to the FBI and the Philadelphia Police Commissioner, an instructor for the ATF intelligence academy, and he is a member of the FBI Law Enforcement Education and Training Council. He is a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, and a scientific advisor to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Nancy Perry is Editor-in-Chief of Police1 and Corrections1, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading the execution of special coverage efforts.

Prior to joining Lexipol in 2017, Nancy served as an editor for emergency medical services publications and communities for 22 years, during which she received a Jesse H. Neal award. In 2022, she was honored with the prestigious G.D. Crain Award at the annual Jesse H. Neal Awards Ceremony. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Sussex in England and a master’s degree in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California. Ask questions or submit ideas to Nancy by e-mailing