Most people considering a policing degree know that few occupations experience higher levels of stress or leadership demands than that of a police officer. Today’s police officer serves and protects the public in an ever-evolving landscape filled with variable health concerns, social unrest, terrorism fears, and continually moving targets.
In this precarious environment, formative new research is highlighting the value of evidence-based policing techniques to help decrease officers’ stress, protect officers’ health, and better ensure public safety. In short, evidence-based policing involves implementing police practices that are based on quantifiable scientific research—thus leading to more effective results. This blog will later explore the nature of evidence-based police techniques in greater detail.
Implementing many of these evidence-based techniques requires a paradigm shift in police training and work. The move into evidence-based policing across all sectors requires time and resources, and implementing these practices across the landscape of policing may be a complex process. Therefore, officers and trainees will learn evidence-based techniques in varying degrees, following different timelines.
Wilfrid Laurier University is integrating leading-edge evidence-based approaches into the fabric of the criminology and policing curriculum. Among these courses are Models of Policing, Research Methods, and Cybersecurity, which students complete in Laurier’s policing degree programs. Integrating evidence-based approaches is a strong move in arming graduates to work efficiently as officers. Along with traditional education and training, officers can use newer evidence-based techniques to empower them in crises and unpredictable situations.
Let’s begin by looking at some of the challenges that officers currently face, and then we’ll look at how evidence-based techniques can greatly mitigate those.
Unprecedented Challenges Facing Law Enforcement
As the world has evolved in the areas of health, technology, and social justice, so have the challenges facing police officers. From dealing with volatile, violent persons to coping with levels of stress that can affect their mental health, the nature of police work comes with both immediate and long-term health challenges.
One recent estimate noted that over a 30-year career, a frontline police officer encounters over 900 traumatic events. Sadly, the number one cause of death for police officers is suicide, outnumbering deaths in the line of duty. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has also affected police officers, further complicating the day-to-day aspects of the job.
In addition to the mental and physical health challenges officers face from repeatedly working in unpredictable situations, the recent social unrest across Canada is another concern. Questions and protests have challenged some decisions that officers make under pressure. While Canadians have a mostly favourable opinion of police, some have considered whether redirecting police funding to other social services agencies might take pressure off police and help better serve society.
These challenges have spurred police self-evaluation and change across the profession. But updating with the times is nothing new—Canadian law enforcement has been adapting to social needs for hundreds of years.
The Ongoing Transformations in Canadian Law Enforcement in Response to National Changes
Law enforcement dynamics have shifted in response to fluctuating culture for centuries. As national policing requirements have continually evolved, so has law enforcement in Canada.
Over the years in policing, the timeline progressed from local constabularies and watchman systems in the 16th century. Then, law enforcement first served in separate areas serving small communities rather than as one national, unified force. In the 1800s, police expanded as the need arose to protect government buildings, maintain criminal records, and enforce laws when conflicts arose between Indigenous Peoples and American traders. In the 20th century, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) formed one united police force across the nation.
In addition to evolving social needs, new technology has been an impetus for modernizing tools in law enforcement. In 2019, the Calgary Police Service incorporated body cameras for all frontline officers. In 2020, RCMP officers began wearing body cameras. Additionally, the Toronto Police Service also received over 2,000 body cameras and 3,000 licenses for data management in 2020.
The profession has a long history of adapting in response to shifting societal needs and safety concerns. In this ongoing evolution, evidence-based techniques in policing are one of the most promising developments within the recent history of Canadian law enforcement. This model has the potential to be a leap forward in officer welfare, crime prevention, and precision in decision-making.
What Are Evidence-Based Techniques in Policing?
Evidence-based is an increasingly popular phrase that connotes an approach built on scientific proof. Experts define evidence-based police training as having “scientific evidence supporting [its] effectiveness” to meet desired outcomes. It is not theoretical, based on tradition, formed on popular opinion, or centred on untested data, but is rather formed on quantifiable and measurable facts based on empirical evidence. Evidence-based research includes identifying variables, collecting data, and then looking at that data through the lens of scientific analysis.
Evidence-based techniques in police work also include periodically gathering and re-evaluating new data in light of immediate and long-term gains: Did the evidence-based techniques work in the short-term? Are they continuing to work with time? The research must repeat critical analyses at intervals to verify its accuracy, and evidence-based approaches may update in response to new information if needed.
In terms of evidence-based training for police, the Canadian federal government and Canadian police organizations identify two objectives:
- To enhance officers’ judgments in use-of-force and de-escalation approaches;
- To improve mental and physical health and resilience among officers.
Recent years have brought an emerging paradigm-shift toward evidence-based techniques in police training and work, which is continuing to develop. Years of collected research inform these approaches, and evidence shows they are working.
Models of Evidence-Based Police Training
One compelling example of evidence-based training techniques in police work has been through bio-awareness for stress management, which helps accomplish both the above objectives identified by the federal government. Bio-awareness tactics—strategies that focus on one’s physical and psychological reactions to their environment—represent a paradigm shift in standard police training and work.
Conventional police training has focused on equipping officers to deal with external skills, such as crowd control and handcuffing. These exterior, physical skills are paramount to doing their work effectively.
While an officer may know how to correctly execute a skill in policing, however, a traumatic moment can introduce stress that physiologically affects accuracy and decision making in executing that skill. Continued traumatic moments and uncertainties can damage an officers’ physical, mental, and emotional health. Bio-awareness aims to counter these negative effects of stress.
Protecting Officer Health
Advances in medical technology now allow researchers to measure cardiovascular responses and stress receptors during police training or in the line of duty. This allows scientists to quantify the effects of stress on the officer’s body and mind in real time.
Researchers know that the link between mental stress and the body’s physiological response is symbiotic—each affects the other. Through thousands of hours of research, experts have learned that officers can mitigate their mental stress by altering their physiological response to that stress.
This has given officers tangible methods to help modify their autonomic nervous systems’ response to stress, which in turn has enhanced both their mental and emotional health. Officers can experience improved cardiovascular health and healthier responses to the chemicals released by stress.
Moreover, officers can experience increased confidence and sharper awareness of their mental health—ensuring better long-term health in a traditionally high-stress profession. This mental acuity in turn improves officers’ abilities to make judgments in the middle of traumatic situations. This bio-awareness approach also focuses on the ability to recover from stress following a traumatic event.
Improving Officer Decision-Making Under Stress
Evidence-based policing via bio-awareness techniques can protect not only officers’ health but also improve their decision-making under pressure. Physical outcomes, such as accuracy in using equipment, are not only based on external training or expertise but internal foci. A strong physiological stress response can negatively affect an officer’s performance by clouding judgment, hearing, and even slowing reaction times. But an evidence-based approach to police training can raise both physical “and psychological resilience to stress.”
This ability to control stress, therefore, enables a more accurate response and better situational outcomes. Research further indicates that if a training student learns to manage their physiology, that student can acquire the traditional, external skills needed in their training more quickly and efficiently.
Each officer’s response to stress is different. Therefore, evidence-based research should be tailored to not only an individual police training facility or area but to the individual officer. According to experts, every officer “has a unique pattern, which means that training . . . needs to address individual needs.” Addressing internal dynamics empowers an officer to recognize his or her stress factors and better control decision-making during pressure-filled situations.
Are There Proven Outcomes of Evidence-Based Policing?
Evidence-based policing models are demonstrating success globally. Just a few examples are in the United States, Iceland, and Finland. Agencies have worked with United States Probation Services as they experienced evidence-based police training. Officers in Probation Services usually interact with persons in their homes, which are often in remote or rural locations away from other officers. Evidence-based techniques have enabled officers to reduce their anxiety before, during, and after encounters with persons on probation.
In Iceland, officials have immersed trainees in reality-based training, which brings accompanying pressures. Police there have similarly used evidence-based techniques to negate performance anxiety within students during their training. Finland has also systematically incorporated evidence-based techniques into their Police University College across all levels and specialties with proven success.
Also in another area of the U.S., many police trainees were not passing their firearms test on their first attempt. Researchers found that while trainees had ample preparation and knew how to deploy firearms, their anxiety about the exam was affecting their performance. Reducing trainees’ stress through evidence-based techniques resulted in a 100% pass rate on the first try.
Another evidence-based approach involved interacting with community members in problem-orienting policing, seeking ways to proactively address local community members’ concerns. This approach reduced crime levels by 34% in communities that implemented the practice.
The Societal Effects of Highly Trained and Educated Police Officers
Evidence-based police training—as part of the comprehensive instruction that a policing degree brings—provides officers with the best preparation to serve and protect society. Studies show that highly trained police officers have positive systemic results within their communities. Officers with a policing degree not only have greater advancement opportunities but are less likely to use force as their first option, as they demonstrate higher levels of problem-solving skills.
A policing degree enables an officer to step outside vocational training into academic and hands-on preparation in forensic science, evidence-based methods of policing, and criminal justice. Officers gain competencies in the various models of policing, insights into psychology and mental health, and in certain educational settings, the latest in evidence-based techniques.
Laurier offers classes in each of these core police work areas. The university is integrating the latest concepts and approaches in evidence-based policing into the fabric of policing coursework. Students will be equipped with an evidence-based approach while learning the long-established and theoretical aspects of police work.
Career Outcomes for College Graduates in Law Enforcement
A policing degree that includes evidence-based training gives officers a broad career path. Beyond traditional police officer roles, officers equipped with a policing degree have gone into positions such as private investigators, forensic analysts, probation officers, animal cruelty investigators, and criminal justice faculty. Degreed officers may work in such areas as courts, government, the military, or social service agencies. Within the policing ranks, a bachelor’s degree can open the door to promotions such as sergeant or detective.
Deemed one of Canada’s best jobs, a police officer earns a median salary of $88,000. Training can strongly influence salary, with leadership, communication, and problem-solving skills paralleling above-average pay.
Are You Ready to Take the Next Step in Leadership in Your Law Enforcement Career?
If you are interested in furthering your career in policing or criminology, a policing degree can enable you to better the complex dynamics of law enforcement. Laurier’s all-encompassing degrees feature courses that incorporate the latest research in evidence-based skills, giving graduates a foundational career advantage.
Laurier’s Online Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Policing offers such courses as Cybercrime and Leadership and Career Development in Law Enforcement. The Combined Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminology and Policing brings students an in-depth understanding of criminology and psychology of crime. These both include study areas regarded as indispensable by law enforcement leaders throughout Canada.
Both degrees offer a 100% online format to accommodate students’ schedules. Coursework includes discussion boards with an online community of other police officers and a top-rate curriculum. Faculty are available to support students online throughout the program.
Discover more about Laurier’s policing degrees, and take the next step in your law enforcement career.