What role for experience in evidence-based policing?

I recently received an illustrative lesson in the challenges of evidence-based policing. I was asked to sit in on a meeting where a number of senior managers were pitching an idea to their commander. It required the redistribution of patrols, and they were armed with evidence that the existing beats were not in the best locations and so were not as effective as they could be. The commander sat back in his chair and said “so I have to move some of those patrols?” Yes, the area managers responded, presenting a cogent yet measured response based on a thorough data analysis supported with current academic research. The commander replied “well in my experience, they are being effective so I am not going to move them”. And at that point the meeting ended. Experience trumped data and evidence, as it often does.

All the evidence available suggested that the commander made a poor decision. When I was learning to be a pilot I heard an old flying aphorism about decisions. Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions[1]. Unfortunately, the profession of policing cannot lurch from an endless cycle of bad decisions as new recruits enter policing and learn the business. The modern intolerance for honest mistakes and anything-but-perfection precludes this. It’s also expensive and dangerous. Therefore how do we develop and grow a culture of good decisions? And what is the role of experience?

In praise of experience

Policing is unique in the liberal level of discretion and absence of supervision given to the least experienced officers. As a teenager when I started patrol, I can testify to the steep learning curve on entering the job. Experiences come at you thick and fast. In some ways, we learn from these experiences. Most cops absorb pretty quickly how to speak with people who are drunk or having a behavioral health crisis in a way that doesn’t end up in them rolling around in the street with fists flying. My colleagues demonstrated a style and tone and I learned from the experience they had gained over time.

We should also recognize that the evidentiary foundation for much of policing is pretty thin. We simply do not yet know much about what works and what good practice looks like. It’s not as if we have an extensive knowledge bank with which to replace experience. In recognition of this, the UK College of Policing note that “Where there is little or no formal research, other evidence such as professional consensus and peer review, may be regarded as the ‘best available’”. So practitioner judgement may help fill a void until that time when we have more research across a wider variety of policing topics. In time, this research will help officers achieve better practice. In the meantime, shared experience may be of value, if (in the words of the UK College of Policing) “gathered and documented in a careful and transparent way”.

Finally, personal intuition and opinion may not be a sound basis on which to make policy, but sometimes it can offer insights in rarely studied areas. This can prompt new ways of looking at problems. By varying experience, we can learn new ways to deal with issues. These new ways could then be tested more formally. There is definitely a place for personal judgement in the craft of policing. But the current reliance on it prevents us embracing a culture of curiosity and developing that evidence base[2]. And personal experience has other limitations.

A critique of experience

Like the commander at the start of this section, unfortunately, most police leaders don’t make decisions using the best evidence available. They overwhelmingly prefer decisions that are entrenched in their personal experience. The problem is that everyone’s experience is limited (we can’t have been everywhere and dealt with every type of incident), and in policing we receive too little feedback to actually learn many lessons.

What do I mean? As a young cop, I attended countless domestic disturbance calls armed with so little personal experience in long-term relationships it was laughable. It soon because clear that the measure of ‘success’ (against which ‘experience’ was judged) was if we got a call back to that address during that shift. If we did, I had failed. If we didn’t, I had succeeded and was on my way to gaining the moniker of ‘experienced’.

But what if the husband beat his partner to within an inch of her life within hours of my going home? Or the next week? If our shift wasn’t on duty I would never learn that my mediation and resolution attempts had been unsuccessful or worse, harmful. I would never receive important feedback and would continue to deal with domestic disturbance calls in the same way. Absent supervision and feedback, not only would I continue to act in a harmful manner, worse, my colleagues and I might think I was now experienced. They might prioritize my attendance at these calls, and perhaps eventually give me a field training role. My bad practice would now become established ‘good’ practice.

As others have noted “personal judgment alone is not a very reliable source of evidence because it is highly susceptible to systematic errors – cognitive and information-processing limits make us prone to biases that have negative effects on the quality of the decisions we make”. Even experienced police officers are not great at identifying crime hot spots[3] and do not do as well as a computer algorithm[4]. This isn’t just an issue for policing. Experts, many with many years of experience, are often poor at making forecast across a range of businesses and professions. The doctors that continued to engage in blood-letting into the latter half of the 19th century weren’t being callous. They probably had good intentions. But their well-meaning embrace of personal judgement, tradition and supposed best practice (probably learned from a medical guru) killed people.

I frequently conduct training on evidence-based and intelligence-led policing. I often run a quick test. I show officers a range of crime prevention interventions and ask which are effective. It’s rare to find anyone who can get the correct answer, and most folk are wildly off target. It’s just for fun, but illustrates how training and education in policing still remains at odds with a core activity, the reduction in crime.

A role for professional experience?

As Barends and colleagues note[5], “Different from intuition, opinion or belief, professional experience is accumulated over time through reflection on the outcomes of similar actions taken in similar situations.” It differs from personal experience because professional experience aggregates the knowledge of a variety of practitioners. It also emerges from explicit reflection on the outcomes of actions.

This explicit reflection requires feedback. When I was learning to fly, a jarring sensation and the sound of the instructor wince was the immediate feedback I needed to tell me I had not landed as smoothly as I had hoped. But flying around the traffic pattern, I immediately had another chance to prove improvement and a lesson learned. This type of immediate feedback and opportunity to improve is rare in policing. The radio has already dragged us to a different call.

For many enforcement applications, a research evaluation is essential to provide the kind of feedback that you can’t get from personal observation. The research on directed patrol for gun violence is a good example of how research evidence can improve strategy and increase public safety. Science and evaluation can replicate the experiences of hundreds of practitioners and pool that wisdom. While you can walk a single foot beat and think foot patrol is waste of time, the aggregate experiences and data from 240 officers across 60 beats tells us differently.

Tapping into scientific research findings and available organizational data (such as crime hot spot maps) and temporal charts, will enhance our professional experience. Being open to the possibility that our intuition and personal opinion may be flawed is also important, though difficult to accept. And developing a culture of curiosity that embraces trying new ways of tackling crime and disorder problems might be the most important of all. The starting point is to recognize that if personal experience remains the default decision-making tool, then we inhibit the development of better evidence. And we should realize that approach is harmful to communities and colleagues alike.


[1] This quote (sometimes replacing decisions with judgement) is attributed to various sources, but the most common is Mark Twain. It should also be pointed out that my fondness for checklists stems from one of the aviation industry’s attempts to reduce the poor decision-making learning spiral.

[2] I’m grateful to a smarter friend for pointing this out to me.

[3] Ratcliffe, J.H. and M.J. McCullagh, Chasing ghosts? Police perception of high crime areas. British Journal of Criminology, 2001. 41(2): p. 330-341.

[4] Weinborn, C., et al., Hotspots vs. harmspots: Shifting the focus from counts to harm in the criminology of place. Applied Geography, 2017. Online first. 

[5] Barends, E., D.M. Rousseau, and R.B. Briner, Evidence-Based Management: The Basic Principles. 2014, Amsterdam: Center for Evidence-Based Management.