Using research to improve policing: an interview with Professor Betsy Stanko of the Metropolitan Police

Taking social science research beyond academia and using evidence to guide public policy is one of the biggest challenges social scientists face. Professor Betsy Stanko is a social scientist with experience of carrying out research both in academia and within a government agency. She is currently Head of Strategy, Research and Analysis within the Metropolitan Police in London. She is also an Honorary Professor of Criminology in the Department of Health and Social Care at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is part of the ‘Violence and Risk’ research cluster. Professor Stanko recently discussed with Socialsciencespace the role of social science within the Metropolitan Police and the difficulties in getting academics and policy-makers to communicate effectively with one another.

What does your role in the Metropolitan Police involve?

I originally started working with the police researching into domestic violence and hate crime. My remit now is much more related to the improvement of all kinds of policing: what do people need out of policing and how do you match policing better to those needs? To me this is quintessential social science.

I have a social research and strategy development unit of about 25 people that carries out both bespoke evaluation and blue sky research for the Met, including four university students on sandwich years. Two of the big projects we are working on at the moment are: confidence in policing (mapping police activity onto what people say they want and need from policing) and an evaluation of an offender management project in London – the Diamond Initiative. The work on confidence in policing is as much conceptual and theoretical development of an application of procedural justice to policing, as it is practical – delivering a more responsive policing service to London. I also manage three of the Met’s major corporate surveys, including a 20,000-respondent Public Attitude Survey.

What is the impact of social science research on policy within the police?

There’s always concern among academics that the police don’t take on board much research on ‘what works’, and there is a need in every area of policing to think systematically, as it enables police officers to police better. While it can sometimes be difficult for researchers to get important findings across in a user-friendly way, it can nonetheless be done. The work that I and others have carried out into domestic violence, for instance, has led to a massive change in the way that police deal with domestic abuse. Police take domestic violence seriously, far more seriously than they did ten years ago, let alone thirty years ago when I first started the work. Another example of social science research having an impact is in the area of confidence in policing, which is now a strategic priority, and the Met’s approach to improving people’s confidence is entirely wrapped around the research unit’s work.

How can social science researchers communicate more effectively with policy makers?

Researchers and academics are specialists in their areas. The way these professionals build their reputations, nationally or internationally, is by becoming an absolute expert, through publication, in everything to do with a particular subject, down to the splitting of hairs on a particular debate and critique. Policy-makers think completely differently. Policy-makers come in with a much wider view of an issue – sometimes informed, sometimes not so informed about the research – and form a view about the way the world ought to be. The inability of researchers to speak a language which is wider than their own subject expertise is very limiting to demonstrating how policy-makers can use a piece of work exploring minute detail of one area to the wider policy arena. I would apply this criticism equally to myself as a former academic. The need to change your language – going between substantive research and public policy – is something that I haven’t seen being taught in academia, opening debate about either why you should participate in the policy debate, or how you can participate using an evidence base as the spring board for the conversation. Instead academics are pushed through the promotion system in universities to become experts, asked to speak at conferences and in academic forums to other academics. Getting a PhD, getting published, is all about saying something new, it’s not about making things more understandable or different. Policy-makers are often thought to be a second order of customer rather than part of the top order.

I’ve learnt that what is needed to communicate research successfully is to become more of a generalist, to take research and information from whatever is useful in many different arenas, and to weave them together using the appropriate language. Most researchers would consider this ‘impure’, because the logic and the way forward is never perfect, never without steps to improvement. To enable theoretical and conceptual stances adopted, these need to be grounded, in terms of the police this means grounding them in operational imperatives, the way crime happens, or threats and risks of terrorism.

What are the chief challenges for social scientists today?

At the broadest level I see the language moving towards behavioural economics, and yet there are many other social science disciplines and approaches that are relevant and useful in terms of improving social and community life. Perhaps the predominance of behavioural economics is due to the primacy of global connected finance, with the internet enabling the modelling of people’s buying behaviour. But I see behavioural economics on the high policy level competing with traditional social science disciplines.

Social scientists need to find ways to demonstrate their relevance and to find ways of measuring (or documenting) their impact, something which probably has a special salience for academics in the UK. Social science is important: we need anthropologists, social psychologists and good sociologists, people who understand people, and that to me is what social science is best at.

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