When I run into police officers who do not appreciate the purpose of evidence-based policing, I try to use a concrete example. Roll-call.
We have been doing roll call for as long as we have had modern policing. Before the first constables of a modern force patrolled London on 29th September 1829, they held roll call in the street, standing to attention in Great Scotland Yard.
Having traveled widely in policing, across six continents and much of the US, I have seen every possible variation. Everyone does it, and everyone thinks they do it the right way. After all, how difficult is it? Some officers stand to attention in a line, others sit in rows like a classroom, others sit around a table, others chat around a coffee machine, others watch videos, or read a daily on their phone when working a rural area.
And what do they hear? Sometimes details of a previous shift, sometimes lists of streets where cars were broken into, sometimes a discussion of a news article, a training item, or sometimes details of an email from a local fusion center. There does not seem to be any agreement as to the best way to do it, or what information to convey.
Why does it matter? A common theme is officer safety. A concern I have is that given the variation, there may be better ways of doing roll call than others. And that might impact officer safety. If so, surely we want to do it right?
There is also the cost. For example, in a large city like Philadelphia, a roll-call takes about 15 minutes. On any given day, if about 1,000 officers participate then (using a ballpark hourly cost) that amounts to about US$ 4.5 million a year. That’s a lot of money to spend on something without knowing if it achieves its goals. Now extrapolate that across the entire country, with 18,000 agencies and over 800,000 officers, and we have a perfect example of an area that would benefit from an evidence base. It involves potential officer safety issues, and is costly in terms of personnel time.
When I ask officers why we do roll-call I hear lots of reasons, but (beyond officer safety) little clarity around what are the goals. This is a major part of developing an evidence-based approach. Are we clear on the goals of the activity? If not, these needs to be agreed.
Once we have clear goals, we can explore whether these goals are being achieved. This is where a research program can help. Is there already a research base on which to choose how to best do roll-call? If so, let’s do it.
If not, let’s develop that evidence base. If officers are better at remembering and applying officer safety tips later in a shift when learned on a roll-call conducted in specific ways, and less effective at remembering when it is done another way, that would be important to learn. Surely officers lives are worth it?