Survey finds police perceive leaders as unwilling to listen

By Shannon Jenkins

July 24, 2019

Queensland Police. Source: Getty Images

Those at the top of Australia’s police agencies may not be receptive to change, according to a new report from the Australian Institute of Criminology.

The paper looked at survey results of officers in the Queensland Police Service and the Western Australia Police on their attitudes towards evidence-based policing (EBP) research. 

While EBP calls for the use of academic studies and scientific methodologies to test and guide responses to crime, many participants felt they lacked the resources to translate evidence-based research into practice. 

The survey found that the more satisfied officers were with their leaders, the more likely they felt they could use such research, highlighting the barriers presented by poor leadership.

This “stark” finding shows that there is a need for organisational change within police agencies, according to report authors Adrian Cherney, Emma Antrobus, Sarah Bennett, Bevan Murphy, and Mike Newman.

“This result provides an important lesson in how leadership style is correlated to the use of EBP within police organisations,” they said.

More than half of the survey respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that senior managers did not listen to their staff’s opinions, while a mere 3% perceived their leaders as receptive to change. Some also believed new ideas from the executive to often be fads.

READ MORE: Inside Perth’s Evidence-Based Policing unit

The survey asked how often police had used EBP research to inform decisions in the previous 12 months. Only 11% regularly used such research, with commissioned officers found to use it more frequently than constables and sergeants.

“Officers must be willing to try new tactics,” the report said.

Despite these findings, 86% of participants said they were very or extremely willing to try new tactics for current problems, with a similar number reporting they’d let a staff member do the same.

Comparing old data with that obtained through new tactics also received a positive response from most participants.

The scenario which thrilled the least amount of respondents involved randomised control trials. It proposed locating 20 areas where a problem existed and tossing a coin to pinpoint 10 of those where a new tactic would be tested. The outcomes of the areas with the new tactic would then be compared with the old.

A “key finding” was the generally low level of perceived importance towards information from external researchers.

Some police — 24%, to be exact — were “quite averse” to getting help from a researcher to help them evaluate a tactic, and many were unwilling to stop a tactic if a researcher said it was ineffective. A fifth thought academic information on tactics was useless.

“While some police agencies may profess to be ‘evidence-based’, the real proof of this is the foundation upon which decisions are made about how to respond to particular problems … This raises questions about whether the rhetoric of EBP is practised in reality,” the report noted.

However, this could be linked to the limited opportunities most participants had for building relationships with researchers outside the police service, and the idea that accessing EBP research is time consuming.

“Specifically, in the operationally demanding environment of policing, officers reported that they felt they had little time to read and implement EBP ideas,” the paper said.

According to the study, education is key, and EBP workshop attendance and participation “appears to make a difference” in facilitating the use and positive perception of academic research.

The results provide insights into the individual and organisational factors that inhibit and facilitate the adoption of EBP, thus highlighting actions police agencies can take to influence its practical application,” the report concluded.

The need for evidence-based tactics and leadership was brought into the limelight earlier this year, after Victorian police officers were caught recording fake clean breath tests to reach unrealistic performance targets.

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