Professor Simon Holdaway discusses ‘Evidence Based Policing’

EMPAC welcomes contributions from academics and practitioners (and joint ones) about policing research. Here, we’re grateful to Professor of Criminology, Simon Holdaway, for submitting a discussion piece about Evidence Based Policing and its meaning(s). As with all blogs we feature, the purpose is to provoke healthy discussion so we look forward to your views! Professor Holdaway can be contacted directly as well on Here is Simon’s article….


There is no shortage of interest in evidence-based policing (EBP) amongst officers in East Midlands constabularies. EMPAC events have attracted full houses and my clear sense is that attendees have wanted genuinely to find out more about what EBP might mean for their work. EBP, of course, has sneaked its way into police jargon and it seems that most chief officers have accepted it as a commonsense way of improving their constabularies’ work. Perhaps lower ranks are more sceptical. Commonsense excluding evidence from social science has been the bedrock of what they have traditionally regarded as professional knowledge. The most sceptical eye focussed upon EBP, however, is from criminologists like me!   For rather poor reasons, the College of Policing has gone head-long and uncritically into the acceptance of a particular version of EBP that needs to be tempered if it is to provide the body of evidence-based research knowledge needed to improve crime reduction and peace-keeping.


Be clear that I do not dismiss EBP. That would be plain stupid. Neither do I dismiss the enthusiasm for EBP within policing. That would be cynical and stupid. My reservations are based on a reasoned understanding of social science, the range of systematic methods it needs to gather credible evidence of relevance to policy and practice, and the importance of social theory as an analytical lens through which research methods and data gathered by them can be viewed. I guess that sounds somewhat distant from the concerns of an officer working the night shift. It is not and, although I would like the luxury of having a good number of articles to explain my point of view, I’ll cut to the quick.


The current police version of EBP stipulates that evidence from systematic literature reviews, randomised control trials, comparative statistical analysis based on data from two or more sites – and so I could proceed down the hierarchy of what is called the ‘gold standard of research’ – are the only methods that gather scientific data of lasting value to policing. A small number of criminologists affirm uncritically that doctors practice on the basis of such scientific evidence. Police officers must do likewise. Then something is often said about the police as a profession, like medicine.


Apart from the fact (yes, fact) that medical research includes a great deal of policy and practice oriented research that does not use any of the methods EBP advocates claim to be essential, criminology in England and Wales has always used a wide range of systematic methods to study the police. The early classic studies were based on qualitative data gathered by participant observation of the police, semi-structured interviews, and other methods of systematically gathering qualitative data. Some questionnaire studies were also undertaken but the impetus to develop police research in the UK was started by studies that many advocates of EBP would not recognise as valid research.


Any research about the police that is not based on what EBP advocates call ‘scientific methods’ is ruled out. Rule out, then, all the work about the occupational culture of the police; understandings of processes as well as outcomes of policy implementation; structured and semi-structured interviews with police, citizens, including offenders, about their understanding of police work and offending, and a great deal more. That, I argue, is incredibly short-sighted and cannot be defended adequately when key subjects considered by the philosophy of social science, the rigor of much qualitative research and the policy and practice implications of systematic qualitative research about the reduction of crime and disorder are considered. How many times have you heard something like, ‘police culture needs to change’ or ‘the culture is the problem’? If those comments are pertinent to policing it is necessary to consider a great deal of research that EBP rules out of its so-called ‘scientific scope’. The body of existing literature ruled-out by EBP advocates as methodologically wanting will in fact help you a great deal to understand the occupational culture of policing. Many other examples could be cited.


How might the limitations of EBP I have identified be addressed? First, the College of Policing, the Society of Evidence-Based Policing and other advocates of the limited (American) version of EBP outlined need to widen-their horizons to appreciate and understand better the systematic basis of much qualitative research about the police and the solid foundation of evidence it brings to the table. Secondly, many researchers who use qualitative data need to be reminded that problems of sampling, the systematic analysis of data, the significance of evidence and a host of questions about the rigor of social science research are central to their own work. The reasons are many but, just as EBP has become too limited, a great deal of qualitative research has passed muster when it should have been rejected for poor methodological standards. Thirdly, we should understand that criminology needs to be steeped in the philosophy of social science and social theory. So called scientific methods of research are not an adequate basis on which to select which research is relevant and valuable to practical policing. Finally, quantitative and qualitative perspectives on research do not pose ‘either’ ‘or’ decisions about appropriate methods for EBP. Both have limitations and advantages that should be understood and articulated more clearly. I could continue in this vein but will cease for fear of an allegation of academic posturing! Central to the academic’s job is the assessment of ideas, not least those that become popular. Every pixel that comprises this blog is about the practical matter of how to identify what works best from research and to realistic change and improvement in policing within constabularies.


Simon Holdaway is Professor of Criminology at Nottingham Trent University and Coordinator of EMPAC’s Local Policing theme.


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