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Director's Message: Elevating Practitioners — From Advisers to Participants to Drivers


I started my tenure at NIJ with a commitment to getting out into the field to ensure NIJ stays connected. And I restate that commitment here.

From my very first day as the Director of the National Institute of Justice, I have made elevating the role of the practitioner a priority in everything we do. Our research must be connected to and serve the needs of the field. To ensure this, we listen to the needs of the field and encourage their participation in our funded research and evaluation projects.

Now we're pushing further. We still rely on the field to help inform our research agenda and take part in studies, but we know they can do more and we can help. Our latest efforts include giving them a voice at NIJ and helping them step into the driver's seat to run their own research projects.

Here's a rundown of the many ways NIJ is elevating the role of practitioners in everything we do.

Giving Practitioners a Voice

In 2018, we launched the Notes From the Field series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America's streets today.

Those working in the criminal and juvenile justice systems should always use research and evidence to inform their policies and practices. However, leaders often have to make quick decisions based on unpredictable circumstances, and sometimes the research simply isn't available.

Notes From the Field is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by law enforcement executives and other on-the-ground leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.

Embedding Practitioners in NIJ

Many of NIJ's efforts involve getting NIJ out into the field. Our most recent program, Practitioners-in-Residence, brings the field to NIJ. Through this program, criminal justice leaders from corrections, law enforcement, and courts will join us in-house, giving us a direct line of connection to the field. NIJ will support each practitioner chosen for this program as they pursue independent research and other projects over the course of their residencies. Learn more about this program and our first resident, Dr. Reena Chakraborty from the DC Department of Corrections.

Supporting Practitioner-led RCTs in Corrections

Another new effort will be funded under a fiscal year 2018 award to New York University's BetaHub. This project will facilitate multiple practitioner-led randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and related research in correctional facilities. BetaHub plans to work directly with prison staff at the federal, state, and local levels to implement RCTs and related research on priority programs and innovations, operations, and environments. Through this grant, we will also connect BetaHub with our LEADS Scholars to facilitate their continued work in running RCTs within law enforcement agencies. Keeping with the theme of putting practitioners in the evidence-building driver's seat, this project will include the production of a promising practices guide for implementing practitioner-led research in criminal justice agencies.

Listening and Learning to Shape the Research Agenda

Dating back decades, NIJ has worked with practitioners to help shape our research agenda.

In recent years, we have formalized this process to ensure we can identify needs related to police, courts, or corrections operations and construct projects to address them. We have accomplished this through the Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative, which was launched in 2013 and focused primarily on practitioners' technology-related needs.

To continue and expand this work beyond its original focus on technology, we have funded the Criminal Justice Requirements and Resources Consortium under a competitive, fiscal year 2018 solicitation. More information about the consortium will be available in the coming months. I'm very excited to be able to grow this effort.

Encouraging Research Partnerships

One way practitioners can ensure that they have a seat at the research table is to work directly in partnership with researchers. NIJ has long encouraged such partnerships. More than 20 years ago, we funded an evaluation of the Locally Initiated Research Partnership program — a joint effort between NIJ and the COPS Office — that determined that "federal funds spent on local police–researcher collaborations were funds well spent.[1]

From 2009-2015, NIJ annually released a solicitation to encourage building and enhancing criminal justice partnerships. Through these solicitations, we funded research projects involving researcher-practitioner partnerships and captured detailed descriptions of these collaborations to help guide future partnerships. See the article "The Prevalence and Characteristics of Police Practitioner–Researcher Partnerships" from Police Quarterly for a detailed discussion on one exemplary project.

Starting in 2016, every NIJ research, development, and evaluation solicitation encouraged researchers to partner with practitioner agencies to gain a fuller understanding of the relevant operational environment.

Empowering Practitioners to Conduct Their Own Research

Listening to practitioners' needs and encouraging partnerships with researchers are important steps in empowering research. But if the research process was a road trip, this only puts practitioners in the passenger seat. They might point out landmarks or navigate, but they still are just along for the ride.

NIJ wants to help put them in the driver's seat; not just informing and participating, but doing the research.

To help build a community of practitioner researchers, or "pracademics," NIJ launched the Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science (LEADS) Scholars program a few years back. The goal of the program is to increase the individual research capabilities of law enforcement officers. We are creating a community of like-minded officers committed not only to implementing evidence-based policing but also dedicated to developing the evidence base.

For criminal justice agencies interested in research and implementing evidence-based practices, the Criminal Justice Requirements and Resources Consortium will provide technical assistance and support in addition to helping collect research needs to inform NIJ.

I hope it's clear how excited I am about all of our work focused on empowering criminal and juvenile justice officials. That excitement and commitment extends to all my staff at NIJ; we've made it an Institute-wide priority for us to more effectively make and maintain one-on-one connections between practitioners and NIJ's science staff.

As for me personally, I started my tenure at NIJ with a commitment to getting out into the field to ensure NIJ stays connected. And I restate that commitment here.


[note 1] Tom McEwen, "Evaluation of the Locally Initiated Research Partnership Program," Final report to the National Institute of Justice, grant number 1995-IJ-CX-0083, January 2004, NCJ 204022.