Ethics and the Police-Based Researcher: Reviewing the Issues and Obligations

By Pfeifer, Jeffrey E. | Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Ethics and the Police-Based Researcher: Reviewing the Issues and Obligations


Pfeifer, Jeffrey E., Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services


ABSTRACT

This paper argues that the increased level of participation in research by police services has culminated in a parallel increase in the number of police-based researchers. These researchers, for the most part, are comprised of police personnel that develop, conduct, and assess research on issues related to crime and public safety. It is also clear that current ethics guidelines for police services seldom speak to issues related to research and that, often, government agencies such as the police are exempt from standard research protocols such as a required review by an Ethics Review Board. As such, it is suggested that police-based researchers, like social scientists, strive to understand and observe the basic ethical principles of research in order to maintain a high degree of scientific rigour as well as to ensure the safety and human rights of individuals involved in their research. Ethical issues regarding individuals as well as society are reviewed and their applications to police-based research are discussed.

During the last decade police services, like a number of other organizations, have begun to rely less on the externally-contracted services of social scientists and have begun to take a more active role in the research process themselves (Brewer, Wilson & Braithwaite, 1995). Increasingly, police officers and other police personnel (e.g., unsworn personnel, civil servants) have been assigned the task of conducting surveys, assessments, and evaluations on issues such as job satisfaction, crime patterns, and public perceptions of safety (see e.g., Moore, 1998).

It may be argued that this movement toward increased levels of in-house research by police services is reflective of a general shift in the disciplinary conceptualization of "police science". Traditionally, the term police science was used to describe research conducted independently by social scientists on various policing activities and, for the most part, involved very little collaboration with policing services (Froyland & Bell, 1998). In recent years, however, the term has been expanded to include collaborative efforts between police services and social scientists as well as in-house research conducted solely by police services (Denny, 1998). As such, it now appears clear that police services and researchers both recognize that the term police science may be used to refer to: (1) collaborative efforts between social scientists and the police, (2) research conducted by social scientists on policing, or (3) police-based researchers (i.e., in-house research conducted by police service personnel). Given that social scientists are bound by various ethics codes and answerable to Review Boards with regard to research procedures, this article will focus on research ethics and the police-based researcher.

Police-Based Research

Although it may be argued that police-based research is more effective for examining specific problems related to crime and public safety, concerns have recently been raised with regard to the scientific rigour with which this research has been conducted (see, e.g., Brown & Waters, 1993). Specifically, these concerns have led some analysts to suggest that police science research will not reach a high level of scientific acceptance until it adheres to the same basic empirical procedures employed by other social scientists such as psychologists, sociologists and criminologists. This would appear to be especially relevant in cases where research is conducted solely by police service personnel.

Although other authors have commented on the specific empirical procedures that need be employed by police-based researchers in order to create a rigorous police science, few people have commented on the need to ensure that basic research ethics are also addressed. As such, this article seeks to identify a number of ethical issues that the police-based researcher should consider when planning, conducting and reporting scientific research. …

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