Collaboration and Law Enforcement – Improving the Outcome

May 13, 2015 The collaborative approach to policing and to problem-solving in the justice system is not a new idea. Multi-agency, multi-dimensional, community-oriented programs have been stressed for the past several decades. Yet the consequences of law enforcement not collaborating effectively with communities are being seen across the country in persistent pockets of violent crime, and more recently in protests against the police. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that collaboration means working together, often across agency boundaries and with community-based organizations, to achieve an agreed upon objective. Why do we repeatedly re-learn the lessons of the failure to collaborate and how can we stop this unproductive cycle? Here are four challenges law enforcement faces when we make efforts to collaborate:

  • First, lip service. Collaboration is given a lot of talk, committee time and energy in organizations, but its actual existence is rarely challenged.
  • Second, no evaluation. Collaboration is treated as a non-varying resource. When no variations exist, there is no need to inspect or measure it. So collaboration is once again assumed.
  • Third, limited accountability. Collaboration is not treated as a desired outcome or goal. Without strategic planning and resource allocation, there are no collaboration objectives to hold team members accountable.
  • Fourth, varying enthusiasm. When collaboration affects agency resources, requires trade-offs or compromises or enables the community to gain internal agency information, enthusiasm for collaboration wanes.

While research on collaboration in the justice system is not extensive, information in the Evidence-Based Crime Matrix produced by the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University suggests successful police interventions at the neighborhood level (which we assume include collaborative approaches in the community policing style), outnumber unsuccessful interventions by a ratio of 2:1.1 If collaboration is important, and if we are to advance our understanding of how and why collaboration is helpful, several things must happen. We must treat collaboration as a variable in our interventions and in our research. Collaboration must be identified as a desired outcome and included in our strategic planning. Doing so will allow departments to plan for it and allocate resources and responsibilities for its successful development. Collaboration in one agency can look and feel much different than collaboration in another. The breadth, depth or intensity of the collaboration may vary and these dimensions of collaboration may change over time. Once part of an organization’s strategic plan, collaboration should be measured and responsible individuals should be held accountable for what those measurements reveal. If we treat collaboration like crime prevention, as a desired instrumental outcome and not as an assumed resource, it is likely to improve. Valid measures and approaches to studying collaboration already exist in the justice field and elsewhere including:

  • Strategic Approaches to Community Safety Initiative (SACSI) research measured local collaborations, primarily through surveys, social network analysis and participant observation
  • The Institute for Public Safety Partnerships, a Regional Community Policing Institute in the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), developed a collaboration measurement scale for its evaluation of local community policing initiatives
  • Fletcher, Duffee and the Center for Effective Public Policy can also provide other examples of collaboration measurement approaches

The impact of collaboration on the bottom line in the justice system can affect crime reduction, crime prevention, clearance rates, levels of trust in the police and recidivism and must be studied with rigorous research methods. We can do better. We can also do better on educating and training law enforcement about collaboration including how to build, sustain and measure effective collaborations. The ability to collaborate effectively is quickly becoming the hallmark of effective leadership. How we respond to this challenge will provide a lasting impact for generations to come. For more information visit www.smartpolicinginitiative.com or http://www.cna.org/smart-justice-innovation-center. _______________________ 1http://cebcp.org/evidence-based-policing/the-matrix/, downloaded on 4/29/15.