‘My job is to use evidence to change the conversation’

Paul Dawson is Head of Research within the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime – the body that has statutory responsibility over the Metropolitan Police. His team, Evidence and Insight, is an eclectic mixture of more than 20 psychologists, crime analysts and others. The aim is to inform evidence-based policy making for London – and, ultimately, to make London safer.

It’s 28 September 2016 and I’m sitting in ‘the Chamber’, a large auditorium at the centre of London City Hall. To my left is the Deputy Mayor of Policing and Crime, Sophie Linden, and on my right Sir Bernhard Hogan-Howe, the (then) Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). To promote transparency, the meeting is being broadcast live and the public can attend (see tinyurl.com/y6u9jcyz).

My role is to go through a set of analytics that my team and I have produced. I am explaining that some crime is down (e.g. burglary), that others are up (e.g. violence, domestic violence, gun and knife crime, hate crime), that using rates of offending can bring a different understanding to demand (enhanced even more by using London’s estimated day population) and that the concepts of vulnerability and inequality (be it at an area or individual level) should be critical in prioritising police demand. To illustrate, more than three times more victims of burglary, robbery and sexual offences live in the top 10 per cent of ‘vulnerable’ wards; one in four domestic abuse victims are repeat victims; and whilst victim satisfaction with the police is generally good, there are inequalities (in particular, young black victims of crime are much less satisfied with their experience with the police then young white peers).

During the meeting, the Deputy Mayor draws upon such analytics – challenging the Commissioner on the increases in crime, in prioritising to vulnerable locations, working better with repeat victims and in addressing the satisfaction gap. Evidence is being used in a public meeting to challenge the Metropolitan Police Service. This is important for a number of reasons, including accountability and scrutiny, but for me the most original aspect is the focus upon vulnerability and inequality within the realm of police performance discussions. Such topics have very rarely featured: the focus has too often been around simple numerical targets around crime reduction, and in her 2015 Home Office document Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis showed how such targets can limit insight and bring with them perverse incentives. Part of my job in MOPAC’s Evidence and Insight (E&I) team is to use evidence to change the conversation.

Many of my team, myself included, were based within the MPS for years. In 2014 most of us shifted sideways to drive evidence within MOPAC. Here I would like to introduce our work; provide some wider reflections and learning from the role, particularly the period working within police culture; and promote the rich vein of data that is available within policing, one that I believe should be mined more by psychologists (and not just forensic psychologists).

From unspectacular beginnings…
I obtained a variety of wholly unspectacular GCSEs and A-levels, and then a 2:1 undergraduate degree in psychology, a master’s in forensic psychology, and a number of years later a PhD exploring weapon-enabled sexual offending. I completed this part-time whilst working full-time in my current position – a balance I don’t recommend to my staff! After my undergraduate degree I worked in the NHS for five years (in low-secure psychiatric settings), then the Home Office for five years, before moving to the MPS in 2008, where I was fortunate enough to work under the tutelage of Professor Betsy Stanko.

As far I’m aware, E&I is the largest dedicated civilian research team based within a police force in the country. Our work is large and varied (www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/mayors-office-policing-and-crime-mopac/data...), but in general can be grouped into:
1.    Social research and evaluation: ranging from randomised control trials or process evaluations to understand if and why something is working, all the way to bespoke problem profiles (e.g. mixing performance and social research).
2.    Survey design: The team oversees a wealth of surveys – including asking the public about their contact with and perceptions of police.
3.    Performance and data visualisation: There is a strong performance aspect in both developing and monitoring key success measures. This includes a variety of analytics and the publication of a suite of public data dashboards (e.g. monitoring crime, hate crime, domestic and sexual abuse amongst others).
4.    Developing a network of academics linked to MOPAC.

All of this activity is aligned to the Police and Crime Plan for London, launched in March, itself an evidence-based document that establishes the Mayor’s strategic priorities for making London a safer city. In this way, evidence is genuinely embedded at the heart of decision-making.

Within this, one of my roles was to develop a performance framework for MOPAC, one that sought to drive a more sophisticated conversation around success. We’re moving away from blunt crime targets and blanket volume offence groupings. The new framework includes a mandatory focus for every London borough upon high-harm offences (e.g. domestic abuse, sexual offences) but focuses especially upon the reduction of repeat victimisation; this has enabled local boroughs to select two local volume priorities based upon evidence my team provided, whilst still monitoring all crime. We incorporate victim satisfaction and wider public perceptions (e.g. police fair treatment) and seek to narrow the gaps we see. There are also other areas such as promoting a more representative police workforce. These are the areas the Mayor and Deputy Mayor will hold the Commissioner to account for delivering over the next few years, and it’s a very different conversation as to what ‘success’ means for a police force.  

An ‘interesting’ environment
Policing is undergoing a transition – a move away from a ‘vocational craft’ to something altogether more systematic. Such change will take time.

I spent five years working within the MPS as Research Manager, and this was a particularly interesting environment to work within. Policing culture has been extensively studied by many academics, who have described it as action-oriented, craft-based, problem- rather than emotion- focused, and sceptical of research and risk-averse (see the work of Gloria Laycock, Cynthia Lum, and Robert Reiner’s The Politics of the Police). I would agree with these to a point, although they are too simple as criticisms. Working on the inside brought these tensions sharply into focus. My 2015 book with Elizabeth Stanko, Police Use of Research Evidence: Recommendations for Improvement, describes our journey of embedding research within a police force where not everyone is on your side.

The most effective learning point during my time within the police was to work with those that get it. Many do get evidence-based policing. Supporting those officers and staff has often been an effective inroad into landing research with optimism that it will have influence. Conversely, my other main learning point was to develop a thick skin for the ones that don’t necessarily get it. Our research seeks to develop independent insights and sometimes this generated tension, where results were not as expected or as desired. Some feel that internal research around police initiatives is always ‘doomed to succeed’, as Mollie Weatheritt put it in her 1986 book Innovations in Policing. We do not work in this way. In fact, we are regarded by some as being best known for delivering negative findings – it is our hard-won badge of honour.

For a good example, take my Diamond Initiative evaluation. This was a robust evaluation of an £11 million offender management implemented by the MPS and the Probation Service that back in 2008/09 was vigorously promoted at the highest political levels as a solution for the high prison population. However, as my research ultimately demonstrated, although the scheme was popular with many staff, there was no impact upon reoffending comparing those that received the service to a statistically well-matched control group (similar people, released from prison at a similar time to a similar place). The subsequent fallout and disappointment was considerable. Few wanted to hear the ‘no impact’ results, and our calls for learning (the lack of ‘impact’ was largely driven by implementation problems). The research made the front pages – in the eyes of many, delivering unwanted and embarrassing news that reflected badly on the job they did. A thick skin became a prerequisite. The work was a huge learning experience, raising issues such as the inherent risks for an organisation in conducting such research; how to learn from negative findings; and the importance of ensuring effective implementation and programme integrity.

Great power, and great responsibility
The amount and scope of data routinely captured by police forces is dizzying. There are crime reports, victims, witnesses, suspects, crime locations, weapon-use, workforce, complaints, mental health, vulnerability and many, many more. One does not need to be interested in policing to see nuggets in police data. Of course, the data should be appropriately protected and access scrutinised, but the first step is knowing the data even exists. This is the largest challenge. There are no roadmaps, no lists of systems, no ‘how to’ guides. Indeed, information on these systems only appears to be obliquely available. Of course this data is flawed, but so is all data to a degree. Our analysis recognises the limitations – to not use data as ‘gospel’ but as an organisation record that brims with potential (see my paper with Elizabeth Stanko, ‘The best-kept secret(s) of evidence based policing’: tinyurl.com/yckbxzoa).

On a surface level this potential relates to research, but dig deeper and what we do is more concerned with promoting learning, organisational change and a safer London. We have a level of influence and are able to make a genuine contribution to London.  This brings with it responsibility, which we take seriously. Each day I recognise our privileged position, and this contribution ultimately makes the role so rewarding.

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