Governing the silence: the institutionalisation of evidence-based policing in modern Britain

Author: Paul R. Betts1,2
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  • 1 University of Birmingham, , UK
  • | 2 University of Melbourne, , Australia
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This paper examines the rise of Evidence-Based Policing (EBP) in Britain. EBP is a ‘what works’ initiative, claiming to offer benefits to ‘improve’ policing policy and practice based on scientific research graded as ‘evidence’. EBP valorises a narrow ‘experimental criminological’ understanding of knowledge and is being institutionalised into policing and academia with very limited challenge. This is despite concerns about ‘evidence-based policy’ in other fields and wide-ranging criminological perspectives on ‘crime’, ‘justice’ and policing that challenge the ‘experimental’ school. By 2022 EBP exerts significant influence on how policing insiders, academics, policymakers and politicians think, speak and act about British policing.

Drawing on Foucault and Hajer, this paper reports institutional changes produced by EBP’s advancement revealed through discourse analytical research into EBP’s ‘archive’ of academic, operational and political ‘texts’. These changes are represented as new ‘governance techniques’ that collectively guard the boundaries of the EBP project, ‘authorising’ the knowledge it generates as ‘true’, propelling EBP towards a hegemonic position in British policing.

EBP is repositioned as doing political work, sharing genealogical heritage with other political projects of late modernity, particularly managerialism and neoliberalism. Appropriately historicised, EBP can also be conceptualised as a new nadir in the problematic relationship between the production of criminological knowledge and the British state: reinforcing state definitions of ‘crime’ and cementing conservative ‘asks’ of policing. Simultaneously, the institutionalisation of EBP’s governance techniques is likely to further silence critical voices, excluding them from knowledge production, policy consideration, and neutralising their more radical calls for progressive policing.

Abstract

This paper examines the rise of Evidence-Based Policing (EBP) in Britain. EBP is a ‘what works’ initiative, claiming to offer benefits to ‘improve’ policing policy and practice based on scientific research graded as ‘evidence’. EBP valorises a narrow ‘experimental criminological’ understanding of knowledge and is being institutionalised into policing and academia with very limited challenge. This is despite concerns about ‘evidence-based policy’ in other fields and wide-ranging criminological perspectives on ‘crime’, ‘justice’ and policing that challenge the ‘experimental’ school. By 2022 EBP exerts significant influence on how policing insiders, academics, policymakers and politicians think, speak and act about British policing.

Drawing on Foucault and Hajer, this paper reports institutional changes produced by EBP’s advancement revealed through discourse analytical research into EBP’s ‘archive’ of academic, operational and political ‘texts’. These changes are represented as new ‘governance techniques’ that collectively guard the boundaries of the EBP project, ‘authorising’ the knowledge it generates as ‘true’, propelling EBP towards a hegemonic position in British policing.

EBP is repositioned as doing political work, sharing genealogical heritage with other political projects of late modernity, particularly managerialism and neoliberalism. Appropriately historicised, EBP can also be conceptualised as a new nadir in the problematic relationship between the production of criminological knowledge and the British state: reinforcing state definitions of ‘crime’ and cementing conservative ‘asks’ of policing. Simultaneously, the institutionalisation of EBP’s governance techniques is likely to further silence critical voices, excluding them from knowledge production, policy consideration, and neutralising their more radical calls for progressive policing.

Introduction

Evidence-Based Policing (EBP) is founded on the belief that following the approach to evidence-based medicine, underpinned by natural sciences, and transposing this into policing policy and decision making, can ‘improve’ policing (Sherman, 2013). EBP builds on the longer-established ‘evidence-based policy’ agenda, in the British context ushered in by the New Labour government from 1997 (Solesbury, 2001). For research academics, EBP’s development offers unprecedented access to police data and new sources of funding. In return for allowing access, policing gets new ‘objective’ scientific knowledge – an evidence base – that can be relied upon to ‘improve’ policing. EBP allows politicians and officials to absolve themselves of blame for policy failures in a neat trick of depoliticisation: they are simply ‘following the evidence’. EBP thrives in these circumstances, bringing together a coalition of actors around its core storylines. By 2022 EBP is developing hegemonic status, dominating how we have come to see, think and act about policing (Knutsson and Tompson, 2017).

Yet, for others, EBP remains controversial. Within EBP there is academic debate about what should count as evidence, and why EBP has failed to realise its potential in delivering the claimed improvements to police legitimacy, efficiency and effectiveness upon which EBP is founded (see Fielding et al, 2020). In wider academic literatures there are concerns about the harnessing of state power to criminological knowledge (Cohen, 1981; Walters, 2003), the creeping influence of state agendas into scholarly research (Hillyard et al, 2004; Squires, 2013), and contestable ontological assumptions about ‘crime’, ‘justice’ and ‘policing’ (Hillyard and Tombs, 2007; Pemberton, 2015).

In light of these controversies EBP’s growth in the last decade has been remarkable. EBP has been embraced and aggrandised with equal vigour by policing, politicians, research academics and their institutions. EBP has been adopted into the lexicon of policing in modern Britain and woven into its institutional fabrics, producing ‘governance techniques’ that I contend function to ensure its future reproduction. I argue that this is problematic as these techniques ‘authorise’ state narratives on crime and policing as ‘true’ – underpinned by knowledge graded as ‘evidence’ – while simultaneously working to silence and ‘other’ alternative knowledges that tend to offer more critique and points of resistance to dominant discourses.

The paper reports on multiyear discourse research inspired by Foucault’s analytical frameworks. Phillips and Jørgensen (2002) note a problem with following Foucault is that he never expressly laid out a working method. One is therefore reliant on interpreting a concomitant approach from the Foucaultian canon. I examined the ‘archive’ of EBP ‘texts’, widely interpreted as information on websites, policy documents, academic papers and media statements (Rosenau, 1992). From a priori knowledge I identified four key contributing ‘groups’ to EBP ‘texts’: operational policing; academic work; politico-official texts; and ‘special interest groups’. I selected texts by searching for ‘evidence-based policing’ on relevant websites and bibliographic indices, applying a ‘relevancy’ test to reduce the volume of returns to a manageable number for coding. I coded texts using three analytical ‘lenses’: storylines; subject positions; and institutional reforms. These ‘lenses’ were developed from studying Foucault’s translated original works, combined with commonalities found in the methodological work of those who have followed Foucault (Hajer, 1993; 1995; Fairclough, 1995; Hall, 1997). Texts were coded and recoded as new themes emerged from the analytical work using longhand hard-copy annotation, before stopping at point of saturation when no new coding was emerging (van Rijnsoever, 2017).

My work has begun to document a genealogy of EBP in modern Britain. I investigate why EBP has come to dominate modern thinking on policing, addressing questions of why, in the midst of contestable notions and with a range of criminological knowledges available to consider for policy improvement in policing, it is the pseudo-scientific knowledges valorised by EBP and managerialist research agendas that have come to dominate. I also consider what impacts might flow from further extension of the EBP project. The full results of this research are forthcoming1, but in sum I argue that EBP has emerged into a hegemonic position in British policing for two key reasons. First, EBP aligns with wider politico-economic projects of late modernity; notably neoliberalism and managerialism. My analysis illuminates a shared familial DNA between these discourses and EBP, arguing that EBP has been a natural ‘fit’ for easy adoption into state narratives and institutions. Second, I propose that the progression of EBP represents a new nadir in continuing and deepening the problematic relationship between the British state and the production of ‘useful’ criminological knowledge described by others (Cohen, 1981; Walters, 2003).

This paper focuses exclusively on the ‘third lens’ of my discourse research: those important institutional reforms identified that arise from the progressive normalisation of EBP discourse. I suggest that the institutionalisation of EBP, based on a very narrow interpretation of ‘policing’, now has the ability to create ‘new knowledges’ about policing through institutional processes that authorise that knowledge as ‘true’. This insight has two important implications. First, it has the potential to redefine EBP in a new perspective: away from the neutral, objective, science-based approach to policing that it claims to be. EBP can be repositioned as doing political work by reinforcing wider politico-economic discourses with which EBP shares a genealogical heritage. Second, because EBP has acquired the ability to (re)produce ‘the truth’ about policing, reinforced by institutional governance techniques that have adapted to EBP’s emergence and guard the boundaries of knowledge on policing, these are likely to diminish the production of critique and further silence critical voices where they do emerge – voices likely to offer more radical challenges of policing to do better for the public. This governance of the silence should be resisted for anyone interested in better policing.

The paper is set out in four sections. First, I offer a brief overview of EBP in modern Britain. Second, I present unresolved debates and tensions for EBP and expand on why EBP’s rise to prominence should be interrogated more closely. Third, I present four key institutional reforms produced through EBP discourse that can be interpreted as new ‘governance techniques’. These governance techniques support EBP’s progress towards hegemony, discipline actors entering the field, and suffocate the production and ‘airing’ of critical perspectives. Finally, I offer some concluding remarks, considering future prospects for EBP.

EBP in modern Britain

By 2022 EBP exerts significant influence on how actors think, speak and act on British policing; both externally and internally. EBP has emerged as ‘the answer’ to a range of unspecified, unclear and somewhat trifling managerialist ‘problems’ with policing that have become prioritised for action through EBP discourse. Examples problematised include a lack of ‘professionalism’, or the ‘efficient’ deployment of police resources. EBP rests upon positivist knowledges in seeking solutions; aping the language of medicine, to borrow the status of scientific ‘facts’ for the insights it produces (Sherman, 2013; 2015). EBP has proven a highly attractive narrative for senior police officers, politicians and officials charged with ‘improving’ policing, particularly with far fewer resources in the post-2008 years of austerity (Neyroud, 2009). Concurrently, fundamental ‘big questions’ about ‘policing’ and ‘crime’ and the ‘critical’ academic literature that discusses these have become increasingly marginalised, lacking influence in the policy sphere (Smith, 2010). What type of policing modern Britain should aspire to have, or what counts as ‘crime’ and ‘justice’ in late modernity, are questions increasingly othered by EBP’s more managerial concerns (Hillyard and Tombs, 2007; Pemberton, 2007).

EBP’s development in Britain can be traced to about the mid-1990s. I have witnessed this firsthand in my own police career, which has followed a similar timeline. However, EBP’s intellectual origins lie in the earlier experimental criminology from the US, which focused on policing from about the 1970s. Although differing in their approach to US-based experimental criminologists, in the British context the research of academics such as Nick Tilley and Gloria Laycock began to influence the Home Office in line with New Labour’s ‘what works’ evidence-based policy mantra during the early 2000s. In 2001 Laycock established the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science based at University College London. Synchronous with British government policy dominated by ‘what works’, ‘police / crime science’ attracted public funding and built on the US ‘problem-oriented policing’ model to bring research into policy. Laycock was engaged in the Home Office Police Research Group, and the Home Office ‘Tilley Awards’ on effective practice in policing were named in honour of Professor Tilley. Hillyard et al (2004) note the increasing tendency of the Home Office to control research funding on crime in the direction of the empirical ‘what works’ / crime science agenda, charting progress to 2004.

The development of EBP has intensified significantly from the mid-2000s and taken a more ‘puritanical’ turn towards US-style experimental criminology, particularly in how it has been internalised within policing. In 2007 Sherman began his tenure as Wolfson Professor of Criminology at Cambridge University, and Director of the Institute of Criminology. In 2008 the Institute founded a new Police Executive Programme, refocusing on EBP to bring ‘science’ to the way policing operates and makes decisions. This extended the legacy of state-linked ‘police studies’ in the Department of Crime Science at Cambridge, whose history is well documented (see Walters, 2003). The Cambridge programme has become a refuge for retired senior officers to mentor and supervise students. As an example, Peter Neyroud is a lecturer in EBP at the Institute, but was formerly the Chief Constable leading the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA). Neyroud oversaw NPIA’s transition into the College of Policing in 2012–13. Sherman champions ‘experimental criminology’, and his leadership of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge through education, research funding and dissemination, have ensured his ideas have been extremely influential in shaping and progressing EBP; notably as EBP has been transposed from an academic idea into an institutional reality within policing. Sherman and EBP can be found at key nodal points in the leadership of British policing, such as the Strategic Command Course for chief officer qualification.

The Society of Evidence Based Policing (SEBP) was founded at Cambridge in 2010, bringing together academics, police officers and policymakers interested in developing EBP approaches. SEBP has spawned sister societies in other advanced neoliberal economies (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand). The new College of Policing was announced by the Home Secretary in 2011 to ‘professionalise’ policing and champion EBP. The College has been a key institutional reform in championing the transition of EBP from a contested academic idea into a ‘real world’ entity with institutional buttressing in academia, politics and policing. The College aspires to attain ‘Royal’ status, following the model of medical royal colleges upon which it is based. Galvanised through the alliance of Cambridge, Home Office and the College, EBP has developed hegemonic status in the last decade with ever-stronger institutional patronage.

Web of Science citation indices for the term ‘evidence-based policing’ supports this summarised trajectory and key dates. Before 2005, the term was cited a handful of times a year. By 2012, this had risen slowly to 226 citations. By 2019 however, the number of citations of EBP increased sharply to 1420. Sherman’s (2013) paper, The rise of evidence-based policing: targeting, testing and tracking, is the most cited work on the subject, demonstrating the influence of his ideas.

During the first two decades of the 21st century, therefore, there is notable coming together of what Young (1986) previously described as ‘administrative criminology’: the growth of the ‘what works’ agenda in UK government and a burgeoning narrative on the need to ‘professionalise’ policing. Taken together, these are the roots of EBP.

Why interrogate EBP?

After roughly 20 years of EBP ‘progress’ in Britain there are two key issues that require consideration. First, for academia. As EBP is internalised, institutionalised, and attracts investment through policing structures, EBP self-presents as a ‘new’ settled scientific discipline (‘EBP’; ‘police science’; ‘crime science’). Presentation as a settled and serious medico-scientific discipline is very important in EBP gaining the traction and credibility it has within policing. Setting aside obvious criticisms arising from other intellectual traditions, there remains a significant internal schism among EBP academics, that I characterise as ‘purist’ and ‘realist’ versions, centring on what type of research should be included as ‘evidence’. There is a secondary debate about the generalisability of the knowledge derived from experimentation (purist), versus a greater recognition of context in research findings and their transplantation into policy in other jurisdictions (realist) (as an example see Sidebottom and Tilley, 2020). Patently EBP is far from ‘settled’.

Second, for policing there is an issue with EBP’s efficacy. Among other assertions, EBP claims to be a vehicle to further the legitimacy of policing, leading to ‘police improvement’; an empty storyline of EBP that I suggest is inadequately defined in the literature. Two decades on, one might therefore expect to find a range of policy areas in which deployment of EBP has achieved these outcomes? Particularly given the gusto with which EBP has been championed and institutionalised within policing itself. Yet such examples are notably rare. Arguably, British policing in 2022 is in a fairly deep crisis of legitimacy following the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, its response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the policing of protest more generally, and its handling of hastily-drafted legislation on COVID-19 restrictions. EBP has very limited amounts to say on these issues, instead investing energy into more trifling obsessions of managerial interest, such as the efficient use of resources (Williams and Coupe, 2017). Therefore EBP’s claims of ‘policing improvement’ and ‘enhanced police legitimacy’ is left – as a minimum – open to challenge after two decades of EBP ‘progress’.

The second point is quite widely addressed within EBP literature. There is a storyline that EBP’s progress has been hampered by ‘police culture’; a resistance to embrace EBP’s ‘science’ over policing’s more traditional hand-me-down, artisanal, apprenticed knowledges (Telep and Lum, 2014). According to this storyline, if only EBP could overcome the ‘anti-intellectualism’ that hallmarks policing then the bounties offered by a more ‘professional’, ‘science-based’ approach might be realised (Sherman, 2015). Or, more ironically, that we need more research to develop an ‘evidence base’ about why EBP has failed to make the positive impact EBP’s advocates thought it might. I suggest that this is a vast oversimplification of what is at work here. It is equally possible that EBP may not have delivered its professed benefits from deployment of its quasi-science because it is a fundamentally flawed set of ideas and officers can see beyond its truth claims.

In addition to the above two points, there is a strong research rationale supporting the need to examine the emergence of EBP in greater detail found in four separate academic literatures: on the construction of knowledge; commentary on ‘what works’; political selection of ‘evidence’; and, criminology itself.

First, EBP assumes that there is a valid way of assessing or grading research knowledge as ‘evidence’. This has been transposed uncontested into institutional governance as a mechanism to support decisions (Lum et al, 2011; WWCCR, 2021a). This approach helps decide the distribution of state funding of policing research and aspirationally allows practitioners to ‘assess’ research for implementation into policy or operational decisions. There remains significant contestation over the constructed nature of knowledge that questions the classification of knowledge in the way EBP conceives it (see Harding, 1991; or Rosenau, 1992). Foucault was particularly concerned with systems that classify knowledge, linked to his concept of ‘power-knowledge’:

Power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations. (Foucault, 1975: 27)

For Foucault (1969), knowledge requires a system of power to validate it as legitimate according to the ‘scientific discourse in a given period’. Knowledge must be ‘authorised’ systemically to acquire its ‘truth’ status, while power cannot exist without being validated by a requisite coherent system of knowledge. Foucault considers the possibility of revealing manifestations of power-knowledge by examining ‘micro practices’ of institutions within historical context to create ‘genealogies’. Hence, ‘a nexus of knowledge-power has to be described so that we can grasp what constitutes the acceptability of a system, be it the health system, the penal system, delinquency, sexuality, etc.’ (Foucault, 1997: 53).

Foucault advocates that historic investigations should be inspired by ‘current concerns’ – issues of ‘sensitivity or fragility’ in the current period – and that we should seek to explore how we arrived at this point (Foucault, 1975). What were the moments of decision that led us to where we find ourselves presently? This revelation of transformative possibility through ‘genealogy’ leads us towards no longer being, thinking or doing what we ‘are, think or do’ in the present. If one accepts our normalised state as constructed, then it can be potentially reconstructed in an alternate way by tracing and exposing its contingency and reimagining possibilities. Understood in this way, Foucault’s work and my own project can be seen as transformative and emancipatory in the insights they produce.

At its heart, EBP harnesses a particular form of knowledge (produced by positivist scientific methodologies) to political power in the form of policymaking through institutional changes (validated through knowledge hierarchies). The harnessing of knowledge (‘evidence’) to power through institutional reforms is therefore very important in explaining how certain discourses come to dominate as ‘true’ over other possible discourses. The foundation of the College of Policing, alongside various techniques of governance, institutionally harnessing research ‘evidence’ (knowledge) to policy (power) through EBP discourse, unsurprisingly draws my interest as a Foucauldian scholar. These insights underpin my research into EBP’s emergence as an institutionalised entity, and underscore why EBP should be interrogated as an issue of ‘current concern’.

Second, EBP is avowedly a ‘what works’ initiative (WWCCR, 2021b). Once again, this is presented and institutionalised as an uncontested, normalised assumption. Peeping outside of the EBP bubble one finds significant debate about the validity of ‘what works’ approaches in other policy fields (on the NHS see Morrell, 2006; or Fotaki, 2009, as examples). There are calls for evidence-based policymaking to be challenged (Marston and Watts, 2003, on youth justice), with others suggesting it should be more modest in its claims (Solesbury, 2001; Bullock and Tilley, 2009). The uncontested nature of EBP’s institutionalisation into policing as a ‘what works’ initiative therefore requires more serious examination, in my view.

Third, and more troubling, there is a wide-ranging literature on so-called ‘policy-based evidence making’ and the political selection of evidence. This is what Harding (1991) describes as the ‘old politics’ of deliberately choosing ‘evidence’ that supports preordained political policies. Hope’s (2004) ethnographic study of the Reducing Burglary Initiative is illustrative here. He reports manipulation of findings by officials to demonstrate ‘successes’ to their political masters, even in trial areas where later analysis suggested burglaries had actually increased, with their ‘initiatives’ already widely rolled out as ‘successful’. Stevens’ (2010) ethnography of the British civil service finds similarly, with career progression cited as an important factor influencing officials to manipulate ‘evidence stories’ away from social inequality problems and in favour of more politically expedient narratives (see also Drake and Walters, 2015 on the case of Professor David Nutt’s dismissal from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs while ‘following the evidence’).

Fourth, EBP is based upon administrative and experimental criminology, at least in how it has been transposed into policing institutions. It is important to recognise this is but one of several competing criminological knowledge ‘types’ that could yield benefits in ‘improving’ policing. The production and use of criminological knowledges remains substantially contested ground. Within EBP itself there is the purist / realist dichotomy, largely based on how ‘evidence’ is graded as such and questions of generalisability (Bullock and Tilley, 2009; Sherman, 2013). My wider research shows that these nuances are generally written out of other texts emanating from sites such as the College of Policing, or in official statements that favour simplistic ‘motif’ storylines advocating for EBP. The effect of this is that internally policing has come to accept and adopt a radical version of (experimental) criminological knowledge as ‘true’, and this silences alternatives. Outside of EPB, but still within criminology, the alternative knowledges available as possibilities for use in policing expand exponentially. There are a wide range of important alternative criminologies we might broadly construe as ‘critical’: ‘green criminology’ (Brisman and South, 2020); ‘queer / ed criminology’ (Ball, 2014); ‘feminist criminology’ (Cain, 1990); and Zemiology or social harm theory (Pemberton, 2007), are all examples. There are also a range of ideas on how competing criminological knowledges might be used, such as advocacy for a more ‘public criminology’ (see Loader and Sparks, 2010; see also McAra, 2017).

Arguably, policing might be better improved by considering the points contained within these pluralistic criminologies than simply institutionalising one of them (experimental / administrative) as the ‘best’ or ‘only’ way to improve policing. As a contestable criminological knowledge (EBP) becomes institutionalised into policing it seems the more radical challenge for policing that comes from critical perspectives is likely to be further obfuscated and marginalised from consideration. To be clear here, I am not advocating for a ‘realist’ position that EBP should be broader-reaching in its approach to includable ‘evidence’. I share several of the ‘realist’ concerns about the institutionalisation of more ‘purist’ versions of EBP, and that EBP should be challenged on the narrow view of academic ‘evidence’ it presents to policing as ‘true’ through the incorporation of the ideas of experimental criminology as ‘best evidence’. Instead I reject both purist and realist positions, and urge resistance to the accepted ‘need’ to have some form of EBP approach to policing, howsoever it can be modified.

Operating on heavily contested ground, therefore, there is ample justification for asking why EBP, with its peculiar and exclusory knowledges, has become institutionalised into governance techniques that ‘authorise truths’ about policing in modern Britain? As EBP becomes institutionalised, the uncomfortable controversies presented in this section are ignored, or at least glossed over. EBP’s acquired ability to make its narrow interpretation of policing ‘true’ through its new institutional buttressing requires interrogation as an ‘issue of current concern’.

Institutional reforms as new ‘governance techniques’

Foucault considered that discursive elements should be examined, not individually as I have done deploying my ‘three lenses’ described above, but in how they combine to produce ‘truth effects’ that structure the world through their disciplinary effects that govern the conduct of actors and institutions. I acknowledge that the interconnectivity of institutional arrangements presented here requires consideration alongside the storylines and subject positions of EBP discourse to generate a comprehensive understanding of their effects. However, this paper is limited in scope to present some of the institutional reforms identifiably linked to EBP’s emergence in Britain that are a constituent part in (re)producing a hegemonic ‘new normal’. Taken together with other elements of discourse, these reforms can be understood as providing ‘governance’ of individuals, actors and institutions (re)producing EBP discourse.

There is a shared understanding between Foucault (1963; 1964; 1975) and Hajer (1993; 1995) on the importance of institutional arrangements within discourse. Foucault suggests we should be concerned with small inconspicuous practices which operate in a disciplinary way through processes of normalisation, classification, and surveillance to shape conduct (Foucault, 1975).

Hajer suggests ‘discourse institutionalisation’ is observable when discourses become ‘translated into institutional arrangements’, and policy begins to be conducted within institutions according to theoretical concepts that exist within discourse. This is a political process inextricably linked to power. Discourse institutionalisation is an output of interconnected power relations that produces hegemony, drawing political frontiers of what is included and othered. Hajer recognises the argumentative struggle for hegemony can only be properly understood in the context of institutional arrangements that exist.

This section presents the institutional practices that have been produced through the political processes of developing EBP discourse and now serve to reinforce it as ‘true’. I suggest these reforms can be interpreted as discourse institutionalisation according to Hajer’s definition: the conduct of policy according to the dominant discourse. It is noteworthy, in explaining EBP’s institutionalisation from a range of possible criminological alternatives, that overwhelmingly the institutional modifications observable are geared towards neoliberal politico-economic outcomes. In many of the texts analysed, there are calls for institutional changes to promote or accommodate the development of EBP (Sherman, 2015). It is unsurprising therefore that there are so many examples of discourse institutionalisation that accommodate EBP. I include excerpts from ‘the archive’ where relevant. I limit my discussion here to four changes that demonstrate how EBP’s central ideas have been institutionalised. In doing so, EBP’s core tenets are (re)produced through changes understood as ‘governance techniques’ facilitating the silencing of critique.

Police-academic partnerships

Police-academic partnerships are flourishing through EBP discourse. They have become a widely used shorthand for how research ‘with’ policing should be done according to EBP’s normalised rationalities. ‘Partnership’ arrangements are being embraced with equal enthusiasm within academia and policing.

The production of original research is a key measure of university success under created marketised conditions, such as the now defunct Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) (Hillyard et al, 2004), and latterly the Research Excellence Framework (REF) (Squires, 2013). EBP is instrumental in supporting universities in gaining market advantage here through formation of EBP partnerships. Such arrangements enable further reforms I describe in the following subsection: access to research funding and data. EBP partnerships can be conceptualised as an example of discourse institutionalisation in both academia and policing. For the EBP ‘partners’ the production of ‘useful’ knowledge understood as ‘evidence’ is a common denominator.

Bradley and Nixon (2009: 424) employed MacDonald’s (1986) characterization as a framework in advancing their case for ending the ‘dialogue of the deaf’ – through contemporary research initiatives involving more ‘intimate and continuous’ collaborative partnerships between police and academics. Their submission has prompted a number of contributions, which build on the theme of increasing cooperation in policing research (e.g., see Cordner & White, 2010; Fleming, 2010; 2012; Fyfe & Wilson, 2012; Johnston & Shearing, 2009; Rojek, Martin, & Alpert, 2015; Steinheider, Wuestenwald, Boyatzis, & Kroutter, 2012; Wuestewald & Steinheider, 2010) and improved collaboration between police practitioners and academics is now a frequent topic of discussion in both communities (particularly in the context of the movement toward evidence-based practices in policing) and across the scholarly literature. (Brown, 2017: 530)

This passage highlights the development and breadth of police-academic partnerships as a ‘frequent discussion’ aimed at ending the often-quoted ‘dialogue of the deaf’; a phrase describing a traditionally more distant police-academic relationship, viewing one another’s roles with some degree of scepticism. Brown references just some of the extensive literature that makes the case for ‘better’ or ‘closer’ collaborative institutional arrangements between police and academics through EBP.

The literature on police–academic partnerships refer to inherent obstacles in bringing the ‘two worlds’ of research and practice together, and reflects an increased recognition on both sides of the benefits to be had from the co-production of research – reflecting a shift from conducting research on police, to conducting research with police. (Goode and Lumsden, 2016: 1)

This is typical of what is observable in the texts and reinforces my own observations on EBP’s discourse institutionalisation. There is a shared neoliberal understanding that runs through EBP’s discourse on ‘benefits’: ‘efficiency’, ‘effectiveness’ and ‘improvement’. I argue these shared values underpin EBP’s research partnerships. In the texts it is common to find examples calling for longer-term police-academic ‘partnerships’. To operate successfully these partnerships need to negotiate and agree strategic goals and research agendas; to ‘improve’ efficient deployment of policing resources using scientific data, for example. EBP partnerships are steeped in utility, reciprocity, and collaboration: data and access exchanged for ‘knowledge’. It is my contention that police-academic partnerships operate within a shared acceptance of state narratives of crime and what ‘successful’ partnerships ‘look like’ in producing state-friendly conservative outcomes. What is lost in these negotiated partnerships is the ability to critique – for one side to ask the difficult questions of the other (McAra, 2017; Jackson, 2020).

Mutual arrangements are exacerbated by EBP’s encouragement of ‘pracademic’ experiments: police personnel conducting their own research on their own work, or work of their colleagues, often published in new EBP journals in collaboration with ‘friendly’ partnered academics (Sherman, 2017). It seems to me that the growth of institutional arrangements that bind researchers to the researched are likely to negotiate a ‘meeting in the middle’ in determining research priorities. What may be lost in this coming together is the pursuit of more challenging research agendas and the critical questions these might generate. Police-academic partnerships seem to me to further endanger the production of critical research ‘from the edge’, while ‘preferred partners’ are granted ‘insider’ funding, access and data in return for validatory ‘evidence’ of a more conservative view of policing.

The call for deeper partnerships is not only to be found in academic texts. The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners / National Police Chiefs Council joint Policing Vision 2025 document references how academia is now assessed by those leading the service as a potential ‘partner’ for policing improvement, illustrating the normalisation of EBP academic ideas.

Improving data sharing and integration to establish joint technological solutions and enabling the transfer of learning between agencies and forces so we can work more effectively together to embed evidence based practice, especially those determined by partners such as academia and the College of Policing. (APCC / NPCC, 2015: 7, emphasis added)

Self-evidently this calls for greater use of academic, policing and political partnerships in developing ‘evidence-based’ approaches to policy, (re)producing EBP discourse. It is difficult to believe that the important socio-criminological studies on policing and crime that truly moved forward debate about the role of policing (such as those by Jock Young [1971] and Stan Cohen [1980]) with their sharply-drawn critiques of policing practices, policies and broader theoretical insights, would ever be considered as ‘partners’ by the political and operational leadership of modern policing. It is not explicit in this passage, but it seems clear that in considering academic partnerships the concept more likely pertains to those ‘friendly’ academics who ‘evaluate’ ‘what works’, rather than those who might present more radical challenges about agency, structural inequality, or ontological assumptions about ‘crime’? ‘Critical’ challenges that present real difficulties for policing are becoming further silenced through progression of EBP discourse. The development of ‘partnership’ institutional arrangements seems increasingly likely to govern the future of police research, therefore, towards more agreeable ‘evidence-based’ managerialist concerns than those attempting to improve policing through asking more ‘critical’ questions.

The discourse institutionalisation observable in ‘partnering’ arrangements is reason enough for EBP to be resisted, given the important role for academia in scrutiny of policing. It is equally important for policing to avoid such arrangements. Policing seems more likely to be improved by theoretically informed external academic critique to which policing must respond, than through developing and commissioning ‘echo-chamber’ evaluative research in partnerships that validate its own normative assumptions and practices through power-knowledge nexus.

Access to funding and data

In 2015 the College of Policing, Home Office and Higher Education Funding Council launched a £10 million ‘Police Knowledge Fund’ (PKF); a competition for research institutions to apply to the College to conduct ‘evidence-based’ research. Research institutions making PKF bids were required to ‘partner’ with policing organisations. Control of funding through conditions is an excellent example of the ‘micro-practices’ found in institutional reforms that illustrate governance techniques that sustain discourses.

Through setting rules on funding requiring collaborative bids, police-academic partnerships were engineered; promoting and reinforcing EBP’s core ideas. The programme was overseen by the What Works Centre for Crime Reduction (WWCCR, 2015), another new institutional arrangement under the auspices of the College of Policing. Fourteen police-academic partnerships were funded. A review of the partnerships that received PKF funding finds a strong ‘evidence-based’ bias. Seven of the 14 funded projects contained references to ‘evidence’ in their titles. Six of the projects were also to scope or establish ‘centres’ of police-academic EBP partnerships; laying foundations for widening and deepening the ‘evidence-base’ upon which EBP relies. For example, the Northern 8 Police Research Partnership (N8PRP) joins together eight ‘research-intensive’ universities with the 11 forces that police the north of England. The control of funding in this way by the College is a governance technique, embedding EBP discourse into institutional arrangements.

No ‘critical’ projects feature among the chosen 14. This is potentially explicable because of the way the applications were framed as ‘requiring partnership’ with policing agencies and adding to the ‘evidence base’. By drawing together the researched and the researcher into negotiated arrangements, EBP’s institutionalisation helps to control access to funding and data. ‘Access’ now seems far easier for those within partnerships than those without. These institutional ‘micro-practice’ rules prewire the outcome of these ‘market competitions’ for funding and access. Such arrangements can be understood as ‘governance techniques’ that function to silence critique.

Another noteworthy institutional change on access to funding and data is the College of Policing’s ‘bursary scheme’; ostensibly to encourage staff into higher education and research. This seems a laudable idea. One hundred and fifty police staff have benefited to the tune of £2000 a year since 2016, representing a c£300,000 strategic investment from the College. Reading EBP texts about this through a discourse analytical lens, however, what is conceived by this initiative or what its impact could be becomes clearer.

Rachel Tuffin, Director at the College of Policing, said: ‘We are delighted to announce the opening of our fourth bursary scheme which offers financial support for officers and staff who want an opportunity to develop and contribute to evidence-based policing’. (CoP, 2019, emphasis added)

The College’s webpages do not reveal details of bursary awards and I have not done an analysis of the scheme, but I discovered: signposted ‘research surgeries’ run by the College to develop research ideas and collaborations; a peer support network; and the ‘Police and Crime Reduction Research Map’, which contains details of 242 ‘evidence-based’ research projects underway between police agencies and academics in the UK, often through ‘partnership centres’ seed-funded through PKF. Twenty-six of these projects are tagged as ‘randomised control trials’ (RCT). That RCT is singled out as a filter that can be applied to the research map signals the College’s normative biases on research ‘evidence’ towards ‘purist’ versions of EBP based on experimental criminology (WWCCR, 2019). Given the College’s mission to ‘professionalise policing’ and develop EBP it seems clear that the type of activity and work is envisaged by the bursary scheme as a new governance technique: extending EBP’s research outputs to the exclusion of other forms of knowing and learning about ‘policing’.

The allocation of funding at the individual level through the bursary scheme, or at the institutional level through PKF, and the resulting privileged access these partnerships bring, are examples of governance techniques (re)produced by ‘discourse institutionalisation’ of EBP through the College of Policing and WWCCR: policy being conducted according to the underpinning rationalities of EBP.

By prewiring access to data and funding through its governance techniques, EBP’s incorporation into institutional arrangements carries the risk of squeezing the production of independent critical scholarship from policing research. The institutionalisation of funding and access to data for research through these types of arrangements demonstrates the institutional modifications produced through EBP discourse. They help secure EBP’s reproduction as a dominant and increasingly hegemonic force. EBP’s core ideas are now normalised into ‘rules’ on police research support, data access and funding, powerfully reinforced through institutional governance techniques.

New courses / entry by degree

Entry by degree is another example of the transposition of an EBP academic idea into policy through discourse institutionalisation. In his paper, Ten ideas for building an evidence-based police agency, Sherman advocates for ‘police education’ (Sherman, 2015). There is a strong EBP storyline on the need to ‘professionalise’ policing that mutually reinforces the introduction of a requirement for entrants to policing by degree from 2017. Once again there is an accrued benefit here to the marketised higher education sector: the generation of increased financial income from a new cohort of thousands of fee-paying students. This reform, overseen by the College of Policing, provides yet another example of institutional modification within policing produced through EBP discourse.

There has been a corresponding rapid expansion of universities stepping forward to offer these courses, for the appropriate tuition fee of course, to meet this artificially created ‘free market demand’ – demand generated as EBP’s ideas have become institutionalised. Academic institutions are now adapting to take advantage of the opportunities this extension of an EBP idea is providing. Four years since its introduction, 53 higher education establishments now offer places on ‘police professional’ degree courses. There is a notable split in university market opportunity here. Post-1992 institutions feature prominently as beneficiaries from a need for graduate police officers, supplying undergraduate vocational courses. Older ‘research-intensive’ universities are benefiting from new opportunities on funding and data access. Some institutions have modified to become ‘centres of excellence’ on EBP itself, positioning themselves to exploit all of the market opportunities EBP has brought: offering the ‘police professional’ degree, advanced masters programmes and PhDs alongside ‘police-academic partnership’ research programmes. Among the proliferation of others founded in the last decade, the Canterbury Centre for Policing Research (CCPR), hosted at Canterbury Christ Church University, is a good example of this.

There is a significant financial incentive therefore generated for academic institutions offering teaching through the provision of ‘professional’ taught courses, and higher research degrees. What emerges from the texts is that it is a particular type of policing knowledge that is being transmitted to students. It is EBP’s peculiar knowledges, doctrinal about ‘evidence-based science’, rather than more interpretive, critical, theoretical, or sociological forms of knowing about crime and policing that dominate the ‘professionalisation’ of policing. This narrowing of the field of knowledge transfer in police education through EBP discourse is as troubling as the narrowing of the field of police research towards the techno-managerial and pseudo medico-scientific.

Seen as a governance technique, modifications to police education serve to support EBP as a ‘truth regime’, with education a part of the power-knowledge nexus Foucault (1969) described. This is because of the position dominant discourses acquire to ‘authorise’ and transmit knowledge as ‘true’. Selected knowledges incorporated through institutional changes as governance techniques contain a power to ‘other’ competing types of knowing, silencing them by valorising favoured knowledge as ‘true’ and classified as ‘evidence’.

Knowledge hierarchies

How one grades knowledge as ‘factual’, ‘true’, or ascribes to it the label of ‘evidence’ is subject of much discussion amongst EBP’s advocates. Indeed, devising techniques to patrol the boundaries of their ‘evidence’ is a core concern. Analysed texts show the College of Policing’s What Works Centre for Crime Reduction (WWCCR, 2021a) has developed its own ‘evidence’ hierarchies. I suggest these further illustrate discourse institutionalisation, and governance techniques (re)produce by advancing EBP discourse.

The College’s EMMIE (Effect, Mechanism, Moderator, Implementation, Economics) quality scale relates to the quality of research ‘evidence’ translatable into policy interventions. It provides a ranking, scoring research ‘evidence’ for its utility to EBP. This demonstrates the influence of purist and realist EBP academic ideas from the Maryland Scale for Scientific Methods, through to the Evidence Policing Matrix, becoming institutionalised as policy reality (see Lum et al, 2011).

The College’s ‘quality scale’ contains references to neoliberal themes of ‘opportunity costs’, rather than valuing say the promotion of social justice or addressing structural inequalities. My wider research identifies this as one of many neoliberal elements that shares rationality with EBP, and helps explain EBP’s rise to prominence in British policing. The College’s inclusion of an assessment of the ‘theoretical grounding’ of research appears to contain further bias towards positivist / medicalised scientific methods of ‘what works’, seeking validation from ‘theory of change’ of ‘interventions’ rather than ‘grounding’ in political or social theory. The scale contains ‘scientific’ requirements on ‘testability’, ‘specification’ and ‘replication’. There is a strong bias here towards the rationalities of logical positivism and away from other research techniques. Seen in a broader perspective, this feels like an immature and one-sided construct on which to assess the nature or quality of research ‘evidence’ to inform policy choices.

The College’s What Works Centre for Crime Reduction has the strap line ‘Better evidence for better policing’. Although I included the ‘quality scale’ here as an example of discourse institutionalisation, this hierarchy also appears to lean heavily on the language and storylines of EBP in promoting ‘systematic reviews’ aimed at: ‘more informed decisions; better value for money; reassurance and accountability; collaboration and partnership; prevention, not reaction’ (WWCCR, 2021a, emphasis added). Their intention here is clear and unequivocal: it is to deepen, and spread the ‘evidence base’ of policing research among practitioners and academics in line with EBP’s core ideas (Sherman, 2015). Moreover, WWCCR provides a ‘quality assurance’ role: developing research strategies and distributing funding in line with those strategic objectives. To this end, the College and the WWCCR can be portrayed as a kind of ‘gatekeeper’ of what is included and excluded in the ‘evidence base’ through the deployment of governing techniques that maintain the ‘standards’ of EBP research ‘evidence’. These governance techniques include using ‘evidence base camps’ to influence research priorities, as well as the use of ‘scales’ to classify research knowledge as includable ‘evidence’.

Critical academic work is often produced from more theoretically informed perspectives, using techniques such as ethnography, case study, discourse analysis and other qualitative interpretivist methods with more frequency than experimental or administrative criminologies might. The incorporation of EBP’s specifying techniques that favour quantitative, quasi-scientific, ‘experimental’ positivist research into institutional arrangements that govern policing’s ‘truths’ help to silence critical voices whose research fails to meet EBP’s standards of ‘evidence’ by virtue of the method of its production. Beck warns, ‘It is not uncommon for political programmes to be decided in advance simply by the choice of what expert representatives are included’ (Beck, 1992: 173). With no hint of irony, the College of Policing appears to have created a body to ‘police’ the standards of research evidence included in the EBP project: new governance techniques to specify and survey that sustain the silencing of critical research.

Additionally, the effect of classifying positivist knowledge as higher status ‘evidence’ has a strong othering effect on the ‘craft-based’ traditions of policing. This is a theme addressed by Willis and Mastrofski (2016) through their reported interviews of US patrol officers. Typifying the EBP realist position, they argue that policing’s craft-based knowledges are undervalued and should be brought into EBP consideration more fully by scientification of craft knowledges through experiment and trial; to understand how they might work as a science.

British policing for decades has relied on all entrants joining as probationary constables and conducting two years of frontline street duties. During this period officers are schooled in points of law alongside practical street skills or communication skills, conflict resolution, first aid, and personal safety training. While time is spent in the classroom, a far larger proportion of training is conducted in practical scenarios – very importantly, often on the street under the charge of more experienced ‘tutor constables’. It is here, on the street, that the arts and crafts of policing are learnt through apprenticeship. This approach produces highly-skilled and knowledgeable police officers who, by and large, do a fantastic and ‘professional’ job for the public. Policing is an art, not a science. And it is a vocation, not a profession. Policing’s craft is learnt over many, many years, often in very challenging circumstances, and done well requires emotional intelligence, discretion and good judgement.

The foundational assumptions of EBP that this system of hand-me-down artisanal knowledge ‘needs improving’, ‘professionalising’ or codifying into worthy and unworthy knowledge, for purposes of ‘efficiency’ through classification hierarchies, is just not made out in the literature. The subjugation of policing craft to experimentation is intellectually arrogant and something that should be challenged. The importance of this is lost as EBP is progressively colonising policing institutions and its leadership. The institutionalisation of EBP highlighted in governance techniques, such as the EMMIE scale based on simplified transposition of logical positivist assumptions, overlooks the undoubted complexities on police knowledge that I present here. EBP assumes a lot, risks denigrating valuable craft knowledges, and neutralises academic critique from non-positivist traditions as it progresses towards hegemony.

Concluding remarks

EBP has been adopted into modern British policing as a normalised ‘settled scientific discipline’, devoid of substantial debate or contest. However, its transposition represents a very narrow and limited view of the scope of criminological literature on ‘crime’ and ‘policing’, and in no way represents the plurality of ideas that could ‘improve policing’. The richness and complexity found in wider academic literature on crime and policing is not reflected in the institutional changes (re)produced by advancing EBP discourse described in this paper. Conservative administrative criminological ideas are being assimilated by policymakers and police officers as ‘normal’. The institutionalisation of EBP’s core ideas into policy is producing new ‘governance techniques’ that manifestly promote and further EBP’s narrow world view. Simultaneously these techniques silence policing’s traditional craft-based system of knowledge and ‘other’ vital critical academic interventions generated from non-positivist academic approaches. Institutionalising EBP risks the reduction in producing both policing craft and critical academic knowledge. It also promotes their exclusion from policy considerations by failing to meet EBP’s ‘rules’. Both are likely to have a negative effect on ‘improving policing’.

In the production of institutional reform through the discursive political processes of hegemonic struggle, EBP has needed to gloss over or ignore: sociological literature on the contestable nature of knowledge; the critique of the What Works approach in other policy spaces; the pluralistic criminological knowledges that provide more serious challenges for policing to consider and respond to in the name of ‘improvement’; and the reported literature on so-called ‘policy-based evidence making’ linked to the political selection of ‘evidence’. Therefore EBP is not founded on the serious medico-scientific heritage it claims, but on shaky ground. These controversies need to be made visible and brought into sharper relief if we are to offer resistance to EBP’s progress.

My larger discourse analysis project illustrates EBP’s shared genealogical heritage with the wider discourses of late modernity: managerialism and neoliberalism. I contend that EBP’s shared neoliberal values system, alongside its alignment to state narratives on crime and policing producing ‘useful’ criminological knowledge for the state, has helped propel EBP into its hegemonic institutionalised position in modern British policing. For those interested in shifting policing in more radical directions or challenging the status quo about the role policing plays in modern society, then EBP’s march towards hegemony should be the subject of greater resistance. This insight fundamentally questions EBP’s promotion as a benign force of ‘policing improvement’ trading in ‘objective knowledge’, and repositions it as doing profoundly political work.

Foucault (1975; 1978) suggests that as discourses become institutionalised they acquire a reproductive quality, transmitted through governance techniques that operate in a disciplinary way on actors. This paper describes four key institutional reforms that support this assessment of EBP’s progress in modern Britain. EBP is becoming hegemonic through institutionalised governance techniques of self-promotion that simultaneously ‘govern the silence’ of critical alternatives. EBP seems likely to maintain, and potentially further aggrandise its position, through its powerful institutional patronages that allow EBP to ‘authorise’ the ‘truth’ about British policing. As the narrative for ‘police reform’ gathers traction in advanced neoliberal states and EBP is positioned as an ally in this project, further work is necessary to consider where points of resistance might emerge to offer alternative perspectives on ‘policing’, ‘crime’, ‘justice’, and how these could shape alternative approaches in the quest for better policing.

Note

1

I have a forthcoming monograph, Critiquing Evidence-Based Policing in Britain: Following the Science? This reports full results of my discourse research, under contract and due for release in late 2022.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • 1 University of Birmingham, , UK
  • | 2 University of Melbourne, , Australia

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