January 29, 2022

A challenge to DOJ – Give us research that is timely and critical to solving today's challenges


Dear PERF member,

As expected, we received a lot of feedback about last week’s Trending, about the disconnect between academics who conduct research on issues in policing and the police executives who can use good research findings, and ways in which this divide can be fixed.

So it got me thinking – given where we are right now in policing – that timely, accurate research could become the engine that police chiefs are looking for to make decisions.

Police agencies are facing so many challenges with violent crime, use of force, and calls for reform. Here are a few of the types of research questions I have in mind: 

  • Why are homicides increasing in some cities but not others?
  • What do we know about why some officers use more force in a given situation than others?  What are the characteristics of officers who are great at defusing tense situations?
  • How useful are vehicle stops? If a department stopped doing vehicle stops tomorrow, what would the consequences be for the community and cops?
  • What are the most effective ways to measure and strengthen community trust in the police?  And what impact does trust have on crime rates and solving crime?

Here’s an issue that became the flash point for the summer of 2020:  Use of less-lethal weapons

Recently, one of the toughest issues in policing has been how to handle large-scale demonstrations, especially when peaceful protesters are mixed with rioters. During the summer of 2020, hundreds of demonstrations were occurring across the country. In many cities, thousands marched peacefully during the day, but at night, small groups of rioters wreaked havoc.

And the police, outnumbered and not prepared for the level and degree of violence they were facing, used less-lethal weapons such as CS gas, pepper spray, beanbag rounds, rubber bullets, "flash-bang" devices, and other tools. In many cities, there were complaints that police used less-lethal tools too often or indiscriminately. I think that became the most criticized aspect of the police response to the demonstrations.

So what if the Department of Justice, and specifically the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), invested in new research on less-lethal tools and state-of-the-art policies governing their use, particularly in situations where violent rioters use peaceful demonstrators as cover? What if NIJ evaluated each type of tool, assessed its limitations as well as the situations where it could be useful, identified best practices, and specified which tools are more humane than others? Instead of having little information beyond the instructions provided by the manufacturers, we could have impartial researchers identifying the potential and the limitations of such tools and recommending the best options. 

Over the years, NIJ has provided guidance on hundreds of issues like use of Electronic Control Weapons, mass shooting investigations, forensic evidence in gun crime investigations, sexual assault investigations, fingerprint technology, DNA evidence, illegal drug evidence, police crime laboratories, arson investigations, and many more. And NIJ has a website called Crime Solutions that helps get evidence into the hands of practitioners.

So it would be right up NIJ’s alley to evaluate less-lethal tools. 

Some will read this column and say that considerable research already exists on many issues in policing. I would say yes, that may be true, but too often there hasn’t been an effective way to put this research into practice.  Maybe research was conducted many years ago and is outdated, or it’s relevant but few people know about it.

So I have a challenge to make to the Justice Department:  Get academic researchers and police practitioners together, and get them to cooperate and get research out fast. Issue “Research in Brief” papers that put findings in the hands of practitioners.

Too often research is relegated to the back burner of policing, but accurate, timely results – even preliminary findings of what works – would make research as valuable as body armor!

I’d also challenge police executives to familiarize themselves with the research that has been done.  I know you’re busy, but it’s worth your time.

And I’m challenging myself and my colleagues at PERF to work harder at bringing the best research to your attention, in clear, concise formats that won’t take long to read!

A dangerous week for cops

I want to say a few words about what a tough week it has been for police in New York City, Houston, and Harris County, TX.  In New York, Commissioner Keechant Sewell made a moving eulogy yesterday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral about Officer Jason Rivera, who was killed a week ago at age 22 as he responded to a domestic violence call in Harlem. Officer Rivera’s partner, Officer Wilbert Mora, died several days later, after being kept alive so that his organs could be donated to five people.

In Harris County, a procession was held yesterday for Corporal Charles Galloway, who was fatally shot last Sunday during a traffic stop. Harris County also lost Sergeant Ramon Gutierrez to a suspected DUI driver on Monday. The Sheriff’s Office also lost a deputy to suicide the Monday before that.

In Houston, three officers were shot on Thursday following a vehicle pursuit. Thankfully, those officers are recovering.

These sad incidents remind us that policing is always a special profession that demands much more than other lines of work. Officers so often run toward danger, and in so doing risk their lives, so others may be saved.  

Have a good weekend.