2023 NIJ Research Conference Opening Ceremony
The theme of NIJ’s 2023 Research Conference was “evidence to action,” and our goal was to bring researchers and practitioners together to learn about the latest research evidence and how it can be implemented to promote safety, equity, and justice.
The opening ceremony included remarks from U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs Amy Solomon, and NIJ Director Nancy La Vigne.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Good morning, everyone. My goodness. Look at all of you. This is so exciting. Thank you so much for joining us today for this conference. I also want to recognize people who are joining via live stream. Thank you so much. It is my distinct pleasure to kick off NIJ's National Research Conference. This is a convening that we haven't had for 12 years, and I'd like to start by thanking all of the people who were so instrumental in making this conference possible. It's a tremendous amount of work. So, our NIJ staff, our OJP, and DOJ partners, the conference contractor, Saxman One, Encore Global, who's our AV technician, and of course, the fine employees of the DoubleTree Hotel. Thank you so much. Let's give them all a hand.
Now, as some of you may know I'm no stranger to NIJ. I worked at NIJ many years ago under the direction of Jeremy Travis at the time. And that was when NIJ had a National Research Conference routinely. And when I started back in this position as Director a year ago, it was a no-brainer for me to say, "Let's bring this conference back." It's so important. It's important because if we just create research for research's sake, what's the point? We're not making a difference. We need to bring together researchers, with their practitioner partners, with policymakers, with advocates, with the people who are the consumers of the research, so that we can dig deep into research findings and explore together how we can make those findings lead to changes in policy and practice. That's why I'm so pleased that this collection of folk are actually quite a diverse crowd. Yes, of course, almost half or over half, 55% to be precise, are researchers or analysts or scholars in some way. But then, the next biggest swath are practitioners of all stripes, more law enforcement than others, but we've got corrections officers. We've got a lot of different practitioners in the room. And then, the remainder fall in two buckets. One are folks associated with associations, advocacy groups, consultants, and the other are primarily government employees of all levels. So, it really is a diverse group, one that I hope you all can learn from each other over the next two and a half days.
And the agenda is definitely a busy one, but it's starting off with the very best speaker ever. I'm thrilled that Merrick Garland can join us today. He has, throughout his career as a prosecutor, as a judge, and now as Attorney General of the United States, always been in steady pursuit of justice based on facts. And that is so important to me. And as a leader of DOJ, we've seen his commitment to research, to evidence. He brings so much integrity to the job and he's been a strong advocate for department resources to go towards the science mission. I'm so thankful for that. He really needs no introduction. So, with that, I will just say I'm so honored that he could take the time to be with us today and share his thoughts. Please join me in welcoming the Attorney General of the United States, Merrick Garland.
MERRICK B. GARLAND: Wow. Thanks, Nancy, for that really kind introduction. Thank you for your leadership of the National Institute of Justice. Thanks, Amy, for your leadership of the Office of Justice Programs and all of its science agencies. It's really great to be here. And I really like the point of this conference, as Nancy says, evidence to action. Far too often, research findings do not reach the people who can best use them to improve their outcomes for their communities. This conference, which brings researchers, practitioners, and policymakers together, gives us the opportunity to bridge that divide. I also want to thank Alex Piquero, the Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Alex, I know that you and Nancy are making important efforts to reach a diverse set of practitioner and policymaking audiences throughout the country, so thanks to all of you. And thank you to the staff of NIJ representing scientists, grant managers, communications professionals, operations and team members. I know that planning this gathering represents just a fraction of the work you are doing every day. I'm grateful to each of you.
To be honest, I don't think I've spoken to a room with this many people in it for the entire time I've been Attorney General. And no one's wearing masks, and you're all scientists. So, I'm hoping we're okay. Finally, I want to express my gratitude to all of our partners who are here today. You're taking your time away from your work and your home to exchange knowledge and identify new ways that research evidence can improve criminal justice policies and practices. Welcome and thank you all for being here.
The Justice Department has a broad and wide-ranging mission to uphold the rule of law, to keep our country safe, and to protect civil rights. In pursuit of that mission and together with our partners in communities and law enforcement agencies across the country, we work to meet some of the most urgent challenges our country faces. Good data and sound science are essential to every part of that mission. Research is essential to the development of new technologies and policies and programs that help the Justice Department fulfill its mission and rigorous evaluation helps tell us what works. Importantly, it also tells us how and why programs work so we can replicate them and build on their success. For example, when it comes to keeping our country safe, we know that research and data are critical tools in our fight against gun violence. Professionals across the department are involved in our work to prevent that violence. Experts from the ATF work every day with their state and local partners to coordinate comprehensive crime, gun tracing, and ballistics evidence analysis. Our prosecutors bring cases against those responsible for the greatest violence, and we invest in evidence-informed community-centered initiatives aimed at preventing and disrupting violence.
Earlier this year, I traveled to St. Louis where the department hosted our partners for a first of its kind convening on community violence intervention strategies. As I said at that meeting, the department is encouraging our grantees to collaborate with researchers to conduct rigorous evaluations of their program models. We know that research will help us build more effective programs that are rooted in a deeper understanding of effective violence reduction strategies. It does no good to give grants for models that aren't evaluated. We have to evaluate, we have to make sure they work, and then we have to put them into communities and help our communities use them.
NIJ grantees are on the front lines of all of this work. For example, NIJ has invested resources in the development of risk terrain modeling, an analytic method that helps local governments better understand the relationship between a community's physical conditions and crime. Through this method, cities can develop tailored strategies to prevent and disrupt violence in collaboration with the people who are experiencing it. Grantees have also conducted essential research related to understanding and preventing mass shootings. This includes a development of a mass attack defense toolkit. That toolkit is an evidence-informed guide to deterring, detecting, and stopping plots to commit mass shootings and other mass attacks. Researchers study the tragedy of mass shootings in schools, and they have identified the impact of measures, like threat assessments, tip lines, and safe storage of firearms in reducing the risk of such shootings. NIJ's grantees also have critical role to play in the department's efforts to protect our communities from deadly fentanyl. Research featured at this conference demonstrates the value of methods for the early detection of emerging drugs that are subject to abuse. These methodologies can aid in understanding and addressing national challenges like the fentanyl epidemic. I also appreciate the growing body of research by NIJ grantees studying officer wellness, training, and accountability. This knowledge will help guide our efforts to provide the support that police officers need and to help build trust between the police and the communities they serve.
As I've said many times to the Justice Department's workforce, our responsibility to uphold the rule of law is one that must guide all elements of our work. The rule of law dictates that our prosecutors treat like cases alike, that there is not one rule for the powerful and another for the powerless, one rule for the rich, another for the poor. The rule of law dictates that we apply the law in a way that respects the Constitution. I'm grateful to NIJ because it has funded research on how prosecutors can better use data to drive decision-making in the pursuit of those principles and achieve just outcomes. Finally, I'm grateful for the work NIJ grantees have done to help the department fulfill its founding purpose, to protect civil rights. Grantees have conducted important research that strengthens our efforts to combat and prevent hate crimes, to improve hate crime reporting, and to address the needs of victims. In short, across the breadth of the department's responsibilities, your work informs our work. I know the efforts I have noted are just a small sample of the work that is being done by NIJ grantees across the country. And by so many of you in this room, I'm sorry that I can't mention every single one. But I can say we are grateful to count everyone in this room as our partner in upholding the rule of law, in keeping our country safe, and protecting civil rights. Thank you for being here. I look forward to our continued work in the coming days. Have a great conference.
NANCY LA VIGNE: What a tremendous honor. Such a signal to the field about the department's commitment to science. I know you're all as excited as I am, and there's so much that we have ahead of us in the next two and a half days, and much of it is really grounded in the priorities that I set forth when I started as Director a year ago. And so, I wanted to just kind of point to certain highlights that reinforce those priorities and maybe it'll pique your interest about some of the plenaries ahead.
First, research should be inclusive of the people closest to the issue or problem under study. If you've heard me speak at all in the last year, you've heard me say that over and over again. It's become a mantra and it's so important. Inclusive research is research that includes tapping into the opinions and experiences of prosecutors, of probation officers, of police officers, but also community members, people who've experienced the justice system. This is so important, and it doesn't mean that everything needs to be full-on community-based participatory research, although I am a fan, nor does it mean that it has to be purely qualitative research. In fact, I'm a fan of mixed methods, but it does mean that we need to be intentional about this work. So, I'm really pleased that our plenary tomorrow morning unpacks all the facets of inclusive research by people who have engaged in it and been partners and benefited from it.
Closely related to inclusive research is another priority. It's to encourage researchers to conduct their work through a racial equity lens and an equity lens more generally. This is also important. We cannot be in the business of studying the issues of crime and justice without acknowledging the deeply embedded biases. And there are also biases in the methodologies that we employ and the data that we use, and we need to be more intentional about understanding those biases and mitigating them whenever possible.
So, on our plenary on Thursday morning, which will be facilitated by Carrie Johnson, NPR's Justice Correspondent, we'll hear about an alternative method for detecting bruising on people with the dark skin. It's a great illustration of how science can both create disparities and develop solutions to remedy them.
I've also been a very strong advocate for encouraging interdisciplinary research teams, and you'll see plenty of those examples throughout the conference. I'd particularly like to highlight one that we have. It brings together experts from our forensics and investigative sciences side of the house with our social science side of the house, and that's going to be tomorrow looking at methods to detect emerging drugs that are subject to misuse. They have panelists representing epidemiology, public health, forensic science, and criminal justice research and practice disciplines. Now, this conference does represent a different model from your typical research conference. Like I said earlier, you know, it's like this isn't about researchers talking to other researchers. This isn't about digging deep into the methodology or nuances in the data. That's all very interesting to me, to be sure. But that's not what this conference is about. This conference is about evidence to action. And as such, we've really created a different structure. We're encouraging our grantees to present findings, not works in progress, and to be concise about those findings and to focus those findings with an eye towards their implications for policy and practice, right? And we have discussants representing practitioners, policymakers, advocates, association heads that will have equal time as the time that a researcher has to really dig in and discuss the implications of those findings.
Again, a very different model and one that is part of my fifth priority, which is what we're calling evidence to action. What can we do to better ensure that the field learns about research, believes the research findings, is inspired to do something different, to improve their policies and practices. This is what implementation science is all about. And we have a panel right after this one that digs into this issue. So, I welcome you to join that if you wish. It will be in this very room. So, promoting evidence to action also means engaging in meaningful ways with practitioners in the research process, but better yet, how about engaging practitioners as researchers? That's exactly what NIJ's Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science (LEADS) Scholars Program is all about. And since 2014, NIJ has supported and empowered research-minded practitioners, originally sworn officers in law enforcement agencies to learn about research, to conduct their own research, to connect with others. The program has since been expanded to include civilians and some academics who have demonstrated interest and track record in authentic partnerships. And they are an amazing collection of people. If you are a current or past LEADS scholar, would you please stand and be recognized? Thank you. You really are leaders in your field. You're future executives. Some of you have been through the program and become law enforcement executives. You are those real authentic research partners and I just am so thankful to you and also to RTI International, RAND, IACP, and the Police Executive Research Forum who all support the program.
I think that we need to spend more time focusing on methodology. I know I said we're not going to geek out on it, but there's one area that's bugged me forever and really plagued the field. And that's that we don't have good ways to represent community perceptions of police and how they are policed that we can collect at the local level that don't underrepresent the people that I would argue matter most in this context. And those are the people who live in the highest crime, most heavily policed communities, largely communities of color. That's why I'm really excited to share that last week at The American Society of Evidence-Based Policing conference, I announced that NIJ has launched a new prize challenge. What’s a prize challenge? It's a new way to invite innovation in the field. It's a competition where we're inviting people to propose innovative methods to better represent this perspective at the local level.
Now, when we started planning this conference, we knew we wanted to feature NIJ grantees prominently. I mean, this is the NIJ research conference, right? And we also recognize that if we lift up NIJ grantees, particularly those who already have findings in hand, right? That means that the research started several years ago. It means that they're principal investigators and let's be real, it means that, you know, you PIs have a little bit of age to you. And we also noted that if we only focus on NIJ grantees, we will not be elevating some of the newer, perhaps more innovative and cutting edge methods. And we really wanted to be intentional about supporting the next generation of principal investigators. So, how do we do that? One thing we did was to invite poster submissions, and we received 150 applications. We selected 50, 30 of which are by graduate students. That poster session is tomorrow from 5:00 to 7:00, and there will be prizes. We'll be announcing those winners on Thursday morning. But we wanted to go even further to support our future leaders and scholars in the space. So, we also conducted a competition for a student scholarship program to pay for their travel and lodging and expenses while they're here at this conference. For that, we received 181 applications. We had resources to cover 25 of those. And I'm so glad they're here. They represent a variety of disciplines and about half represent minority serving institutions. So, if you are a student whose poster was accepted or who received a travel scholarship, would you please stand? Let's all give them a round of applause. Thank you. You are our future. We're so glad you're here to listen, and to learn, and to network, and to bring your new, fresh ideas and energy to our field. Thank you for being here.
I also want to acknowledge present and past NIJ and OJP leaders. I'm so pleased that Laurie Robinson, former Assistant Attorney General of the Office of Justice Programs twice over is here with us today. And I also welcome John Laub, former NIJ Director. There may be others that are tuning in by live stream. So, thanks to you as well. You have laid the foundation for the NIJ of today, and I'm tremendously thankful for your vision and your leadership. I am also blessed to have the most amazing collection of colleagues as heads of OJP's other components. Alex Piquero, my partner in all things science, head of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Kris Rose, my former NIJ colleague from years ago, former acting NIJ director and current presidentially appointed Director of the Office for Victims of Crime. Liz Ryan, Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention. Karhlton Moore, Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance. And Helena Heath, Director of OJP's SMART Office. You can hear from them later today after lunch at the fireside chat, which will be kicked off by Associate Attorney General of the Justice Department, Vanita Gupta. They'll be sharing how they're integrating science into their agency's mission and work. And tomorrow afternoon, Alex and I will be sharing our thoughts on the future of research and statistics and answering questions from the audience where we'll be prioritizing questions from our graduate students at the conference.
So, my amazing colleagues are truly that, they're amazing. And we are so fortunate to benefit from the vision and leadership of the newly Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General of the Office of Justice Programs, Amy Solomon. Amy is an exceptionally inclusive leader. She is a fierce advocate for safety, for equity, for justice, and she has a passion for science and research that started right at NIJ when we were both colleagues together too many years ago to mention. Amy served as a Senior Advisor to the OJP Assistant Attorney General during the Obama administration. She also led the Obama administration's Federal Interagency Reentry Council. She established a portfolio of research around jail reentry when she was at the Urban Institute, and I had the pleasure of working with her there as well. And she spearheaded several correctional reform efforts as Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures before returning to OJP in 2021. And I want to be very clear about something. I can think of no one, and I mean no one, better positioned, more experienced to lead OJP. I am so proud to call her both my colleague and my dear friend. Amy, welcome, the stage is yours.
AMY SOLOMON: Thank you, Nancy, for that very generous and moving introduction. I appreciate it. And good morning, everyone. It is incredible to be in this room at the NIJ conference after more than a decade. I am so glad to be here. I'm so glad you are here as well. It is thrilling to have so many of our nation's leading criminal justice researchers and practitioners gathered in one place, sharing information and exchanging ideas with our foremost public safety experts. I'm so pleased to welcome graduate students, budding criminologists, practitioners, policymakers, and others who are newer to the field and eager to build knowledge and translate evidence into action. I want to extend a special thanks to our very distinguished first speaker, Attorney General Merrick Garland. As you just heard, the Attorney General is a champion of science and a strong supporter of the National Institute of Justice. And his presence here signals a deep commitment to this work at the highest levels of the Department of Justice.
And, of course, we're here for the first time in 12 years, thanks to the vision and the leadership of one Nancy La Vigne. Among many other priorities, Nancy made it her mission to bring back the NIJ Conference as a forum for sharing knowledge and research and practice, something that has animated her entire career. She is backed by an exceptional team of scientists, program managers, and talented NIJ professionals who work so hard every day to advance the science mission of the Department of Justice.
Now, as you just heard, I am a little partial to NIJ, as some of you know, and now all of you know, I spent three years early in my career in the late '90s, sorry, at NIJ. I was a Junior Staffer. I was starry-eyed about working in the government at the research agency, and it was one of the best jobs that I ever had. And during those years, under the leadership of Jeremy Travis, NIJ served as the think tank of the department. It was a place of big ideas, of great collaboration, and of a lot of knowledge building. And it was during those years that I first met Nancy, and even then, she was a rock star. She headed up the Crime Mapping Research Center that she had founded. She was full of vision and new analytic techniques that she put into play all around the country. Those early investments in Nancy's vision and leadership significantly influenced the national landscape and planted the seeds for so much of what's going on today. All to say as an avid research consumer now on my part, I so look forward to the program that Nancy and the NIJ team has put together.
Over these next two and a half days, we will hear from the brightest minds in the field, scientists who are exploring innovative solutions to an array of public safety challenges, researchers who are conducting rigorous evaluations of criminal and juvenile justice programs, policymakers who are designing strategies based on those findings, and practitioners who are putting evidence into action. This is a jam-packed agenda. It reflects the most urgent and important crime and justice challenges of our time. From gun violence to hate crimes, from drugs and gangs to domestic radicalization, and from the latest developments in forensic science to the benefits and challenges of artificial intelligence, from women in policing and officer safety to the health of our nation's corrections culture. You will see a sharp focus not only on how this knowledge can be applied, but on how research can and should be informed by those closest to the issues.
Nancy's push for inclusive research mirrors the work that we are doing across the Office of Justice Programs, to bring in people with lived experience, people who have been in the criminal justice themselves, who have been victims in the justice arena, people who have worked in the criminal justice system. Their perspectives enrich and enlighten our work and their insights will deepen our knowledge and they will ensure it is credible. Also on display at this conference is a commitment to science from across OJP and throughout the department. Of course, we were just honored by the presence of the Attorney General this morning and this afternoon, we'll have the pleasure of welcoming the department's third ranking official, Associate Attorney General, Vanita Gupta. Their presence and participation send a clear message that investing in science is a priority of this department. It is also worth noting or repeating that science permeates our work at the Office of Justice Programs. Our program offices are led by science-minded professionals. The Director of our Bureau of Justice Statistics, Dr. Alex Piquero, is one of the world's top criminologists. And the heads of the other program offices, who you'll hear from all of them later this afternoon, have extensive track record working with researchers and deploying data and evidence to tackle the justice system and the victim services challenges faced by our communities. I am so looking forward to leading a discussion with them this afternoon. And you'll hear about the ways that we invest in and rely on science in our day-to-day work. I hope you can see that this administration and this department are committed to strong science and this commitment could not come at a more opportune moment.
There are so many urgent challenges in front of us and so many questions about how to meet those challenges. The foundation of evidence that many of you have helped to lay is a strong one and we hope to build on it leaning on the expertise of everyone in this room. I am so excited about these next three days of networking and knowledge-sharing, and I'm looking forward to working with all of you in the months ahead as we double down on our commitment to science as a key investment in creating safe and just communities. Thank you so much for being here. I'm so looking forward to the conference.
Opinions or points of view expressed in these recordings represent those of the speakers and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Any commercial products and manufacturers discussed in these recordings are presented for informational purposes only and do not constitute product approval or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice.