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Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships

Innovations Suite Researcher-Practitioner Fellows Academy
Michigan State University, School of Criminal Justice

Thank you, and good morning. My name is Howard Spivak and I am the Principal Deputy Director of the National Institute of Justice, NIJ.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, NIJ is the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. We use science to inform and advance criminal justice policies and practices across the country. To do this, we provide objective and independent knowledge and tools to inform the criminal justice community, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ falls under the umbrella of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which is overseen by Assistant Attorney General Alan Hanson.

NIJ has a long history of advancing science across almost every aspect of criminal justice. Our work spans law enforcement, courts, corrections, standards, forensics, and many other areas.

Although we are working to change this, not every criminal justice practitioner is familiar with NIJ’s name. Still, if you have ever worn a bulletproof vest, worked on a case involving forensic evidence, read about the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or heard about the role technology can play in reducing violent crime and increasing officer safety, chances are you are familiar with some of our work.

Later this year, NIJ will celebrate our fiftieth anniversary of work informing the criminal justice field.

NIJ Is Committed to Useful Research

Research isn’t useful to the criminal justice system unless it has on-the-ground applicability.

In all of our work, NIJ strives to ensure that our research answers the most pressing needs and questions of the field. We aim to fund relevant research that informs policies and practices centered on what works and what matters.

We believe that there is no room in criminal justice research for an ivory tower. Research has to be applicable, relevant, and informative to on-the-ground work.

The Importance of Partnerships

As many of you know from firsthand experience, researcher-practitioner partnerships are one of the best ways to ensure the value of research for both academics and practitioners in the field. NIJ is strongly committed to supporting this kind of partnership. Our funding and other work in this space reflects our dedication to partnerships.

NIJ’s commitment to supporting researcher-practitioner partnerships stretches back decades. We have long believed that these partnerships are the best way to implement rigorous research and evaluations that will inform policies and practices, and have on-the-ground impact.

Partnership Guidebooks

One of the many ways NIJ has supported practitioner-researcher partnerships has been through the development and publication of two guides about establishing and sustaining law enforcement-researcher partnerships. One of these two guides is for law enforcement leaders and one is for researchers.Both were created under an NIJ grant to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, IACP.

Both the law enforcement guide and the researcher guide discuss the rationale behind research partnerships, and lay out a step-by-step path for initiating, organizing, implementing, and assessing partnerships.

Since their publication, these guides have been used to help build and sustain research partnerships. They are freely available for download on IACP’s website, and if you are not familiar with them, I highly recommend you use them as a tool to support your current and future partnerships.

Building Bridges Study

All of NIJ’s work is centered on research and evidence. Through science and research, we aim to learn what works and fund what works. This applies to researcher-practitioner partnerships as well. NIJ doesn’t blindly tout partnerships. We fund research to understand the value, challenges, and impact of these partnerships.

We want to know not only if practitioner-researcher partnerships work, but how they work, and when, and where, and why.

Despite widespread interest in partnerships and advocacy by IACP and other organizations, little was known about the true scope and scale of practitioner-researcher partnerships in law enforcement.

One NIJ-funded study sought to better understand these partnerships. This study is called Building Bridges Between Police Researchers and Practitioners: Agents of Change in a Complex World (pdf, 297 pages). It examined the prevalence of research partnerships in American law enforcement, to provide insight about how common partnerships are, and what factors contribute to their success or failure.

Drawing on a national survey, interviews with members of 89 partnerships, and four case studies, this study examined the factors that positively or negatively impact the development and sustainability of partnerships. It also compiled lessons learned from existing or past partnerships, with the goal of informing future partnerships.

Research Utilization. The “Building Bridges” study found that nearly 80 percent of agencies “sometimes” or “very often” used research findings to inform their policies and operations. However, it also found that agencies most frequently draw from publications including Police Chief magazine, the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, or other IACP publications, rather than academic journals. More than half of agencies reported using NIJ publications to inform their work.

Partnership Prevalence. Overall, less than a third of agencies surveyed reported participating in a partnership within the past five years.

The research offered even more insight when it broke down research partnerships by agency size. Nearly half of large agencies, with more than 100 officers, had participated in a partnership. This number fell to 25 percent of agencies with between 50 and 99 officers, and continued to fall with agency size.

Overall, less than 20 percent of all agencies participated in short-term partnerships, and just 10 percent participated in long-term partnerships. Similar to overall partnership participation, both of these numbers were directly related to agency size, with small agencies participating in fewer partnerships.

These numbers suggest that partnerships are largely pursued by only a small number of agencies, and the vast majority of these agencies are large departments. This is an important finding, particularly because the majority of American law enforcement agencies are small, rural departments. Unsurprisingly, more than half of agencies cited a lack of resources as their primary reason for not participating in a research partnerships.

The study also found increased partnership participation among agencies that used research-based publications to inform their decision making. This was particularly true for agencies that drew on NIJ publications. However, the study could not draw causal conclusions. In other words, it was unclear whether partnerships led agencies to draw from research-based publications, or whether research-minded agencies were more likely to seek out research partnerships.

Benefits: Law Enforcement Agencies. This study posed research questions about the benefits of partnerships that shed light on the motivation for partnerships, as why as non-participating agencies may not see value in these collaborations.

Law enforcement agencies cited four major benefits:

  1. First, an external researcher offered valuable knowledge, methodological skills, and perspective.
  2. Second, partnerships offered departments third-party credibility that agencies couldn’t achieve alone.
  3. Partnerships helped agencies increase their capacity and efficiency.
  4. And finally, partnerships helped departments successfully address public safety issues, with the ultimate result of improving public trust.

Benefits: Researcher. Of course, the benefits of partnerships are not limited to law enforcement.

Partnerships gave researchers access to law enforcement agencies, their personnel, and data. This access, in turn, provided the information to write articles for academic publications.

Partnerships provided experiences that improved researcher teaching and created mentorship opportunities for students.

Researchers also reported the personal satisfaction of seeing their work applied to improve and agency and community.

Barriers to Partnerships. While the benefits of partnerships vary between practitioners and researchers, the barriers were largely found to be shared between these two groups.

The study found three major categories of barriers:

  1. First, structural barriers included a lack of financial support, geographic proximity of partners, high turnover among the key participants in a partnership, and institutional demands on both partners.
  2. A second group of barriers reflected the varied values between practitioners and researchers, and the main goals each was trying to accomplish. Not all police practitioners value outside research and changing the way they do business. Similarly, researchers expressed a hesitancy to be pulled away from other research and publication opportunities.
  3. The final group of barriers reflected the interpersonal relationships involved in partnerships, particularly the difficulty of effective and ongoing communication, and building and maintaining trust.

Conclusion. “Building Bridges” is one of the most comprehensive studies on law enforcement-practitioner research partnership to date, and offered clear insight in understanding the scope, benefits, and barriers to partnerships.

The report is freely available online through the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, and I highly encourage you to review the full report.

LEADS Initiative

Practitioner-researcher partnerships are all about bridging the gap between on-the-ground work and research, which all too often lives in an ivory tower. But partnerships are not the only way to bridge this gap. Practitioners can also often carry out their own research. Agency-led research can directly respond to law enforcement agency needs, and often allows for a much faster research turnaround time than research conducted through academic partnerships.

NIJ promotes agency-led research through our Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science, or LEADS, Initiative. Through this initiative, NIJ supports law enforcement officers and agencies working to use data and research to inform policing policies and practices. Our LEADS Scholars program accepts ten mid-rank, research-minded law enforcement officers each year, who join the program for a three-year fellowship. NIJ sponsors our scholars’ attendance at the IACP conference, as well as an annual summer session in Washington, DC. We also provide research support for our scholars as they pursue evidence-based projects, and connect them with a strong network of research-minded police practitioners across the country.

Our LEADS Scholars have led successful RCTs and other evidence-based research projects about targeted foot patrol; officer stress and trauma; patrol vehicle lighting schemes; infant mortality; the effectiveness of automatic license plate reader technology; and many other topics. I cannot overstate their contributions to evidence-based policing and officer-led research.

Our LEADS Agencies program is in its pilot stages, but has so far partnered with nine agencies across the country to explore how they can better utilize research and implement evidence-based policing.

One of our LEADS Agencies pilot sites, the Oregon Center for Policing Excellence, has incorporated evidence-based policing modules into the curriculum it delivers to every newly commissioned law enforcement officer in the state.

The Albany Regional Crime Analysis Center in New York, another of our LEADS Agencies pilot sites, has created a Knowledge Bank and Research Consortium to connect researchers with law enforcement agencies.

A third pilot site, the Iowa State Police, is working with NIJ advisors to expand their use of research, data, and evidence across all the work they do.

NIJ promotes research and evidence-based policing through our LEADS Scholars and LEADS Agencies programs. Our next round of applications for the LEADS Scholars program will open this spring, and I would encourage any mid-career, research-minded law enforcement officers to apply.

I’ve discussed some of NIJ’s current and past work relevant to practitioner-researcher partnerships. NIJ has every intension of continuing to support these partnerships, and we hope you will be involved.

We have a number of open and forthcoming solicitations relevant to practitioner-researcher partnerships. We often find that some of our strongest applications include research partnerships. I encourage you to visit NIJ’s website for more information on our funding solicitations.   

In closing, I’d like to thank you for your dedication to partnerships and to advancing the criminal justice field through research. Evidence-based policy and practice has never been more important, and practitioner-researcher partnerships are a key mechanism to conduct the research to inform the criminal justice field.

All of you are here today because you have taken the initiative to pursue research partnerships.

The concept of evidence-based practice and research partnerships has been on the rise over the past decade, but there is still a dramatic need for more research. This is the group of individuals that will make that happen, and I hope NIJ resources will be a valuable resource for you along the way. Thank you for the good work you do.