Police, Public Safety and the Rule of Law: Is a Global Standard Possible?

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London police by Charles Roffy via Flickr

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report released Thursday grapples with a question that has challenged law enforcement reformers around the world.

Are there common standards that can guide efforts by police in vastly different countries to promote the rule of law and protect the population?

The report, the first of five examining policing worldwide, notes that the gap between scientific evidence of what works in effective law enforcement and actual practices is widening in many countries where rising crime has driven aggressive and sometimes violent policing.

The authors of the report propose the establishment of a “Global Crime Harm Index,” a measure of crime severity between and within nations, that can set a framework for best practices in different social, economic and cultural contexts.

“The report…considers the institutional landscape of policing and the capacity to provide proper and fair protection to all members of the public and not just to a powerful few,” wrote Lawrence W. Sherman, of the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology, and chair of the  NAS Committee on Evidence to Advance Reform in the Global Security and Justice Sectors, in the preface.

“It examines organizational policies, structures, and practices for policing likely to be effective in some contexts at promoting the rule of law and protecting the population.”

The committee, working together with the NAS Committee on Law and Justice, convened prominent criminologists from around the world to evaluate existing evidence on policing institutions, practices and legitimacy in the international context.

Although the effort, tasked by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), was focused on the “Global South,” Sherman told The Crime Report in an email that “its key points are also valid for the ‘Global North.’”

The authors came to several key conclusions.

An evidence-based approach to policing, which the authors argue will best promote rule of law and protect the population, requires evaluating reforms in the context of particular countries’ experiences.

For instance, research into the militarization of Mexican police has netted mixed results: associated with greater homicidal violence and human rights violations, militarized police have also been linked to crime decreases and widespread public support.

These inconsistent findings require follow-up research.

“There is a growing gap between scientific knowledge about what works in policing as compared to actual police practices, leaving the public with far less protection against violence than ‘evidence-based policing’ could provide,” Sherman explained in his email to The Crime Report.

To facilitate adoption of evidence-based policing practices worldwide, the report offers several recommendations.

To address scattered “knowledge management,” INL and the U.S. Department of State should support the establishment of an open, online registry of all available research worldwide on police organizational policies, structures and practices. Such a tool might facilitate the translation of research into practice.

The authors also call on INL and the State Department to conduct an “evidence-based assessment” of their training practices to determine if such practices align with evidence on the outcomes of organizational structures, policies and practices that promote the rule of law and protection of the public.

In his email to The Crime Report, Sherman, who also directs the Cambridge Police Executive Programme, argued that “there remains enormous potential for major reforms to be launched and implemented, if supported by ongoing training that is linked to other changes in the institutional landscape, such as regular independent inspections of police organizations by a state or national regulatory agency.”

Currently, efforts to reform policing institutions in many countries are hampered by the “global tension” between reforms aimed at increasing accountability and law enforcement determination to retain autonomy. That’s further complicated by elected officials who politicize police operations and police professionals hoping to minimize punishment for police misconduct, Sherman wrote.

Most critically, Sherman said the adoption of a Global Crime Harm Index could serve as a “validated measure for research on effective policing under different social, economic and cultural contexts, further supporting the growth of knowledge and its use by police to keep the peace and pursue justice.”

Future reports by the NAS will examine training, the use of force, and sustainable police legitimacy, and “will provide detailed proposals for strengthening the rule of law and public protection across the globe, with potentially great benefits for the U.S. by supporting those outcomes around the globe,” he added.

Information about how to obtain the full report is available here.

Eva Herscowitz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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