By Becky Lewis
In 1968, police officers faced gunfire without wearing any kind of protective equipment; DNA might have been a vague, distant memory from high school biology; and the first grants given out by the Department of Justice’s new National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (NILECJ) averaged $100.
Fifty years later, officers commonly wear ballistic-resistant body armor certified by the renamed National Institute of Justice (NIJ), armor that has saved thousands of lives; DNA has become part of our everyday vocabulary; and NIJ awards average considerably more than $100 and result in rigorous research that helps inform and shape criminal justice policies and practices.
On July 10, members of the research and criminal justice communities, along with NIJ staff and contractors, gathered in-person and online to hear two former NIJ directors and two practitioners participate in a panel discussion on “NIJ’s 50 Anniversary – Looking Back, Looking Forward,” part of the agency’s “Research for the Real World” series of webinars. The current NIJ director, Dr. David Muhlhausen, gave opening remarks and moderated a brief question-and-answer session at the end of the discussion. In his opening presentation, Dr. Muhlhausen pointed out that 50 years ago, 9-1-1 didn’t exist, no one had heard of license plate readers and no one was conducting rigorous research to help law enforcement. That began to change in 1967, when the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice released a report calling for increased support to state and local police departments. In 1968, out of this effort came the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), an agency within DOJ that administered federal funding to state and local law enforcement agencies and also funded educational programs and research. NILECJ, which became NIJ, was part of LEAA; the name changed in December 1979.
Both former directors talked about NIJ’s accomplishments during their tenures while putting those retrospectives in context with today’s work.
Mr. Stewart said that in 1982, policymakers had a poor view of social science. He saw that NIJ had great promise, but needed to demonstrate that rigorous research could help police and corrections agencies: “We were doing detailed surveys that no one in the field ever read unless they heard there were going to be questions on an exam about it.”
One of the earliest projects that the agency took on during his tenure involved working with the police departments in Newark, N.J., and Houston on increasing people’s perception of safety. Reducing Fear of Crime in Houston and Newark: A Summary Report indicated that if officers spend more time talking with people, they can reduce the fear of crime and possibly, crime itself. This research, Mr. Stewart said, was a first step in shifting the focus from policy analysis to helping the real world. He also noted that during his tenure NIJ did work to make corrections facilities less formidable and more impenetrable, as well as advancing use of DNA as physical evidence and research on conducted energy weapons, what we term today as Conducted Energy Devices (CEDs).
Dr. Laub, who took over as head of the agency 20 years after Mr. Stewart’s departure, characterized NIJ’s mission as unique, and added: “Research must be rigorous, but it also must be really valued by practitioners. Given this, NIJ faces a two-fold challenge— generating rigorous knowledge, and disseminating relevant and usable knowledge to those practitioners.”
NIJ generates rigorous scientific research and disseminates relevant information, which helps translate research into policy and practice, Dr. Laub says, but it’s a two-way street, with the scientist developing new tools based on practitioner feedback about needs. During his tenure, Dr. Laub said that mass incarceration and crime rates declined, and NIJ funded new programs to combat human trafficking and continued partnering with NIST to further DNA research.
The two law enforcement practitioners talked about their experiences working with NIJ, and how that collaboration helped their departments make sound policy decisions based on research results.
Chief Stawinski said that for too long, law enforcement agencies made decisions based on anecdotal evidence as opposed to applying sound research and scientific principles. In Prince George’s County, the department has achieved drastic reductions in crime rates by tossing out preconceived ideas about when and where crime was spiking, and using data to determine the actual times and places where the department needed to focus.
“Policing is not [only] about catching the criminal—it’s also about applying social science to fundamentally understand causation of crime,” said Chief Stawinski. “Safe people lead better lives. They lead a safer world into existence. I thank NIJ for their support in helping us work towards this future.”
Chief Stawinski said he makes it a goal to try to get more practitioners involved in working with research efforts. Chief Thomson, in a similar vein, described himself as a professional reformer, saying that society is changing and policing needs to change with it. When he started taking help from others and actively enlisting help, good things began to happen. He also realized that change could not come unilaterally from the police department; it had to come from the community as a whole.
“A lot of the work with NIJ got us to a point where we understood the block and we actually started reducing crime. We knocked on doors and talked with people,” Thomson said. “I heard a woman say that her child used to be afraid of the police, now he wanted to be one. This change did not happen by accident. We applied what we learned from evidence-based studies and abandoned tradition.”
Following the presentations, Dr. Muhlhausen and members of the audience asked the panelists questions. (Note: Another obligation caused Chief Stawinski to leave before the Q&A.) Highlighting that exchange were comments from the participants about what NIJ has been doing right and what needs to change in the future:
Mr. Stewart: I encourage you to be more responsive. It’s hard to wait 18 to 24 to 36 months for a report on what happened. Do more Research in Brief or other quick turnaround documents. The biggest challenge is to be more relevant. (Dr. Muhlhausen pointed out the new “Notes from the Field” series that focuses not on research, but on the experiences of a particular chief.
Dr. Laub: In order to supply the research, we need to know what the field needs to know. Also, NIJ has not done a good job of telling its story. Use this 50th anniversary as a springboard.
Chief Thomson: A lot of times practitioners have a hard time articulating what they need. The researchers need to get out in the field, the way Dr. Muhlhausen did with coming to Camden and riding along in a squad car.”
At the end of the day, a quote from Mr. Stewart early in the event perhaps summed it up best: “This ‘Research for the Real World’ event is not only an important title, but an important motto. This is 50 years of improving justice and saving lives— the research done here has real impacts in saving people’s lives.”
To further mark the 50th anniversary, NIJ also plans to release several Director’s Corner articles on its website, NIJ.gov, where Dr. Muhlhausen will talk about NIJ’s past and future. Articles will appear periodically throughout the remainder of the year. There will also be a special issue of the NIJ Journal sometime later in 2018.
James “CHIPS” Stewart, presently Director of Public Safety and Senior Fellow for Law Enforcement with CNA Analysis & Solutions, served as NIJ director from 1982 to 1990, the longest-serving NIJ director. Stewart also served as Commander of the Oakland Police Department's Criminal Investigations Division and as a White House Fellow and Special Assistant to the United States Attorney General.
Chief Hank Stawinski, Prince George’s County (Md.) Police, became chief in 2016 after serving 23 years with the department. His father was also a Prince George’s police officer. He is a member of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).
John H. Laub, presently Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, College Park, served as NIJ director from July 22, 2010 to Jan. 4, 2013.
Chief Scott Thomson of Camden County, N.J., is a native of Camden who emphasizes community policing. He has been chief since 2013, and previously was chief of the former Camden Police Department beginning in 2008. Chief Thomson began his law enforcement career in 1992. He serves as President of PERF.