BLOG: What’s in a name?

Whilst meeting people in our region one question that has popped up is – what’s the difference between ‘knowledge’ (as in the Police knowledge Fund), ‘evidence’ (as in EBP / evidence based policing) and ‘research’.

What’s in a name? Perhaps we shouldn’t get bogged down in labels – but understandably folks hear different ‘buzz words’ and are curious to understand more, so let’s have a delve into the meanings behind the titles and consider overall what the fundamentals are.

On one level this is all about improving the way we do business in policing. Beyond the policing world, the Wilson Review of 2015 explored the benefits of universities working with all industries to inform and innovate better outcomes, where the priority is to have ‘impact’: research making a difference in the real world.

Some experienced policing professionals might say that they trust their ‘experience’ or their ‘instinct’ (which might be based upon experience); but there’s also an argument that to really ‘know’ something that is evidenced we need to be really sure and that means not trusting to ‘judgement’ alone. In reality isn’t this a balance?

To try and help more, some colleagues have offered their views – you’re encouraged to get involved in this discussion too! EMPAC is all about taking a team effort: there is no such thing as a daft question and everyone’s view is welcomed!

So, first off to Scott Chilton, an Assistant Chief Constable with Thames Valley Police and Chair of the Society for Evidence Based Policing,

“knowledge is all too often assumed to be good knowledge But often it is just information based on experiences alone…an acceptance or ignorance of what sits behind that knowledge has big risks when it comes to policing. Evidence based policing is knowledge that has been underpinned by research and facts that test what works and what doesn’t work in policing.”

Alex Murray, Chief Superintendent in West Midlands Police, adds “That is an interesting question and one philosophers could debate for weeks. I would prefer to rearrange it as ‘what is the difference between good knowledge and bad knowledge’. And it’s a bit like that the assertion by the US Senator and sociologist ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts’.

Opinion maybe based on perceptions, experience, views, ideology or whatever. Facts are different – they are something that can be evidenced and demonstrated to be so when open to unbiased scrutiny. To get to the facts you would in all likelihood blend personal experience with data of some sort – depending on what knowledge you are seeking.

Does positive arrest of domestic abuse offenders reduce reoffending? – opinions proliferate; people will disagree, even experienced people, the data will get us closest to the correct answer. Why does the positive arrest of unemployed DA offenders often lead to an increase in offending? Again we can use our experience or we can look at qualitative indicators that help us gain good knowledge. My suggestion is that the police need to move from bad to good knowledge by blending the most appropriate research method with our own personal experience.”

Let’s try and link this discussion to an area of operational policing that may be well familiar to you – intelligence development. Maybe we can compare ‘intelligence’ to research, as it’s a form of information after all.

Is there a parallel between ‘knowledge and evidence’ and ‘information and intelligence’ then? Over to Detective Superintendent Sean Bell, of Northamptonshire Police, who says,

“I would start by saying that “Intelligence” is collected information that has been developed for action.

In the operational world the police prefer to make decisions based upon assessed and graded intelligence, rather than untested information, that way the police have a level of confidence on how accurate the specific intelligence is and therefore it is an indicator as to how much weight we add to that intelligence.

When making decisions for operational incidents the utilisation of intelligence enables the police to make informed decisions knowing that the intelligence has been developed, assessed and graded.”

Information for action. Does that sound a little more familiar – knowledge being ‘tested’, just like assessed and graded intelligence, so we can trust it more?

‘Research’ can mean different things: different ways may be used for different purposes. Frascati (2002) defines research into three categories:

  • Basic research – experimental or theoretical, undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge about observable phenomena and facts, not directed toward any particular use
  • Applied research – original investigation to acquire new knowledge directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective
  • Experimental development – systematic effort, based on existing knowledge from research or practical experience, directed toward creating novel or improved materials, products, devices, processes, systems, or services

But, rather than focus on what we might call any information to inform action, isn’t the key purpose for professional policing about critically informing decision making? That’s just what the National Decision Making Model already sets out and you may be well familiar with it as it’s regularly used in operational policing (‘what do we know / how do we know it?’). Maybe the whole thing here is about thoughtful policing (whatever we term the ‘information’ used to inform decisions and take action) where there is critical consideration and rationale for the best decision making possible in the best way, a good thing?

The reality of decision making is that they need making (in the best way possible) in spite of potential knowledge gaps – because policing is an emergency service. So isn’t any information (whatever we might call it) from wherever and however it is gleaned, including having a mixed approach, that helps critically inform decision making to protect the public, a good thing?

What’s in a name? Well, isn’t the purpose and making a difference the important point, rather than any name we might call ‘information’? Policing should stay focussed on critically informed decision making because the fundamental role is still that of the thinking decision maker, who has to work with what they’ve got and do the best they can, including using their professional judgement.

What do you think?



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