by Mateja Mihinjac
The story of Frankenstein, when a scientist’s experiment runs amok, is a fictional account of science gone wrong. A few weeks ago I attended a criminology conference about crime prevention and communities. The conference targeted academics, police, local councils and groups like Neighbourhood Watch and Police-Citizens Youth Clubs.
The take-home message as it turned out, however, was not an appreciation for cooperative community-driven crime prevention. Instead, the delegates were fascinated by presentations on evidence-based criminal justice showcased through the technical whizz of some presenters and the call for a scientific response to crime.
The evidence-based mantra is the latest trend in criminal justice and policing, often called the evidence-based approach (EBA) in crime prevention and evidence-based policing.
These academics (they call themselves “scientists”) maintain that criminal justice policies should be driven by scientifically evaluated strategies that have been proven to work, a laudable goal to be sure. But to support these arguments, EBA proponents like to compare the evolution of criminal justice to medical science.
They maintain that by applying scientific techniques that allow for objective, comprehensive and rigorous assessments, they will be able to guide public safety professionals with approved solutions and thus eliminate guesswork that had guided their work in the past. It is a proposition long criticized as unrealistic by social research experts like National Academy of Science member Stanley Lieberson, former chair of the Sociological Research Association.
LIMITS OF EBA
Crime is a social problem characterized by complicated causes and interconnected underlying factors. The science that the EBA crowd follows is based on quantitative number crunching and the kind of controlled experiments that are simple to control in the chemistry lab, but far less so on the street where crime occurs.
How likely is it that the same methods in physical science are ideal methods for truly understanding the complexities of crime? How realistic is it to think the multifaceted social factors of social disorder and crime can be extracted, reduced to small components and then tested in experimental designs?
Harvard’s Malcolm Sparrow also warns that relying too much on evidence-based practice is a risky proposition; it risks dependence on a limited pool of validated solutions and dependence on quickly outdated solutions in today’s rapidly changing society. Further, Sparrow says that the excessive time needed to establish a knowledge-base to satisfy evidence-based policing proponents means that results may take too long to be operationally relevant.
One argument for establishing evidence-based practice is to eliminate the disconnect between academics and practitioners. But escalating the evidence-based rhetoric does not help narrow this gap; in fact, it only perpetuates the division between the two.
This is especially true when EBA academics consider themselves as governors of the research that judges policies rather than establishing a mutually beneficial collaborative relationship. There is no worse way to create top-down solutions that exclude those who are affected by these policy decisions — the public.
TOWARDS AN ETHICS-BASED APPROACH
This does not mean, as the saying goes, that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Evidence-based practice has an important role to play, particularly in crime prevention and policing. Evidence-based research provides directional patterns that might support the effectiveness of certain measures.
However, decision makers should not rely solely upon today’s trending EBA promises especially when solutions may infringe upon social equality. Ethics cannot be pushed aside from decisions made too quickly from a complete lack of evidence, or too slowly from a plodding EBA platform in which “scientists” take months or years to conclude little of value.
Sparrow partially attributes the overwhelming focus of the evidence-based policing movement on place-based interventions such as situational crime prevention, CPTED or hotspot policing. In these cases, ethical questions seem very distant when researchers use secondary data, such as crime statistics collected by police, and their computational calculations do not directly involve people.
It is ultimately still people who will experience the effects of place-based interventions.
One example of this vulnerability is evidence-based solutions such as target hardening in situational prevention or CPTED that minimize criminal opportunities (when crimes may not have actually occurred) but may also reduce opportunities for liveability, walkability or socializing. This is why we need to engage communities each step of the way during evidence-based research and practice. Other professions do it — why can’t we?
Schram neatly summarizes the evidence-based versus ethics-based debate:
“we need less top-down research which focuses on a ‘what works’ agenda that serves the management of subordinate populations and more research that provides bottom-up understandings of a ‘what’s right’ agenda tailored to empowering people in particular settings”.