LEADS Scholars and Agencies: an Interview with Gary Cordner

Evidence-Based Practices have become a significant part of conversation throughout the justice community. But what are evidence-based practices in law enforcement? What are their role in law enforcement? And how do we know they really ARE good practices?

In most cases, someone – a scholar, researcher etc – has studied and tracked the practices and their results, comparing them to previous activities.


Check out this recorded webinar, as Gary Cordner with the National Institute of Justice’s LEADS program is here to:

  • Discuss ongoing NIJ LEADS Scholars program, including benefits, deadlines, and how to apply,
  • Share some lessons learned from LEADS Agencies pilot sites around the country, and
  • Provide a thorough explanation of the evidence-based policing self-assessment tool along with instructions on how to access it for their own agency.


Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Gary, you’re a new presenter for the Justice Clearinghouse. Tell us about yourself.

Gary Cordner: I’m just an old geezer holding onto a dream, that my Baltimore Orioles will someday reclaim their rightful position atop the American League East.

As a loyal fan, I’m sure it will happen. But will it be in my lifetime? 🙂

Meanwhile, I’ve been working with the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which is the research and science arm of the US Department of Justice, helping support research that contributes to more effective policing. That’s pretty much been my career mission. I started out as a police officer and then police chief in my home state of Maryland, and then taught at several universities, with the longest stretch at Eastern Kentucky University, where I also served as Dean of the College of Justice & Safety and started several programs, including Kentucky’s Regional Community Policing Institute.


JCH: What is the LEADS Scholars and Agencies Program?

Gary: The acronym stands for Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science.  The LEADS Scholars program supports research-minded mid-career sworn law enforcement officers. NIJ picks 10 officers per year and it’s a 3-year deal. Nobody leaves their regular job, but they are funded to attend the annual IACP conference, they are brought to DC for a few days each summer, and efforts are made through mentoring and networking to help them enhance their knowledge and skills.

The LEADS Agencies program tries to help agencies, as opposed to just individual officers, develop their capacity to use data, analysis, research, and evidence in order to operate more effectively. There’s no money in it for the agencies, just an opportunity for some assistance from experienced researchers. Frankly, it’s turned out to be more of an opportunity for NIJ to learn from the field about progressive practices already being implemented. Hopefully, we can document these practices so that other agencies around the country can consider adopting them.




[The LEADS Agencies program has become] an opportunity

for NIJ to learn from the field about progressive practices already being implemented.

Hopefully, we can document these practices

so that other agencies around the country can consider adopting them.



JCH: We hear a lot about “evidence-based practices” these days. Why aren’t evidence-based practices simply accepted practice? What prevents evidence-based practices from becoming adopted?

Gary: There are many reasons why law enforcement decision making and practices aren’t always determined by the best available scientific evidence. Just to name a few — sometimes the law dictates a particular action, even if studies indicate it’s not the most effective one. Sometimes political pressure pushes police in a certain direction — and this isn’t necessarily “wrong” since politics is how we make public choices in a democracy. Sometimes a police officer’s or police chief’s experience or personal opinion sways their decision in spite of scientific evidence that some other option would work better.

An important practical consideration is that each and every law enforcement agency has a multi-dimensional “bottom line.” That sounds abstract but it has a very important consequence — police might know which practice would work best to reduce crime, for example, but also have to consider what effect that practice would have on public trust, equity, transparency, financial cost, and so forth. For police, it’s always a balancing act between multiple outcomes and criteria, which often means that there’s no clear-cut best choice.

Two more points — traditionally, we’ve thought of policing more as a craft than a science, putting a bigger premium on experience than “book learning” and emphasizing that every situation is different. That perspective tends to minimize the value of anything learned from research, especially if it was conducted somewhere else. Also, the extreme fragmentation of our law enforcement system in the U.S. makes it harder to identify best practices that are universally applicable — if a rigorous study demonstrates that some police tactic works really well in a big city, does that mean that every small town, or state police agency, or campus PD should adopt it?

None of these reasons should sway us against giving the best available scientific evidence “a seat at the table,” but we should recognize that it’s only one seat. A worthy and realistic goal, over time, might be to move that seat closer to the head of the table.




It’s always a balancing act between multiple outcomes and criteria,

which often means that there’s no clear-cut best choice.


JCH: Gary, you’ve dealt with a range of agencies across the US. I’m sure there are a lot of misconceptions about data driven practices/research in law enforcement. What are some of the biggest misconceptions you’ve seen in the field?

Gary: Probably the biggest misconception about evidence-based policing is that only true experiments produce evidence that counts. I think this was part of the message when the evidence-based idea first arose about 20 years ago, but cooler heads have prevailed. Still, though, how much weight to give studies with weaker designs is hotly debated. This might sound like academic navel-gazing, but it matters because it affects how much confidence should be placed in the findings from any particular study.

Maybe another big misconception is that cops and law enforcement agencies don’t care much about research. The National Institute of Justice started its LEADS initiative 5 years ago to support research-minded sworn officers, and was pretty much overwhelmed by the response. Each year NIJ picks 10 new LEADS Scholars, mid-career sworn officers, out of a pool of 80 or so applicants, and it’s a shame that only 10 can be supported, because the quality of the applicants is impressive. There are a lot of very smart, very accomplished cops out there, all over the country, in agencies big and small.

One last thing I’ll mention is the misconception that data and research and evidence-based policing only apply to big agencies. Not true. Small agencies still have hot spots and chronic offenders and public trust issues, it’s just that the numbers are smaller. They might not need a sophisticated heat map or social network analysis, but they still need to know where their problems are concentrated, and sometimes they can learn how best to tackle those problems from studies that were done somewhere else. Or maybe they should do their own study to determine what works best in their situation. The logic is pretty much the same for smaller agencies even if they don’t need Big Data to identify and analyze their problems.


Click Here to Watch “LEADS Scholars and Agencies: NIJ Initiatives to AdvanceEvidence-Based Policing.”


To learn more about LEADS programs, check out:



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