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Back to Archives | Back to November 2008 Contents 

From the Director

NIJ: Providing Research and Guidance for the U.S. Law Enforcement Community

By David Hagy, Director, National Institute of Justice

David Hagy
David Hagy, Director
National Institute of Justice

re public safety agencies ready to respond when a bridge collapses, a tornado cuts a path of destruction through communities, or a train carrying hazardous material derails? Last month, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) participated in the annual Technologies for Critical Incident Preparedness Conference, held in Chicago. This conference brings together emergency responders, business leaders, and academic innovators to share technology options for preparing and responding to critical incidents.

This is the 10th year NIJ has cosponsored the event with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate and the Department of Defense’s Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and America’s Security Affairs.

At the conference, NIJ contributes the most recent research on a host of technology issues. This year, it showcased its through-the-wall imaging portfolio, designed especially for hostage situations; recently developed biometrics technologies to prevent criminals from gaining entrance to public places; and ongoing work to help identify human remains and find missing persons. The Institute also brought one of its ready-to-deploy forensics laboratories to the conference. These laboratories can be shipped anywhere in the United States to help respond to mass casualty disasters and are currently supplementing the national need for greater crime laboratory capacity by training new forensics analysts without disrupting the crucial ongoing work in state and local labs.

Through the partnerships the Department of Justice has forged with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, these agencies have come to rely on each other every day to achieve their common mission to keep U.S. residents safe.

Current Research Projects

NIJ is also partnering with several large, midsize, and small law enforcement agencies in groundbreaking examinations of how to gather and use intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, state and local law enforcement agencies have been expected to take a bigger role in homeland security. The law enforcement community has invested considerable resources to improve intelligence gathering and information sharing capabilities. However, there has been little research and evaluation about how these activities and processes are actually working—and how to do them better.

As a result, the Institute recently authorized funds for three major policing studies. The highly respected researchers on these projects will contribute valuable new information that will help all agencies in the hands-on work they do every day. These studies will add more to discussions about the future of policing in which NIJ and Harvard University are currently engaged through the Executive Sessions on Policing and Public Safety.

The three recently approved studies are summarized as follows:

Michigan State Study: Researchers at Michigan State University will identify obstacles to intelligence gathering and information sharing and develop best practices for integrating local-level domestic intelligence into the information-sharing environment. To do this, they will conduct a national survey of state, local, and tribal agencies and perform case studies of four fusion centers—all with the aim of understanding how street-level intelligence is best utilized to prevent terrorist incidents.

RAND Study: After the September 11 attacks, many agencies had to shift resources into and increase spending on homeland security. Researchers from RAND’s Center on Quality Policing are investigating how five large urban police departments are balancing their traditional responsibilities with the increased emphasis on preventing terrorist attacks. The study examines the costs and benefits of this new focus, including the degree to which it has created new operational demands, what impact it has had on traditional law enforcement functions, how these agencies have made organizational adjustments since September 11, and how those adjustments have affected the functioning of informal and formal networks.

Research Platform Study: A large team of researchers from across the country (with principal headquarters at the University of Illinois, Chicago) will soon begin building a national research “platform” about policing in the United States. The goal is to understand and measure quality policing. The first phase of the project focuses on critical issues such as turnover, recruitment and training, misconduct lawsuits, and medical leave. The sites are being selected now; it is the study’s goal to involve both large and small jurisdictions.

The study has three components:

  • Personnel: Researchers will look at the “life course”—a longitudinal study—of patrol officers and supervisors.

  • Agencies: What are the leadership styles and accountability systems used by various agencies, and what effect do they have on the structure, practices, and culture of an agency?

  • Innovations: How do agencies introduce and test innovative training and operational initiatives? For example, researchers will explore how to better train new recruits about personal interactions with the public in traffic stops, domestic violence disputes, and burglaries.

Benefits of DNA Collection

NIJ also recently released research about what happens when agencies collect DNA at the scene of a property crime: they identify twice as many suspects, have twice as many cases accepted by prosecutors, and catch criminals who are committing multiple crimes. The Denver, Colorado, Police Department, one of five agencies that participated in the project, caught a husband-and-wife team, both of whom were sentenced to 36 years. The man admitted to as many as 1,000 burglaries in the course of his criminal career. Denver authorities reported that after the pair was arrested, the burglary rate in the neighborhood in which they were committing their crimes dropped 40 percent.

In Denver, researchers found that using DNA, it cost agencies about $1,500 extra to identify a suspect, $3,700 extra to make the arrest, and $2,000 extra to get the case accepted for prosecution. There are several remaining issues on this topic for agencies to consider:

  • How will crime laboratories, which are already struggling to keep up with their current workload, handle an exponential increase in evidence?

  • Are governments willing to hire more prosecutors and public defenders to handle more cases?

  • If the police and crime laboratory issues are resolved, does the criminal justice system need to revisit sentencing guidelines—or is the United States ready to build more jails and prisons to handle an influx of property crime offenders?

The lead researcher on the project, John Roman at the Urban Institute, recently said, “There is a criminal justice revolution coming because of DNA, and we need to have these discussions now, so we don’t have to have them on the run.”

NIJ is the leader in the research and evaluation of forensic DNA to solve crimes, protect the innocent, and convict the guilty. In September, it awarded nearly $8 million to five states—Arizona, Kentucky, Texas, Virginia, and Washington—to help them defray the costs of postconviction DNA testing. These states can use the money to review cases, to locate evidence, or to analyze DNA evidence in forcible rape, murder, and some manslaughter cases. States choose the cases to be reexamined based on evidence that the innocence of a convicted person might be demonstrated through advances in DNA technology.

Interestingly, these five states were the only ones who applied for this funding. The Institute had expected more states to apply, but through a survey it discovered that other states still have questions about the program, about DNA in general, and about the application process. As a result, NIJ will host a symposium in January 2009 to explain how DNA testing works and issues that might be considered when building an infrastructure to use DNA to investigate postconviction cases. The Institute formed a steering committee of criminal justice experts to help guide its planning for these workshops.

Opportunities for Participation

Steering committees, advisory boards, and technical working groups are critical to NIJ, which shapes its agenda based on what it hears from them. They, in turn, help the Institute disseminate the evidence it has gathered about the effectiveness of criminal justice policies and practices.

The IACP/NIJ Research Advisory Group, for example, is composed of senior public safety officers and academic thinkers who regularly share their thoughts on what agencies need, where the gaps in knowledge are, and what is and is not working.

Focus groups and advisory panels provide guidance to NIJ, which then formulates solicitations for research. Advisers in the field usually identify far more needs than there are resources to fill, so competition for grants is focused on areas where research will have the greatest impact.

NIJ’s National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) system provides technical help to police departments and corrections personnel. The regional centers help to develop and disseminate guidelines and standards while also providing information and support to the criminal justice community. Last year, the Institute expanded and reorganized the centers, creating four Centers of Excellence, which focus on testing and evaluating emerging technologies. The four centers specialize in forensics; communications; weapons and equipment; and sensors, surveillance, and biometrics, respectively. (For more on the NLECTC Communications Technology Center of Excellence, please see pages 60–67 of the October 2008 issue of the Police Chief.)

These are just a few examples of NIJ’s recent work. Readers interested in participating in a research project or serving on one of the advisory panels should contact us. We are dedicated to serving policing agencies across the country and always want to hear from professionals in the field. Visit our Web site at to learn more.

NIJ, a component of the Office of Justice Programs, is the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice and is dedicated to researching crime control and justice issues. The Institute provides objective, independent, evidence-based knowledge and tools to meet the challenges of crime and justice, particularly at the state and local levels.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 11, November 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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