The Ethics of Academia – Counterterrorism Police Collaboration

By Mike Edwards

My belief in the value of collaboration between police and academics stems from a policing conference on domestic violence, stalking and sexual violence that I attended as a young police officer. Criminal behavioural analyst Laura Richards delivered the keynote speech. This sparked a personal interest in human behavioural analysis and specialist criminal investigation that has seen me progress from police officer to higher education student and now professional academic. This experience has cemented my belief in the importance of collaboration between police and academia. 

Yet there are undoubtedly barriers to such collaboration, some of which might be described as ethical concerns. On the one hand, some might raise concerns that close cooperation with law enforcement threatens academic independence and impartiality. On the other hand, members of law enforcement operating in the counterterrorism sphere have to receive, assess and manage sensitive information effectively. Doing this effectively and without operational compromise is key to successful functionality. This contributes to a risk averse culture, in which officers and staff are risk averse and reluctant to form collaborative partnerships and share information with academics. 

The result is an “arm’s length” relationship. Different ideologies and organisational cultures result in different professional identities, effectively leading to an “us” and “them” mentality. This results in group protectiveness, causing a lack of trust and an inability to recognise the potential benefits of collaborative practice outside of one’s own organisation. Indeed, many would claim that the impact of research evidence on police policy and practice remains limited (Fyfe, 2015). Lum et al (2012) stated that “the notion that science should matter is often trumped by the reality that public opinion, political will, or consensus-based opinions about best practices are what should underpin and drive police practices”.

This is not to say that there have not been examples of fruitful collaboration. But, whilst in the past police and academic relationships have tended to have been formed and managed on an individual practitioner basis, often based on specialist skills areas such as psychology or digital forensics, there now appears to be a growing recognition at a corporate level of the benefits of collaborating on research, knowledge transfer and other activities. These may be observed in pioneering research, such as that found at Swansea University’s Cyberterrorism Project and Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute. Having been personally involved with each of these as a police officer, I learned the importance of critical thinking, analysis and self-reflective practice to allow deeper meaning to be realised. 

Indeed, there is growing evidence of a change in the mindset of those involved in policing at a strategic level. The U.K. Government’s creation of the Police Knowledge Fund (PKF) was intended “to support closer working between police and academia, in order to promote evidence-based policing and more effective responses to crime”. Furthermore, the forthcoming changes to officer recruitment led by the College of Policing will essentially see the academic professionalisation of the police service. Perhaps the benefits of this will be felt most keenly in the world of counterterrorism policing, where there is growing recognition of the need for stronger action-based research collaboration to continue the fight against radicalisation and violent extremism in the U.K. and overseas.

To maximise the benefit to both police and academic institutions, it is important to move beyond collaborations that are based on personal relationships between individuals. A “who you know” approach will not achieve significant change in terms of tactics, strategy and policy across national security policing. More promising are officially recognised multi-organisational partnerships between policing and academic partners, with clear memoranda of understanding in place. A good example of this may be observed in the Open University Policing Research Consortium, which sees twelve police forces including the National Crime Agency (NCA) working in partnership. The consortium has the aim of exploring innovative research and education with a view to improve policing and the Society of Evidence Based Policing, which brings together the police family (officers and staff) and professional researchers in relevant subject matter fields. 

As initiatives like this seek to bridge the gap between the worlds of academia and law enforcement, some important issues will need to be addressed. One challenge concerns efficiency. Will academic research be able to work at the speed that modern policing demands? How can this be reconciled with traditional academic concepts such as rigour and the desire for conceptual/theoretical contributions? 

Second, there are challenges around access to, and control of, data. Where security-sensitive material is at stake, law enforcement will be reluctant to actively share. This may be due to trust, the fear of exposure and the perceived need to protect the public from themselves; in other words, to reduce crime and extremism by managing public sentiment and public access to information that could affect community cohesion and national security. This may be contrasted with a perception of academics as more open and keen to disseminate their work by publishing it and sharing it with the widest possible audience. In the interests of both sides, issues around data access, storage and sharing should be negotiated in the course of preparing an application for institutional ethical approval for the research. This requires members of ethics board to be well-informed, which in turn highlights the importance of supporting ethics board members in their work.

To conclude, whilst it may be naive to suggest that collaboration between police and academia will always be smooth, we should stay mindful of the benefits of effective partnership working and remain committed to the mutual understanding and open dialogue need to achieve this.


Mike Edwards is a Senior Lecturer at the University of South Wales. His research interests are extremist cyber-psychology and the use of virtual and augmented reality in hostile environment training.

References:

Fyfe, N. (2015). ‘SIPR and police-academic partnerships: Addressing the paradox of policing research?’ Scottish Institute for Policing Research 4 February 2015. https://blog.dundee.ac.uk/sipr/2015/02/paradox/. Accessed: 28/06/2018.

Lum, C., Telep, C. W., Koper, C. S. & Grieco, J. (2012) ‘Receptivity to Research in Policing’ 14 Justice Research and Policy 61-95.