On 11 March 2019, RUSI’s Strategic Hub for Organised Crime Research (SHOC) convened a workshop exploring the role of academic-law enforcement partnerships in tackling organised crime (OC). Although the important role of the academic community in knowledge creation for law enforcement has long been recognised, understanding how this partnership should work in practice remains limited. Considering this, the workshop sought to identify best practices in successful partnerships between academia and law enforcement, and, in turn, develop key principles for establishing successful future partnerships. Discussions focused not only on those initiatives that have united academics and practitioners on OC, but also on those barriers to cooperation.
Three cross-cutting themes emerged from the workshop that highlighted the fine line between the success and failure of academic-law enforcement partnerships: access to data (and people); organisational cultures; and the co-production of knowledge between the two communities. Ultimately, successful co-production of knowledge can be achieved by creating clearly structured and engaged partnerships, which in turn depend on better access to useable data and a conducive organisational culture.
Access to data (and people)
The workshop opened with a debate about the challenge of accessing law enforcement data on OC. It was noted in particular that, since OC is often perceived as a transnational phenomenon, its impact on local communities may be overlooked, and research can become detached from the local dimensions of OC and the communities that it impacts. Participants established that there is a need for partnerships at the local level to gain access to and obtain local data, which may involve small-scale collaborations between researchers conducting fieldwork, local police officers, and other agencies to create a more informed picture. Furthermore, there is a risk that law enforcement agencies may interpret recorded data as objective truth, when in reality the data must first be deciphered and analysed so to arrive at the most reliable and valid interpretation. Recognising this issue, participants highlighted the need to bring academic and law enforcement communities together from the outset to identify and address gaps in data, make such data easier to interpret, and arrive at an empirically valid and reliable interpretation – which ultimately serves the goal of reducing the impact of OC on local communities.
Organised crime's impact on local communities may be overlooked and research can become detached from the local dimensions
Discussions then focused on the weaknesses of using only police data in isolation, and not incorporating multiple sources together. For instance, most police data measuring the impact of OC on local communities is based around offenders and not victims. By analysing data from multiple sources the academic community could assist law enforcement agencies in building a richer understanding of how OC impacts on victims and communities, in turn informing the development of evidence-based harm reduction strategies.
Workshop participants noted that, in order to achieve more successful partnerships, law enforcement and academia must build shared processes to enable on-going data sharing and knowledge exchange beyond individual projects. Participants agreed that it can be difficult for the two communities to engage with each other’s work if, for example, publications are not open access, police data is not made available to the research community, or specialist skills are required to understand the data’s findings. Successful academic-law enforcement partnerships are about making data more accessible, and, in turn, making this now-accessible data easier to interpret in order to gain meaningful insights. It was suggested that it is useful to create interdisciplinary working groups between law enforcement agencies and academia, to handle this data exchange and promote ongoing collaboration.
It was noted that law enforcement and research communities often work according to different timelines and objectives, making it challenging to secure long-term commitments for joint projects. The law enforcement landscape is constantly changing because OC is continuously evolving in nature and complexity, while academic researchers are often dependent on external funding cycles and constrained by set deadlines. Thereafter, discussions focused on the different organisational cultures of the two communities, and the need to create flexibility between academia and law enforcement to ensure that academic research remains timely and relevant to inform police responses to OC threats.
Not being able to overcome such organisational differences can be a barrier to securing commitments across partnerships, and can lead to failed collaborations. Participants agreed that achieving successful partnerships relies on both establishing a common vision and shared objectives, while also maintaining clear and efficient joint working practices. To achieve this, engagement must stretch beyond the funding cycle, which in turn increases the overall long-term value of the partnership.
At the same time, participants generally agreed that policing is practical, often reactive and by necessity must respond to emerging priorities, which can conflict with the more abstract academic work that necessitates a longer timeframe. Thus, establishing trust and building capacity between the two communities, where their different needs and findings are shared freely and impartially, can lead to a conducive joint-organisational culture that enables successful partnerships to flourish and persist.
Co-production of knowledge
The last discussions of the workshop focused on how building trust and capacity from the outset of academic-law enforcement partnerships is crucial to generate ‘buy-in’ from both communities. Each community is more likely to consider and accept the research outcomes as robust and reliable if they are closely involved in the research production, including the research design. When both communities are involved in research production, their priorities and preferences are reflected in the research, resulting in better uptake of the findings. Accordingly, the co-production of knowledge enables each community to have their requirements and priorities articulated throughout the research, and their research objectives and outcomes met at the end of its co-production. This in turn increases the value of the research to all parties. Rather than starting with a clearly defined research question that guides the direction of a partnership, collaborations are more likely to be successful when the initial focus is on developing processes and systems for joint working, which will facilitate a diverse range of research on various topics.
Building trust and capacity from the outset is crucial to generate ‘buy-in’ from academia and law enforcement
It was suggested that secondments can be a useful way of increasing mutual understanding between the two communities and facilitate co-production of knowledge. Creating structured forums where academia and law enforcement can clarify their mutual goals, working practices and expected levels of engagement would also facilitate co-production of knowledge. There is also a need to develop processes to promote dissemination of research findings across the law enforcement community, and to develop a centralised pool of knowledge resulting from successful partnerships.
Evangelina Moisi is a Research Assiatant at RUSI’s National Security Studies team focusing on Serious and Organised Crime research.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.