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Back to Archives | Back to April 2004 Contents 

A Police-University Collaboration to Improve Community Policing

By Colonel Dean Esserman, Chief of Police, Providence, RI and Anthony M. Pesare, Dean, Roger Williams University, School of Justice Studies, Providence, RI

Making effective use of the talents and resources outside the police department can help extend severely strained police resources. Police in Providence, Rhode Island, are collaborating with a local university to tackle gun violence and other problems in the city. Other jurisdictions could also benefit from such collaborations.

University's Resources

Founded in July 1997, the School of Justice Studies at Roger Williams University in Providence provides in-service training for approximately 1,000 justice system employees each year. The mission of the School of Justice Studies is to build the Justice System Training and Research Institute into an important regional resource to improve the performance and professionalism of police and other justice system professionals. The need for the institute is a reflection of the growing complexity of justice systems. Nowhere is this growing complexity more evident than in large, cash-strapped cities like Providence.

It is through this partnership that critical issues affecting communities can be addressed and perhaps corrected. For instance, through a Byrne Grant, the U.S. attorney in Providence has named the institute a research partner in the Project Safe Neighborhoods Program.

Also through this grant, Roger Williams University and the City of Providence work together on statistical research to examine the ongoing gun violence problem within the city. The research data developed by Roger Williams faculty and graduate students will then be provided to the U.S. attorney's office and the Providence police to direct law enforcement's efforts to reduce gun violence.

During the research, the university will examine and suggest methods through which gun violence can be reduced. The research will test and measure the potential success of those programs, prior to developing final recommendations that can be used by the police department, as well as assist the U.S. attorney's office with a viable plan for implementation.

Experts: To the municipality's benefit, the students, the faculty, and the administration at a university or college represent a blend of academic training and practical experience in diverse areas of the criminal justice system. Academia's greatest asset for the law enforcement community is the breadth of expertise in police practices and police administration, the practice of law, corrections, criminal justice research, methods of social research, higher education, sociology, public administration, judicial procedure, domestic violence, and organized crime. Taping into these resources can only benefit the department.

In most communities, as in Providence, the university faculty has been involved in many research areas including community satisfaction surveys, police training needs assessment, the role of women in law enforcement, police officer stress, and much more. These topics directly relate to how police function in society, and the expertise available from the faculty can serve to inform practitioners of best practices. Reaching out to the local academic community as a resource brings expertise to focus on issues and problems. In Providence, the city benefits from the services of the university's experts.

Research: Those responsible for formulating social policy in the justice system require reliable empirical data about social phenomena in order to develop effective methods and programs. Increasingly sophisticated systems, programs, and training are required to address the complex challenges facing the justice system. The precise nature of the data that is needed to support the justice system varies significantly according to the types of phenomena being studied and the specific purpose of each study. A municipality-university partnership fosters guidance through areas that require the study of social phenomena. By focusing the research ability of a university on crime and social problems, the plans of action for the police department are based in factual and empirical information.

Technology: Today, the impact of technology on law enforcement is radical and unprecedented. DNA evidence analysis allows law enforcement professionals to resolve previously unsolvable cases and vindicate the innocent. Police cruisers are equipped with laptop computers for instantaneous on-scene fingerprint checks. Less-than-lethal weapons, such as the Taser, are designed to subdue violent criminals with less force. Cooperative research in technology can only strengthen law enforcement. Further technological examinations and developments will profoundly affect the way law enforcement professionals conduct their daily jobs.

Training: The blend of academia and the real world can meet the needs of police agencies for relevant, contemporary training. On the local level, research institutions and criminal justice faculty can provide mandatory training required by state law and also address current areas of concern for the police department. Police chiefs across the country are increasingly faced with myriad issues, and often the training expertise on these issues is found at the local university. Such training can be cost-effective for the local department, and it can also promote trust between the university faculty and the police department personnel.

Municipality's Resources

On the other side of the coin, there is enormous potential for the resources of experienced law enforcement professionals to contribute to an institution of higher learning and for the city to make research data available.

Access to Information: At Roger Williams, the Colonel Esserman holds the position of senior law enforcement executive in residence, and this position has helped university researchers obtain statistical data from the Providence Police Department, thereby enhancing the institute's ability to conduct more meaningful studies of community policing issues.

Police departments can be hesitant to share data with academicians. Although this hesitancy can occasionally be based in some legal concerns, it can also be the result of infrequent contact between the department and the researcher. The presence of a command official from the local city police department on the university team helps ensures the proper and official use of data. A police department can only benefit from having its data studied from a fresh perspective.

Experience: The institutional knowledge of a law enforcement executive acquired from diverse professional experiences in the criminal justice system greatly enhances the body of information upon which the academic and municipality partnership can flourish. Among the benefits derived from the experienced law enforcement executive are challenges to the rigors of academic research to ensure that appropriate data and information is being examined and that the research and solutions will have real-world applications.

Focus the Partnership on Developing Solutions

In order for police-community collaboration to work, it is important that police departments have a philosophy that focuses on strict law enforcement supplemented by strong community involvement. The recognition that statistical data can be used for policy development and implementation is equally important to the development of community policing initiatives. This is where the partnership between a university and a municipality's police department is most crucial. It is only through this partnership that viable solutions to policing community problems can be successfully addressed.

The law enforcement paradigm has been evolving over the past decade, moving from a strict crime-fighting approach to a philosophy of crime prevention and problem solving. Police departments have historically served as gatherers and repositories of information but seldom end users of the data. Those repositories hold a treasure trove of quality data for academic investigators to apply in social science research. The use of empirical data in decision making in a law enforcement agency as a means of problem identification and problem solving can be realized when the raw data is shared with experienced researchers.

In addition to functioning as a data resource, the municipal police department has personnel who live in the community they also police. These officers can be trained to serve as participant observers of social phenomena. The proximity of the police to the community provides a perspective that would otherwise be unavailable to academics. In spite of whatever research methodology issues that arise from the use of participant observers, the ability to record and analyze first person accounts of law enforcement activities is vital to the development of solutions that focus on the needs of the community. An official partnership between the city and the university allows for training officers to follow research protocol in recording social phenomena.

Applied Research for Solutions

The most obvious benefit of a municipality-university collaboration is the practical application of research. For many years, the law enforcement community and the academic community were traveling on parallel tracks while attempting to resolve the same issues. In many instances, academic scholars conducted research as an end to itself.

In the 1990s, however, there was systemic and fundamental change in the law enforcement, most notably in the embracing of a collaborative approach. Partnership became the guiding principle, including collaborating with other law enforcement agencies, social service agencies, and ultimately the community. Accordingly, partnering with a university is just a continuation of this trend.

Applied research is the use of gained knowledge to address problems. Law enforcement works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In light of that operational schedule, researchers have complete access to officers in the field to acquire information for the purposes of developing solutions to contemporary law enforcement issues. In the living laboratory of the so-called real world, academics can propose, help implement, and review problem-solving techniques with the collaboration of experienced police personnel.

Developing Practical Experience

The opportunity for undergraduate and graduate criminal justice students to practice in the field of law enforcement in a research environment is invaluable. Officers participating in research and developing applied solutions from this research gain by the experience.

A formalized internship partnership between academia and law enforcement facilitates the experiential component of the educational process by involving students as shareholders in the employment setting, not merely as observers. As law enforcement has evolved toward community oriented and problem-solving policing, an emphasis on critical thinking skills has begun to emerge. The opportunity for undergraduate students to apply critical thinking skills to practical application and for graduate students to transfer classroom taught research skills to the field is immeasurable.

Police departments can serve as a working laboratory where theories on addressing critical issues like domestic violence, homeland security, and school violence can be tested, challenged, and revised. It also provides for the practical application of computer software and technology in a real-world environment, with experienced law enforcement officials mentoring students through the process. Law enforcement personnel and students alike benefit from the experimentation of ideas and the ability to see how they work in a real-world environment. And ultimately, the application and development of theories in a real setting will benefit the entire community for which the department is responsible.

In addition, application of technological developments in a law enforcement agency is difficult to understand in the sterile atmosphere of a classroom. Students intimately involved in the workplace begin to recognize the subtleties and nuances that can be understood only through immersion in the use of the technology. Practical experience is gained by students in the application of computer software to normal agency operations while being mentored by experienced police officials.

Replication in Other Communities

Providence and Roger Williams University have more than 16 months of experience with a collaboration effort that benefited the city, the university, and the citizens. Replication of this collaborative venture is encouraged in other communities. Both the Providence Police Department and Roger Williams University will help other communities replicate this academic collaboration.


From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 4, April 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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