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Crime Prevention Research Partnerships Aid Criminal Justice

Practical approaches to improving the success of crime prevention partnerships

by Anthony A. Braga, Harvard University

In recent years, the demand for the participation of academic researchers in crime prevention working groups has increased as practitioners have recognized the importance of strategic information products in developing effective crime prevention strategies. Academics can be very helpful to criminal justice practitioners by conducting research on urban crime problems. Specifically, such research can better focus limited enforcement, intervention, and prevention resources on high-risk offenders, victims, and places.

Strategic crime prevention initiatives based on research insights have been associated with a 60% reduction in youth homicide in Boston (Braga et al., 2001) and a 40% reduction in total homicide in Indianapolis (McGarrell and Chermak, 2003). These success stories have made academic researchers an important part of new crime prevention initiatives. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice-sponsored Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) initiative provides each of the 94 U.S. Attorney’s Districts in the United States with funds to hire academic research partners to help understand and address serious gun violence problems in local jurisdictions.

These new crime prevention initiatives will move some academics out of the “ivory tower” and into a collaborative working group setting for the first time. In this new wave of collaborations, the academic researcher is a partner that works with the group towards an end. The academic functions not as a critic who focuses on past mistakes and ineffective practices. Rather, researchers become an integral ingredient in efficient crime prevention and the methods used to produce any information products are most effective if they are clearly described and explained to the working group.

Based on my experiences over the past ten years, there appear to be three key issues that facilitate success for academics participating in a working group of practitioners in crime prevention:

1. Know Your Role

The ability of academics to frame ideas, collect data, and conduct appropriate analyses is, of course, their central role in the criminal justice working group. Researchers essentially provide “real-time social science” aimed at refining the interagency working group’s understanding of crime problems. They create information products for both strategic and tactical use, testing—often in an elementary, but important, fashion—prospective intervention ideas, and maintain a focus on outcomes and the evaluation of performance.

The research does not need to be very sophisticated methodologically. But the ability to pin down key issues—such as who is killing and being killed, the role played by gangs and gang conflicts, and the sources of illegal guns—keeps the working group moving on solid ground, helps the participating agencies understand the logic of proposed interventions (and the illogic of at least some competing interventions), and helps justify the intervention to the public. Academics can be very helpful in focusing practitioners on the “bottom-line” of crime prevention. Criminal justice practitioners tend to focus on their tactics (e.g., making quality investigations) without much broader consideration regarding how their actions affect crime levels (e.g., reduction in homicides, gun assaults).

Academics also bring the power of an outside eye armed with knowledge of crime prevention mechanisms. In the late 1990s in Boston, for example, after creating an inventory of past responses to gang violence, the practitioner members of a working group did not fully realize the strategic importance of an earlier successful intervention to end a violent gang conflict. The research team recognized the significance of their existing practices and worked with crime prevention practitioners to develop a routine application to outbreaks of violence in the city. The team then helped articulate and advocate the developed strategy through formal presentations with line-level partners to the agency managers. The ensuing violence prevention program became the well-known Operation Ceasefire intervention to prevent gang violence (Kennedy et al., 2001).

2. Listen and Value

Practitioners who deal with communities on a daily basis often have important experiential knowledge on the nature of offending, and they have innovative ideas on plausible interventions. Academic researchers need to structure this qualitative knowledge, incorporate associated hypotheses into their problem analysis research, and examine these ideas by using available quantitative evidence. In the Boston example, practitioner partners felt strongly that youth gun violence was highly concentrated among a small number of gang-involved, high-activity offenders who were well known to the criminal justice system (Kennedy et al., 1996). Research tasks set up to test these ideas found the practitioner partners were accurate in their appraisal of the problem. The resulting research description, while not news to the members of the working group who were on the front lines, was important in documenting the basic facts so interventions could be developed and tailored to the nature of the problem. The research documentation was also invaluable in spreading these ideas outside the working group and garnering support from the participating criminal justice organizations and community groups.

Research on crime problems may also unveil important factors that were underestimated by or unknown to practitioners. For example, in Boston, practitioners strongly believed that youth often possessed handguns that were recently purchased in southern states with less restrictive gun laws. However, our analyses revealed that the percentage of youth guns that were first purchased in Massachusetts was slightly larger than the proportion of all youth guns first purchased in southern states. As a result, members of the working group began focusing on developing both instate and interstate gun trafficking prevention strategies.

3. Guide Law Enforcement Efforts; Do Not Direct Them

Academics can shape law enforcement interventions in important ways, but should not be involved in selecting specific targets or investigating individuals. As a basic rule, none of the informational products produced by the academics should be specific enough to result in persons being arrested as a direct result of the data being presented. Practitioners should draw their own conclusions about specific actions from the data presented. For example, one key information product in diagnosing gang violence problems is the creation of a sociogram of active and latent gang conflicts (e.g., see Kennedy et al., 1997). Certain gangs will be much more central to conflict than other gangs. Some gangs will be actively engaged in violent disputes while other gangs will not be causing any violence problems at the moment. It is proper for the researcher to comment that limited law enforcement resources would have the most efficient impact if they were focused on the gangs that are most central to conflict and currently engaged in violence. However, it is up to the practitioners to appraise the specific situation and make their own decision on which groups should receive focused attention.

References

Braga, A., Kennedy, D., Waring, E., & Piehl, A. (2001). Problem-oriented policing, deterrence, and youth violence: An evaluation of Boston’s Operation Ceasefire. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 38, 195-225.

Kennedy, D., Braga, A., & Piehl, A. (1997). The (un)known universe: Mapping gangs and gang violence in Boston. In D. Weisburd & J.T. McEwen (eds.), Crime mapping and crime prevention. New York: Criminal Justice Press.

Kennedy, D., Braga, A., & Piehl, A. (2001). Developing and implementing Operation Ceasefire. In Reducing gun violence: The Boston gun project’s Operation Ceasefire. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.

Kennedy, D., Piehl, A., and Braga, A. (1996). Youth violence in Boston: Gun markets, serious youth offenders, and a use-reduction strategy. Law and Contemporary Problems, 59, 147-196.

McGarrell, E., & Chermak, S. (2003). Strategic approaches to reducing firearms violence: Final report on the Indianapolis violence reduction  partnership. Final report submitted to the U.S. National Institute of Justice. East Lansing, MI: School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University.