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Back to Archives | Back to June 2009 Contents 

Partnerships with University-Based Researchers

By Beth A. Sanders, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Thomas More College, Crestview Hills, Kentucky; and Marc L. Fields, Chief of Police, Erlanger, Kentucky

artnerships between law enforcement leaders and academic researchers have resulted in remarkable successes over the last 30 years. Policing practices in vital areas of criminal justice have been influenced by robust research projects that have led to substantive and sound policy recommendations. But despite notable successes, much remains to be done. The powerful potential of law enforcement research partnerships has not yet been fully realized. Existing research partnerships too frequently suffer from a number of predictable but unresolved problems, and very few of the 17,580 law enforcement agencies across the United Sates have even begun to reap the benefits of research partnerships.

For these partnerships to work, police agencies and researchers need to identify and locate each other, specify projects that are mutually interesting, determine compensation, and set some ground rules to clarify expectations for how the project will proceed. Partnerships between police agencies and academic researchers can have long-term benefits for both groups.

Identifying Projects

First, police administrators need to identify projects of importance to their agencies whose completion involves academic skills such as survey construction, statistical analysis, or report writing. A short-term benefit of forming outside partnerships is that sworn personnel do not have to be pulled away from regular policing duty.

Types of projects that might benefit from the involvement of academic researchers include the following:

  • Crime data analysis

  • Grant writing

  • Police officer selection

  • Field training officer (FTO) training process evaluation

  • Promotional exams

  • Survey construction and probability sampling

  • Web construction/design

  • Program evaluation/impact assessment

  • Report writing

Identifying Local Researchers

The next step is to find a researcher with skills and interests that match a department’s need. There are several ways to accomplish this task. The first avenue to explore is to contact local colleges or universities with a criminal justice or criminology department. A university with master’s- or doctoral-level students may be the best place to start, as those departments often are looking for opportunities to get their graduate students involved in research. Colleges and universities vary in terms of how focused on research their faculties are. Academic departments such as sociology, criminal justice, and psychology are especially likely to have professors whose Ph.D. preparation in the social sciences included in-depth training in data analysis, report writing, grant writing, and statistics.

If an agency’s local university does not have a criminal justice department, it may be necessary to widen the search. Some universities house their criminal justice faculty within sociology, anthropology, or political science departments. Another option is to contact the department chairperson of other academic departments such as psychology, public administration, or behavioral sciences. There may be faculty or graduate students who would be very interested in undertaking applied research with a police agency.

For example, most sociology, criminal justice, and psychology programs require both undergraduate and graduate students to take a course in social science research. Quite often, professors who teach a research methods class at the local university are in need of ideas and projects for students. These professors can use practical examples to teach students how to construct a survey or how to choose a representative sample from a larger population. Such students and professors may be willing to create and administer a survey on police-community relations or fear of crime. Widening the search beyond the social sciences, geography departments might have expertise with crime mapping or with software such as ArcView. Computer science professors often look for Web sites in need of updating to give their students real-life practice on projects.

Some other ways to find local researchers:

  • Locate or create a list of past and present college interns or students who have requested ride-alongs and contact their departments/professors

  • Contact other area police departments and inquire if they have had assistance with research projects such as surveys, crime analysis, or grant writing

Determining Compensation

One possible barrier to undertaking projects such as conducting citizen surveys or promotional exams can be the expense associated with the hiring of professors and consultants with advanced degrees and busy schedules. There are a few ways that police departments can overcome this obstacle. First, ask for an in-kind donation of time. Although professional consultants may charge $30–$50 an hour, many university professors have been known to bill nonprofit agencies and police departments for significantly fewer hours than were actually spent completing the project. Professors who work with graduate students will often donate their time and charge the agency only for the
students’ hours.

A second option is a true exchange, where professors provide their time at no cost in exchange for access to police department data. Data can be a valuable bargaining tool for two reasons:

  • Many institutions require professors to publish to receive tenure. Having access to data can often be a large draw for scholars who need to publish research articles.

  • Graduate students often need data to complete a master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation. In exchange for obtaining arrest or calls-for-service data or asking patrol officers to fill out a survey on job satisfaction, graduate students may be inclined to provide numerous hours of data analysis and report writing.

Clarifying Expectations

As in any working relationship, communicating expectations is important. If a few common pitfalls can be avoided, partnerships between police agencies and academics can have substantial benefits for both. First, both the police agency and the researcher should be clear from the beginning of the project about such issues as compensation and data access. If an agency expects a professor to donate time and is presented with a bill for $5,000, the relationship is not likely to last. Conversely, a partnership is likely to end if a researcher puts in a substantial amount of time on a project and then is not given as much access to arrest records as was promised.

Second, both parties should clarify expectations about data usage and expectations of confidentiality and/or anonymity. Most university researchers work within the constraints of institutional review board (IRB) policies and are well versed in ethical issues surrounding data confidentiality.

Last, it is important to be clear and flexible regarding the timeline of projects. Researchers should be aware that even if police administrators work a nine-to-five shift, they are often called away with personnel problems, community meetings, or training classes. Emergencies that require the attention of police administrators are often true life-and-death crises, so meeting times and deadlines may have to be more flexible than researchers would prefer. Conversely, researchers often have deadlines for academic journals or paper presentations at conferences where appearing at a panel without data can be embarrassing. Especially if researchers are donating their time, they want to feel that their time and talents are respected. An agency that puts off a project and then pushes up a deadline with a hurry-up-and-wait approach can be off-putting.

Mutual Benefits of Partnership

Undoubtedly, for most criminal justice researchers, the principal benefit of a police partnership is access to a source of data. Although many professors engage in applied research (that is, pragmatic research such as program evaluation or impact assessment), many are also interested in basic research (general theory testing). In exchange for evaluating the success of targeted traffic enforcement, a professor might ask patrol officers questions on personality or values to test hypotheses about police officer socialization processes.

The benefits for police departments are numerous as well:

  • Employing data to make hiring decisions

  • Applying job analysis data to make promotions more objective

  • Collecting data for writing grant applications

  • Surveying citizens about crime priorities or quality of life

  • Gathering data to justify requests for money or equipment

  • Using data to improve services in general (identifying priorities, understanding citizen fears)


Both sides of a law enforcement research partnership can enjoy long-term benefits. First, police agencies can provide internship opportunities for the professor’s students. Relatedly, having contacts at local police agencies can be useful for future job opportunities for graduates. When police and professors build a working relationship, the university’s students become aware of job opportunities, internships, and officer testing dates. Similarly, police officers can provide professors with useful teaching tools such as case studies and guest speakers. Professors who teach courses in policing, administration, organizational management, public administration, and political science can benefit from having access to real-life examples of motivation, leadership, organizational structure, personnel issues, and organizational communication. Conversely, sending a guest speaker to a local college can provide a police agency with a large recruiting pool. Similarly, networks at local colleges could provide future opportunities for adjunct teaching for police administrators with advanced degrees. ■

Beth A. Sanders, Ph.D., is associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Kentucky. She has served as a consultant for the Ohio Law Enforcement Foundation and sat on the promotion board for the Kentucky State Police.
Dr. Sanders’s work has appeared in such journals as Criminal Justice Policy Review and Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management.

Chief Marc L. Fields joined the Erlanger, Kentucky, Police Department in 1986 and has been chief of police since 2002. Chief Fields is a 1994 graduate of the National Academy of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Improving Partnerships between Law Enforcement Leaders and University-Based Researchers

The IACP embraces the goal of promoting effective law enforcement research partnerships in every agency across the United States.

Joining with the Association of Doctoral Programs in Criminology and Criminal Justice and the National Institute of Justice, the IACP hosted an October 2003 roundtable meeting to find methods of improving partnerships between law enforcement leaders and university-based researchers. Funding for the roundtable was provided by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

The goal of the roundtable was to identify the problems that hinder the establishment and the continuation of effective law enforcement research partnerships and to draft solutions to those problems. Roundtable participants developed 49 recommendations for establishing and sustaining effective law enforcement research partnerships.

Recommendations emerged in the following six categories:

  • Selecting skilled researchers

  • Training law enforcement leaders in evaluating and performing research

  • Designing and formalizing the research agenda

  • Developing and sustaining relationships between law enforcement leaders
    and researchers

  • Evaluating and responding to research results

  • Managing funding for research partnerships

The full report, including the recommendations and the action agenda, is found on the IACP Web site at



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 6, June 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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