Blue Line

Let us not overgeneralize

March 1, 2013  By Dorothy Cotton

For reasons which escape me, I appear to be a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

As it turns out, the IACP has a whole section for police psychologists. We don’t really have such a group in Canada so it has been handy professionally to be a member and I have learned a great deal from these folks over the years. The reason I bring this up is because of the February issue of magazine. “The Most Pressing Issue of 2013 is….” was emblazoned on the cover but the magazine didn’t reveal just what that is. All the articles had to do with terrorism, however, so one is left to assume that terrorism is the most pressing issue of 2013 for US police folks.

This left me wondering. Is terrorism the most pressing issue facing Canadian policing in 2013? I would be surprised if it is but perhaps that’s just because I’m not a police officer. As a regular citizen, I can say with some confidence that terrorism is not the most present issue in my life, or even the most pressing issue related to law enforcement and police it in my life. Am I wrong? Are those US people wrong? Perhaps the terrorism conclusion applies in some circumstances (US) but not others (Canada), or to some people (police) but not others (psychologists)? There are several possible explanations here.

• I have no idea what is the single most pressing issue for Canadian policing.
• The issue that I think most pressing may be not the issue police think is most pressing.
• The most pressing issue may vary from one police service jurisdiction to another.
• We need to better define “most pressing.”
• We do not live in the US so our most pressing issue is not necessarily the same as theirs.


There are lots of differences between the US and Canada. Looking at the relative level of danger, pay rates and any number of other factors, I conclude that the differences in policing across the border are as great as the similarities. One can draw the same conclusion by looking at crime and incarceration rates. The situation is just not the same, so if this were a multiple choice question on an exam, I guess the most obvious choice is the last one – the US and Canada are not the same.

I could write an entire column about why I feel Canadians rely too much on US data and practices and sometimes adopt things from south of the border that don’t really fit or apply very well here. However, what this headline really got me to thinking about was the broader issue of assessing knowledge and deciding how far you can generalize from one situation, incident or population to another.

How do we decide if a certain piece of information applies to anything in a different context? Is our own experience and knowledge generalizable to anyone (or any place) else? Is knowledge from another field generalizable to another field? Is any single experience typical of all experience – or is each individual experience simple that – individual? Is your experience as a police officer with any one racial or ethnic group typical of all interactions with that group? Are the findings of a bit of research done in a lab generalizable to the “real world?”

In psychology, for example, a series of studies about treating anxiety may all conclude that a particular kind of treatment works best – but what if they were all done using young and healthy people with mild anxiety? Would the same techniques work on older people with chronic diseases and severe anxiety? In medicine, do the same medications for high blood pressure work in Japan – where people have a very different diet – as Canada? In policing – and in an area I know something about – there is one particular model of police/mental health system liaison that works extremely well in the US but what about Canada, where the health care system and general level of threat and violence is different?

The issue here is generalizability. When psychologists and most other scientists publish research, their articles almost invariably end with a comment on the extent to which the results might generalize and be useful beyond the specifics of the research. Does the research apply only to a certain type of person, disease or atomic particle, in a certain place? Do we know whether the conclusions of the research apply only on Tuesdays or to objects bigger than a breadbox?

The issue of generalizability does not, of course, apply only to research. It is something we all assess (or at least ought to) every time we learn something new and consider using it in our own work. It also applies to program development. Things that work in Toronto may well be inappropriate or misguided if implemented in Moose Jaw. The answer to everyone’s prayers in Montréal may lead to disaster in Cape Breton.

It also applies to each interaction with individuals. Can we assume – or generalize – that since the last person we met who had little green antennae came from Mars that the next person who appears to have green antennae must also be from Mars? What if we had 3,456 previous interactions with little green antennae people who were ALL from Mars; THEN can we generalize?

The argument is not purely academic, as we all borrow knowledge from each other all the time, often in the form of programs and policy. This makes a lot of sense at one level. There are common threads that run through many police organizations regardless of size or location, but that does not necessarily mean that what works in one place will generalize to another location.

Police peer support programs, for example, may be a great idea in a large organization where you can talk to a “peer” you don’t have to work with every day after telling them your inner most secrets. In an organization with only 30 people however, maybe you’d rather not spill your guts to someone who might be your partner or even boss next week. It’s kind of the “what’s-good-for-the-goose-is-good-for-the-gander” idea, except that sometimes it isn’t true.

Seeing moves toward standardizing programs across the country makes me a little apprehensive – and I am not talking only about policing here. I’m quite comfortable with principles and standards being common from one jurisdiction to another. Common goals, beliefs and principles are all good but I remain unconvinced that specific practices or procedures are as easily standardized. This is particularly the case if one embraces the concepts of community policing as an organizational philosophy.

As long as police organizations function as part of a broader social system, variations in community size, structure, nature and demographic composition will inevitably dictate differences in programs and processes. It is always easiest just to “lift” programs from other places because the work is already done – and this is often a very good place to start – but the issue of generalizability will inevitably raise its head.

So is terrorism the single largest issue facing law enforcement in Canada? If so, is it equally important in Vancouver and Morden? I have no idea but I hope that before anyone makes a decision about that, they consider the local as well as the national and international situation.

It’s all about being an informed consumer of information. Let us not overgeneralize.

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