Halifax Regional Police recently welcomed Dr. Chris Giacomantonio as its new research coordinator. It’s a civilian position in the department that’s responsible for pushing HRP along into a more evidence-based (and hopefully, more efficient) approach to policing. Giacomantonio is from Nova Scotia originally, but received his PhD in criminology from the University of Oxford, and up until a couple of months ago was working in Europe for the RAND Corporation on policing research. He spoke with The Coast about what HRM can expect from his newly-created job. His answers have been edited for style and clarity.
The Coast: What attracted you to this job?
Giacomantonio: I've always wanted to come back here and contribute to the community. This position marks, in my opinion, a very good step for policing in Halifax and in Canada, to bring this evidence-based approach, this use of research evidence to inform everyday practice to help the organization make better decisions and to develop a culture of research literacy. When I was in the UK, we talked about that a lot as being really important in moving the profession forward.
Why do you think that this evidence-based approach is becoming increasingly prominent with police departments?
There are some people elsewhere in Canada, for example Laura Huey at the University of Western Ontario, that have been pushing the evidence-based policing agenda and founded the Canadian Society of Evidence Based Policing recently. More broadly, I think it's part of a trend in all public services. If you were in a public administration school, you'd hear more about evidence-based policy making. If you were in nursing or teaching or medicine, you'd hear more about evidence-based practice. I think it's all part of a trend toward increasing use of research and evaluation to evaluate whether something's working as a part of the day-to-day business of any public institution.
Can you break down what it is you'll be doing?
Well, I'm only three days into the job, and it's the first time they've had the job, so I really wouldn't want to give you a false impression. The job breaks down into four main areas. The first of which is I'll be asked to look at existing research evidence on a particular policing strategy or a particular type of internal process and advise on what the evidence says about something we're considering doing. I'll be asked to look at what we are doing, and evaluate whether it's helping us meet the goals of the strategic plan. I'll be helping to coordinate work with other public sector stakeholders, who are part of achieving the goals of a safer community. And I guess the fourth is reaching out to academia, and connecting with the knowledge that is often held in academia but not always translated into everyday use.
There are already internal police reports and data being produced that get submitted to management. What's going to be different about what you'll be doing?
I don't know what the content or quality of what's been done before is. I know there are people already doing work, and there's really competent people, highly educated people in the organization doing similar work. So I'm going to add to the capacity of what's being done, but I'll be—I think—the only person in the organization who's main role is ongoing evaluation and advice. There's no one else who holds that as a stand-alone role.
Do you get to choose the projects you work on?
I'll have a say in that. Check back with me in a few months as to what the process has been. Right now we're sort of compiling a long list of things I might work on. There's been a number of things in various sections where people had thought it'd be great if we had someone who had the time to look at the available evidence or to find out if what we're doing is working, who will ask to see if I can help out. And there's going to be some strategic objectives that are relatively new, particularly related to the 10-year strategic plan that I will be asked to help actualize—to find ways we can measure and plan to measure what we'll do. The list is pretty long. If I told you something right now that I'd be sure I'd be doing in a month's time—policing is a pretty dynamic environment and there could be new priorities that pop up in that month.
Bearing that in mind, can you give me a few examples of what's on that long list?
It's a short, medium and longterm activity which is to look at the data held by the police department and see what we can know about police performance. Normally, with a role like this in other places, one of the first things you'd do is take a look at all of the data that's there. Any organization of this size has a lot of data that its not using but it is collecting. One of my jobs would be to help bring that together. That's a big job right off the bat.
What happens to your reports after they’re put together? Do they get presented publicly?
I don't want to sound like I'm being cagey, I just don't know what my work will be in the next three months because I'm only a few days in. Either I'll find that some of the questions the organization is asking can be answered from the data—in which case, I can report. The other possibility is that some of the questions they're asking can't be answered from the data, and we'll have to look at ways to collect that data. Everything I do, in the more general of terms, it will have three possible outcomes. One of which is that, yeah, things will get shelved from time to time. Another is that it'll be an internal report to provide advice to the executive management team. That's my main role, to provide advice to managers to help them make better decisions. Then the third possibility is that some of the work I'll do will become public. We do hope to produce a lot of public information out of this role.
You wrote a book on integrated policing. We have that in Halifax with the RCMP sharing a headquarters and resources with HRP. Will you be looking at how those two organizations interact?
I'd be surprised if it's not something I look at in time. It may not be a top priority. The content of the book I've written and my previous experience in the area suggest there may be some actual sort of genuine administrative shortcomings in the way it's set up, and I don't know anything about that at the moment because I'm new to the job. In a lot of cases, it's more about understanding what the terrain is. Anytime you have a single large organization there are going to be many moving parts, and there's work to be done to ensure that those are properly coordinated—that each kind of respects the other's mandate and accountability structures.
There’s a danger in some of this work of reducing the people involved in policing or that interact with police into statistics. How do you avoid dehumanizing residents and HRP personnel when analyzing all this data?
Well my background actually isn't in statistics or demographics. Most of my work is ethnographic, or interview-research. I think, I agree, in general terms. The use of numbers can never be on its own the way an organization measures its performance. You can't make as many assumptions as people often think you can. What you want to do is do real work in the field—asking people questions, meeting people, observing what's happening—to get a sense of why something's happening. Numbers only ever provide an indication of something that may or may not be the case, and it always takes more investigation. We shouldn't as an organization operate entirely on numbers.