Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Police, censorship, and policy

This morning we learned that the New Zealand Police had "blacklisted" a leading crime researcher from accessing police data, supposedly because he talks to criminals in order to study crime. At face value, its merely Orwellian, or maybe Hellerian, but of course the "associating with criminals" is merely the excuse. The real problem is that the Police don't like what Jarrod Gilbert has been saying about them or crime policy - so they're trying to destroy his career as revenge.

So far, so normal: our police are chronic abusers of power and obsessed with maintaining their own public image. They've shown a willingness to manipulate and fabricate evidence in criminal cases (and continue to endorse those who do so); of course they'll do so to protect themselves from critics. But Dr Gilbert going public has exposed a very real problem with how the police view research and how they can shape our policy debate.

First, the context:

The data sought by Dr Gilbert was for a government research project into "alcohol-related crime and proximity to premises with liquor licences in Christchurch". He was working with a team of five researchers - four with doctorates and two who are full professors.

We would like such questions - and similar ones, such as "is the war on drugs working", or "what sort of policing works best" - to be determined by the evidence. But the police don't permit that. Their research contract is based on a commercial model, rather than a public service one, and so gives them not just a right of review, but also a right to "correct" findings if they are "negative", or to veto publication altogether. And to make it clear that the police only want results they approve of, they explicitly threaten to blacklist the researchers and "any organisations connected to the project ... from access to any further police resources" if they don't like the results.

All this is fine if you're talking about research into what colour of toilet paper people prefer, or which sort of widget sells better - but not so good when you're talking about public interest research like that performed by Dr Gilbert. And when you're talking about public interest research which will be used by or to convince other government agencies about the merits or otherwise of policy proposals, it becomes absolutely toxic. If a line of research does not accord with police preconceptions and whims, then they can censor your results, rewrite them, or even prevent you from doing the research altogether. Which allows them to shape the policy debate to ensure that the outcome matches those pre-conceptions rather than the data. Its policy-based evidence-making!

How much of the law enforcement policy landscape is shaped by this police censorship? We just don't know. But it suggests a rich line of questioning (both of police, and of other government departments) for any journalist who wants to ask.