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Evidence-based policing: Let’s begin it in Baltimore | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, left, announces changes in the department's top leadership at a March news conference.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, left, announces changes in the department's top leadership at a March news conference. (Kenneth K. Lam)

While we are frustrated with the striking lack of data about the killing of unarmed civilians by police, we are nevertheless encouraged by recent assertions of medical researchers that this problem can be framed as an issue of public health. This insight has implications for police departments, as they are at a critical and troubling moment in U.S. history.

Police challenges can be approached by applying evidenced-based medicine, which involves a progression of critical steps: the precise definition and full description of the problem; the selection of relevant disciplines to aid investigation; the collection of pertinent data, including measures of prevalence and incidence; the identification of risk factors and revelations of cause; and construction of controlled trials for prevention and treatment. These endeavors are generally the focus of medical and public health schools working together with affiliated hospitals. Methodologies, data and interpretation are shared with practitioners in hospitals, clinics and practices that deliver medical care to communities across the country and, indeed, the world.

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Like the 18,000 police departments in this country, American medicine is very decentralized. Yet this network of hospital/medical school partnerships produces innovative research that, in turn, yields superb evidence-based medical care. Drivers of this research are governmental agencies, especially the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Could police department/university partnerships be analogues to hospital/medical school collaborations? Yes.

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Could Baltimore take a lead in creating such partnerships? Yes. The parts of a national system are already in place.

Within police departments, there is a movement toward evidence-based policing. Gary Cordner, academic director of the Education and Training Section of the Baltimore Police Department, affirms the vital link between research and better practices. “Improving policing depends on producing and then using the best available evidence when making decisions, developing policies and designing programs and practices,” he wrote last year in a piece titled “Evidence-Based Policing in 45 Small Bytes” for the National Institute of Justice.

Universities bring a research culture and multiple disciplines that are relevant to policing and crime. These include not only criminology, forensic medicine, criminal law and pertinent science fields but also technical fields such as epidemiology, statistics, medicine, surgery, trauma, computer science, engineering and management, as well as relevant expertise in sociology, psychology, social work, economics, political science, anthropology, communication science and others.

The National Institute of Justice, an arm of the federal Department of Justice, like the National Institutes of Health, funds research. However, the NIH’s annual budget is 500 times that of the NIJ. Massively increased and competitive funding through grants should be a driver of innovative policing. Research historically follows funding, which of course signals priorities.

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Police department/university partnerships, like partnerships in public health, should participate in a national network in which data, analyses and practical applications are shared regularly. They would form a logical structure for national databases, investigator-initiated research and coalitions for large-scale research projects.

Baltimore is the perfect location to initiate such a national project. It is a city known internationally for the high quality and wide variety of its colleges and universities. It is renowned for its research in medicine and public health with Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland leading the way. And, critically, it is a city whose political leaders, police officials and residents are urgently seeking both police reform and the reduction of violence and deadly crime. Further, the Baltimore Police Training and Education Center is already located on the campus of the University of Baltimore.

By initiating local databases with local and national applicability, and forming coalitions of large-scale research projects that can be shared with even larger projects around the country, Baltimore can bring to police reform the same excellence of methodology, cooperation and outcome that distinguishes American medicine. However, while abundant data and rigorous analyses emerging from police/university partnerships are necessary, they are not sufficient. Municipal leaders must have the will to acknowledge and support the implications for change that emerge from these partnerships.

William G. Durden (wgradydurden@gmail.com) is a research professor within the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University and President Emeritus of Dickinson College. John W. Warren (jwarren@medicine.umaryland.edu) is a professor of medicine and epidemiology within the School of Medicine at the University of Maryland.

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