The importance of impact in policing research

The purpose of this piece is to provoke discussion and help accelerate the evolution of policing research, so we look forward to your views! Perhaps firstly, to set a few fundamental points down before discussing the pivotal importance of impact in policing research. These fundamentals are of importance because, if we seek change, the policing profession needs to help the agenda of research refine its focus on impact.

Policing research should not be solely defined by researchers and policing professionals can offer so much in contextual understanding of impact. The purpose of policing research should be to make a difference. Through a collaborative approach between policing and researcher, the public gets improvements in service delivery. To achieve that though, policing has to get to grips with helping set the agenda, including helping clarify some of the key concepts to ensure everything is focused on impact.

Whose research and for what?

EMPAC believes university / police collaboration is a genuinely good thing that will reap long term rewards for policing capability to fight crime: so that is all about research with a purpose. OCGs and the like do think long and hard about their tactics, they are not able to draw so openly on university intellectuals to help them, but policing can, and should, seek every asset to help it. Serious Organised Crime, is in many ways, a closely guarded thinking game, but policing is stronger and more likely to succeed over OCGs by working with universities using research in a team effort.

Policing research can take many forms, all having their (often complementary) contribution. Research can be both validatory (‘can we test this’ or ‘can we check if this works’) and exploratory, where the ‘known unknowns’ are explored. All this is within a social science world, not a laboratory, so the complexities and nuances of people, place, time and technology are all constantly shifting – that’s life!

Exploratory research is what you might say entrepreneurial OCGs are doing all the time in their continual innovation, and legitimate business models do the same, seldom standing still as the world and everyone else is continually on the move. You can see dynamic change is part and parcel of the world that crime lives in and therefore policing research needs to work with.

There are various understandings of ‘research’ in policing, which can get confused between the full research cycle and notions of analysis. ‘Analysis’ is part of the research process, but you need data first to analyse it – the research cycle reflects that, meaning you often have to get out and collect data in an area where it’s all brand new and not been done before. Policing research that is only ‘analysis’ will often focus on testing and validation and miss opportunities of discovery and innovation where new data is needed. Of course, none of this is a competition – it’s all about using whatever combination of methods and data to get the best information to inform the best decisions, to protect the public and attack crime.

Exploratory research allows policing to develop new knowledge and practice because policing has to be constantly innovating in terms of ‘intelligence’ and that can’t just be a retrospective function otherwise it is forever reacting to yesterday’s news. We’ve seen in the last 5 years a huge shift of the biggest crime patterns (that we know about as yet!) move from the street to cyber for example. Criminal innovation and invention is not just about evading policing it’s about being ahead of their competitors and for these reasons of course criminals will innovate, so policing needs to as well. Full use of all the types of research available can help achieve that.

Show me the impact!

But, the key thing about research for a policing purpose, is impact.

Policing needs to engage with the notions of ‘knowledge’ to ensure this is focussed on impact. For policing, knowledge needs to be useful. Research and knowledge are connected terms – research is like a form of knowledge development. Policing can help the ‘hunt’ for new knowledge; what is hunted, when, how and what a good ‘catch’ looks like. Too often, policing is handed ‘knowledge’ defined by another, and expected to make sense of it towards impact. In an emergency and complex profession like policing that is simply not good enough.

Impact should be the glue between policing and research and should be reflected in ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ identification by both HMIC PEEL and HEFCE REF. If the impact is there it should be commonly viewable and recognisable from whichever side you stand.

EMPAC has helped develop a prototype IMPACT typology to inform commissioning, development and evaluating of policing research. This aims to help articulate the need policing has and limit research of little application. It is not enough to identify a topic for researchers in policing as the method and focus on impact can still be variable – policing needs the right topic, addressed in the right way, to apply to practice and achieve impact. Here is the typology, currently undergoing piloting in Lincolnshire:


Professor Ken Pease said, “For some time there has been a need for research to inform police practice more: we need to move away from research that is interesting to researchers and nothing more. The EMPAC impact capacity classification is innovative and useful in helping frame research in ways which speak to police priorities and public need in an applied way. The need to establish common language and understanding of impact potential is important to practitioners and researchers alike.”

Better together

In addition, policing also needs to challenge, and moreover, contribute to, a new form of collaborative peer review process of policing research. Peer review is a long standing tradition amongst academic journals, but policing professionals should have a voice in policing research, given their particular understanding of context and application. Policing should not accept peer reviewed findings uncritically and passively, but should be able to help move to a new collaborative blend of practitioner and researcher peer reviewing, to help sharpen impact.

Policing research should evolve away from something which is simply ‘done for’, ‘to’ or ‘about’ policing: collaborative research offers the best of all blends and helps focus on impact. This is not an either / or argument: it asserts the outcomes of research are better achieved by working together.

Given an articulation of what policing needs for impact in policing research, using collaborative models of impact and peer reviewing, better outcomes from research is offered. This should be considered a pivotal moment in the evolution of research for universities, policing, and their governance. And of course, let’s not forget, for the public.


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