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Can Evidence-Based Policing Pass The Goldilocks 'Just Right' Test?

Photo courtesy U.S. Marshals Service

In the quarter-century since criminologist Lawrence Sherman of the University of Cambridge proposed a framework for evidence-based policing , Sherman says, the digital revolution has transformed the potential for that idea. Calculations that were almost unimaginable in 1998 can be performed today with the touch of a button.

As Scotland Yard Commander Alex Murray told police leaders studying evidence-based policing at Cambridge, policing is substantially behind the rest of government in using digital tools to make decisions. Despite massive investments in technologies, their use in producing “just right” evidence remains undeveloped in policing.

Police are often criticized for doing “too much” or “too little” policing in various situations, Sherman writes in the Vollmer Award address published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy. These criticisms amount to testable hypotheses about whether “less” force, or intensity, or enforcement would have been enough, or whether “more” was needed.

The rise of evidence-based policing provides a starting point for public dialogues about those hypotheses, in ways that could help to build police legitimacy. Such dialogues can be focused on the questions posed by what Sherman calls the three “Ts”: Is police action targeted in a way that is proportionate to the harm that it can prevent?

(2) Has the action been tested and found effective with the kinds of targets, and their levels of harm, where it is being used?

(3) Is police action tracked to ensure it is delivered in the way that has been tested, and in compliance with relevant legal requirements?

Sherman says the basic question is Can more widespread use of better research evidence on targeting, testing, and tracking police actions, shared more clearly among the public and police, help reduce the wide range of oscillation between over-policing and under-policing?

The use of these questions in public dialogue would be especially relevant to the three biggest threats to police legitimacy in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, Sherman contends: (A) police killing people, (B) police stopping people, and (C) police under-patrolling high-crime hot spots (while over-patrolling low-crime areas).

One result of applying the three-Ts questions to these threats could be the end of the vast overuse of stop and search in low-violence areas. At the same time, this approach could also lead to reductions in homicide by increasing stops in highest violence hot spots.

Such changes could demonstrate how the “Goldilocks principle” for the three Ts could get policing closer to “just right” for each place and person being policed, Sherman said, alluding to Goldilocks' testing rejecting the "too hot" and "too cold" food temperatures of mother and father bears before pronouncing the child bear's food "just right.".


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