A Consultant's Casebook
Defining the Research Problem
The Problem Dictates the Solution
In 1972 I became Research Director for a multi-year research support program for the Dallas Police Department. Government funding for the research was due in part to a brilliant proposal written by Dr. Robert Bogomolny of the Southern Methodist University Law School, and partly to political considerations.
The Dallas Police Department was still plagued by the bad publicity associated with the Kennedy assassination and the subsequent assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, the latter while in police custody. Heightened concern regarding the police developed after a patrolman shot a pre-teen while investigating the burglary of a soft-drink machine at a gasoline station. The patrolman had taken the juvenile into custody from his bedroom, driven him (in pajamas) to the scene of the crime, and attempted to interrogate him by threatening the youngster with Russian roulette. The interrogation went terribly wrong when the gun discharged, killing the young black boy. The press reacted by branding the Police as “trigger-happy,” and “racist.”
I must admit that being educated during the 60s hippie, anti-war, and protest movements did not make me sympathetic toward the police. I firmly believed that might was abused in the name of right. So when I arrived in Dallas and was asked to investigate police shootings, I anticipated a need to weed out bad cops. Before my arrival, I anticipated a straightforward selection strategy: develop a psychological test that predicts propensity to shoot, validate it against actual shooting behavior, and then use the test to eliminate potentially abusive police officers during the selection process. It was a paradigm I was taught in graduate school, and in turn had taught it to undergraduate students.
It was clearly the wrong approach too. And from it I learned the most important lesson of my career. Not all work can be approached with the same tool. Just as you wouldn't bring your hammer to fix the chip on the bathtub, you don't bring your research paradigm to the project. Let the project determine the design!
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