The Bad Secret of Boggart Hill
The US Department of Justice, COPS Office Problem Oriented Policing Centre has published online a copy of the Home Office report: Consolidating Police Crackdowns: findings from and anti-burglary project.
A visit to the Home Office website for a list of its research publications will reveal that this same Policing Research Series Paper 113 is strangely absent.
In the Home Office listing of its reports in the National Archives here you will see that there is a report 112 and a report 114. But where you would expect to see report number 113 it says very mysteriously: "Series number will not be used." Is this akin, you might wonder, to hotels supposedly not having an unlucky 13th floor?
The real reason is even stranger than that. The Home Office never published its policing research report number 113 because there was an untold policing scandal. Untold, that is until now. Here is the story:
Whilst working as a Senior Research Officer in the Home Office Policing and Reducing Crime Unit in 1998, one of my many duties was to help external authors of our reports to write up their research in the "Home Office house style" and see them through the peer review and publication process.
The authors of Report 113 produced an excellent product. Their work clearly demonstrated that a process named crackdown and consolidation had worked to significantly reduce domestic burglary in a high crime area named Boggart Hill. The crackdown was on burglars and in large part involved police officers going all out to recruit informants in order to gain intelligence on all 'known' local burglars and arresting them with an aim to get them off the streets and so out of peoples houses.
So delighted was the Home Office to have commissioned an experiment that was shown to be effective that we wanted to launch Report 113 with a major press conference attended by a senior Home Office politician - possibly even the Home Secretary - and representatives of the officers involved.
In 1998 I telephoned a senior police officer in the Yorkshire constabulary that was involved in the project. Only then did I realise that something was amiss. Rather than the expected gush of enthusiasm that usually comes from police services wishing to be attributed with best practice honours they were extremely cagey and said a more senior officer would call me back.
Half an hour later I was on the phone again with a senior police officer to learn that the officers involved in the project were suspended from duties on suspicion of bribing police informants with heroin.
"Let me get this right" I said to the bearer of this shocking news “are you saying that the reason this project was such a remarkable success is because the most effective burglary reduction method known to mankind is to bribe police informants with cop-grade heroin?"
"Until the outcome of our enquiries and the hearings involving the officers concerned that is a serious possibility" came the level reply.
I left the Home Office without ever learning what the outcome of the enquiry was. You may draw your own conclusions about the fact that hundreds of printed copies of report number 113 were incinerated. Today, perhaps only a handful of 'collectors' copies remain in underground circulation within the criminological community.
If any police service anywhere in the world is seeking to replicate the good news claimed for what works to reduce burglary that is contained within Report 113, which is strangely published on the influential US Government's Department of Justice COPS Office website, they would perhaps wish to know that a secret cop-grade heroin bribe component may well be a missing and possibly a most important variable explaining what actually worked.
Great American Irony
They say that North Americans just don't get irony. I'm sure that's just a myth (more research needed). However it is with great irony that it is the same US Government website that publishes the above report that publishes also Peter Grabosky's excellen publication of unintended consequences in crime reduction:
Grabosky, P . N. (1996) 'Unintended Consequences of Crime Prevention' in: Homel and Clarke (eds), Crime Prevention Studies, Vol 5, pp 25-56. Available online: POP Centre Library.
You can read more about the Myth of Report 113 over at my Criminology blog on Best Thinking.Com (6th December 2012)
Don't keep research secrets
It is unethical to keep research secrets about why projects worked because others trying to replicate that project's success may fail and not know why. Without the benefit of otherwise hidden knowledge, scarce and valuable manpower and financial resources may well be wasted on ineffective schemes.
Acknowledged and Ignored Interlocking Contingencies in Social Interventions
(Reprinted from my criminology blog)
In any field that tackles social issues with 'schemes' - such as crime reduction and policing Intervention schemes, strategic applications, templates, frameworks and approaches – success will be contingent upon the skills, motivation, intelligence, gravitas and all round mettle of the staff involved in implementing them. And yet the importance of the personal abilities of implementors is absent in official government websites promoting ‘what works’, ‘promising’ and effective practice.
A well designed crime reduction scheme may be reflexive and adaptive so that it can be tailored to a specific crime problem in a particular place, and adaptive to unique variations in the social setting of the problem. But can any such scheme possibly be so powerful that it can adapt to the mediocrity, or worse, of those hired to manage its implementation?
David Kennedy (2010), the originator of the famously ‘successful’ Boston Gun Project (Operation Ceasefire) describes how his scheme was successfully re-applied in some places but failed in others. When it failed, Professor Kennedy explains that this happened because the scheme was not implemented properly. What Kennedy fails to address is why it was not implemented properly. Was it :
1. Implementer failure (component or rank and file staff inadequacy) because the scheme cannot be implemented properly in particular settings or time and/or with particular ranks?
or was it
2. due implementor failure (key managerial inadequacy)?
Failure to consider the importance of the individual abilities and the behaviour of implementors (managers) charged with making a success of any social intervention leaves us with a menu of ‘best’, ‘recommended’, ‘good’ or promising practice schemes that will simply fail to deliver in the wrong hands.
The fact that this issue is not addressed on those official websites that promote these menus of social interventions is a serious handicap to knowledge progression. By way of example, my own Market Reduction Approach to theft (MRA) is recommended as good, promising or effective ‘best practice’ by official government websites in the USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand (Sutton 2011) – and is praised in many academic texts . And yet the only time the MRA was ever evaluated the results were inconclusive - due to the reported failure of the two English police forces involved (Kent and Manchester ) to implement the scheme according to official guidance (Hale et al 2004) . Can it be implemented properly? Perhaps the MRA is badly desinged and so will be forever doomed to implementer (component failure/inadequacy). Alternatively it might be potentially good practice that has failed to date simply as a result of manager (implementor) inadequacy. We don't know. And that is all there is to it.
Until we begin to seriously address this question for schemes – such as Operation Ceasefire, the MRA and other templates for social action - they should not be promoted as ‘best’, ‘promising’ or ‘effective’ practice.
Today the British Government is seriously considering the option of funding the implementation of Operation Ceasefire's template to tackle gang crime (Travis 2011). If it does then the Prime Minister David Cameron would be wise to address in advance the issue of implementor inadequacy. Because all too often in life mediocre and inadequate individuals are recruited to perform functions that are beyond them – often for no other reason than that they look and sound like the general public thinks an ideal leader should (Gladwell 2005).
Conclusion and the way forward
Unless future research reveals that certain social intervention templates are so well designed that they are powerful enough to ameliorate the problem of mediocre and/or incompetent implementors then we need to know more so that we can seek to avoid the harmful effects of implementor failure on knowledge progression regarding what works to make the world a better place.
Gladwell, M. (2005) Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York. Little Brown and Co.
Hale, C. Harris, C. Uglow, S. Gilling. L and Netten, A. (2004). Targeting the markets for stolen goods: two targeted policing initiative projects. Home Office Development and Practice Report 17.
Kennedy, D. (2010) . David Kennedy . In Fox, A. and Gold, E. (2010) Daring to Fail: First-person Stories of Criminal Justice Reform. New York. Center for Court Innovation
Sutton, M. (2011). Impact of my research is much greater than I thought: thanks to Google. Criminology: The Blog of Mike Sutton: http://www.bestthinking.com/thinkers/science/social_sciences/sociology/mike-sutton?tab=blog&blogpostid=14781%2c1478
Travis, A. (2011) What policies lie behind Cameron's 'all-out war on gangs'? The Guardian. Monday 15 August. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/aug/15/policies-cameron-all-out-war-gangs