Following recent high-profile events across the country, many law enforcement agencies are taking a critical look at policies, procedures and training to foster stronger relationship with their communities through reform. To facilitate meaningful change, agencies often look to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, the Police Executive Research Forum, the Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police for guidance on what to do and what not to do.

Each of these organizations offer roadmaps for reform and sustainable change. However, law enforcement leaders may find themselves inundated with terms like “evidence-based practice,” “best practice,” or “promising practice.” These terms may seem confusing, especially when they are ill-defined or not defined at all. To complicate matters further, the criminal justice system may define these terms differently than other professional fields.

But fear not! The following are the various definitions of practices that law enforcement experts, academics and practitioners use to promote initiatives, strategies or policies that have proven positive outcomes.

Evidence-based Practice

An evidence-based practice, otherwise known as an EBP, is a strategy that has been scientifically tested in randomized controlled studies with proven positive outcomes. The outcomes of EBPs are quantitatively measured and often evaluated through a peer review process. EBPs do not rely on anecdotal evidence. Additionally, EBPs can often be replicated in multiple sites with consistent findings.

Best Practice

A best practice is very similar to an EBP in that both have shown positive outcomes over time and are accepted by experts. However, best practice differs from an EBP in that they may not have been rigorously evaluated through a peer review process. As a general principle, law enforcement agencies that implement a best practice with fidelity (implementing the practice strictly to how it was designed) can expect to achieve the intended outcome(s) of the practice. An example of this would be the recording of the statements of homicide offenders through video and audio recording. This practice is now widespread and comes with a catalog of guidance as to how to implement such a program effectively.

Promising Practice

Promising practices are developed by measuring the successful positive outcomes of the implementation of initiatives, strategies or policies. A promising practice is comparable to best practice in that it is well-regarded by experts in the field. However, promising practices differ from best practices by not being peer-reviewed or yielding consistent findings during replication in multiple sites. Just because it worked for one agency does not mean it will work for another. Although they may seem the weakest of the three types of practices, law enforcement agencies that adopt promising practices have the opportunity to tailor the practice to meet their specific needs instead of following the strict implementation plan outlined for an EBP. Promising practices can be tailored to the needs of an agency and its community, allowing a level of agility not necessarily available in the replication of evidence- based practices.

The law enforcement research field is constantly evolving. What may be a promising practice now may be an EBP in short time. Conversely, an EBP with proven positive outcomes may have unintended consequences and could fall out of favor with the field. Due to this potential ebb and flow, it should be considered a best practice that law enforcement agencies be well-read and up-to-date in the latest law enforcement research to know what works and what does not. Agencies should also be informed on the latest practices to find the best fit for their community. You know what they say: practice makes perfect!