Greg Ridgeway, Acting Director, National Institute of Justice
y career pathway to law enforcement research has been circuitous. After getting my doctorate in statistics from the University of Washington in 1999, I began work at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to informing policy with research. I eventually became Director of RAND’s Center of Quality Policing, and later, Director of RAND’s Safety and Justice Program. In this role, I worked with numerous police departments and governments around the world to develop solutions to the crime and justice problems they were facing. For example, I worked with the city of Los Angeles on police recruiting strategies, the city of New York on analysis of officer-involved shootings and stop-and-frisk practices, and the Abu Dhabi Police on setting up a research division within their organization. Perhaps my best-known research focused on race and policing in which I developed an approach for characterizing the time, place, and context in which an officer works; matched that officer’s activities with other officer’s working in the same time, place, and context; and constructed benchmarks that could detect whether the officer’s performance deviated substantially from similarly-situated peers. That system was deployed in Cincinnati as part of the 2002 Settlement Agreement and in New York to assess whether certain officers were stopping a surprising number of minority pedestrians.
Doing research that promoted careful analysis of policing issues led me to see the need for more work in this area. While medicine, marketing, and agriculture have all been heavily influenced by statistical studies and other techniques to ensure the scientific underpinning of various practices, the enormous amount of data collected by police have not yet been absorbed into analysis. With this awareness, I continued to seek opportunities to have a greater impact on law enforcement and the justice system as a whole. In 2012, I accepted the position of deputy director for science at the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and since January 2013 have been the acting director of the agency.
NIJ seeks to make the United States safer by solving real-world crime problems through scientific innovation. As the research and development agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, NIJ aims to identify and refine innovative technologies and ideas that respond to the needs of the criminal justice community. In leading the agency, I am striving to invest in the best research ideas—with the ultimate goal of persuading the criminal justice field to adopt best practices. For NIJ to know what works is not enough, so I am also working on communicating the findings to the field.
NIJ’s science program includes three offices, and each has contributed significantly to the field of policing. For example, the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences focuses on a variety of criminal justice activities, ranging from optimal crime scene procedures to understanding the problem of DNA backlogs. One of its most dramatic findings is that DNA testing can be quite useful in solving non-violent crimes.
DNA evidence has become an increasingly powerful tool for solving crimes. The cost of doing DNA analysis of evidence collected from crime scenes is decreasing, crime labs are adopting new technologies, and the criminal justice system as a whole is learning to use DNA evidence more effectively. With respect to property crimes, police have long known that property crime offenders have high-recidivism rates; the types of crimes they perpetrate—including the level of violence used—can escalate; and property crime cases frequently go unsolved. Arresting burglars by using DNA as part of the criminal investigation—burglars who otherwise would not be caught and brought to justice—has the potential to prevent future property and other crimes.
In June 2008, the Urban Institute released the results of an NIJ-funded five-city study evaluating the impact of DNA analyses on property crime scene evidence. Specifically, NIJ was interested in determining whether or not these analyses were cost-effective or otherwise beneficial. This DNA field experiment was collaborative in nature, involving five communities (Los Angeles, California; Topeka, Kansas; Denver, Colorado; Phoenix, Arizona; and Orange County, California) and multiple law enforcement offices (crime labs, police, and prosecutors). The findings reveal a number of positive outcomes associated with the processing of DNA evidence. First and foremost, a significant increase in suspect arrests and identifications was observed. Specifically, the number of identified and arrested property crime suspects doubled when DNA and fingerprint evidence was collected as compared to traditional investigations. The suspects identified using these methods were more dangerous, having double the prior arrests and convictions of those detected without the processing of DNA evidence. Third, more than twice as many cases were accepted for prosecution when DNA evidence was processed. Finally, compared to fingerprints, DNA was twice as effective in suspect identification. In other words, when investigators collected both fingerprint and DNA evidence, more suspects were identified via the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) than were identified via the FBI's Automated Fingerprint Identification (AFIS) system.
Forensic work is not the only area in which NIJ research has helped police departments meet the challenges of their work more effectively. NIJ’s Office of Science and Technology works on projects ranging from police communications systems to developing standards for equipment that officers use every day. Its efforts in the development of body armor standards have had a major impact on policing. Experts have documented more than 3,000 “saves” of officers who were wearing body armor when shot. While body armor works, the duration of its effectiveness is still unknown. Manufacturer’s warranties generally cover a period of three to five years. But when is the best time to replace body armor? NIJ is sponsoring a challenge that includes a $50,000 cash award for creative ways to learn when an officer’s vest needs to be replaced. Firing a bullet at a vest is a quick way to learn how it is holding up, but does so much damage that the vest cannot be safely used after that. The NIJ challenge invites material scientists and other interested parties to develop innovative approaches to accurately assessing the service life of vests.
Meanwhile, NIJ has continued to develop standards for other specialized equipment that police departments need. Last year, NIJ published its first bomb suit standard. This performance standard applies to the suits that bomb technicians wear when they work to disarm or dispose of an explosive device. The standard is the fruit of years of work with bomb squad commanders, researchers, and manufacturers.
While standards for police gear are important, departments have other safety concerns as well. Many accidents and even fatalities take place on the roadside due to hazardous traffic conditions. NIJ has teamed up with the U.S. Fire Administration to find the best ways to make emergency vehicles more visible on the road, keeping police officers and firefighters safer. These experiments have looked at everything from what color lights are easiest for drivers to see (blue) to where reflective materials should be placed on a vehicle.
Much of NIJ’s work involves physical science and technology, but the agency has also been a pioneer in bringing social science techniques to bear on the challenges that police departments face. The Office of Research and Evaluation specializes in rigorous social science studies that complement what our chemists and engineers do. For example, its portfolio includes the “hot spots” studies which show crime is generally not a random occurrence and report on the positive impact of dedicating resources to high crime areas. Another recent example is an NIJ-sponsored study of how the length of police officers’ shifts can significantly impact the functioning departments. We learned that police executives can improve morale and reduce overtime by instituting 10-hour shifts. Researchers conducted an experiment in two police departments comparing shifts of 8-, 10-, and 12- hour days. There were no significant differences between the three shift lengths on work performance, health, or work-family conflicts. However, officers working 10-hour shifts reported significantly higher quality of work life than those on 8-hour shifts. They also worked fewer overtime hours.
The findings I have highlighted here are only a small sample of the work NIJ has done to inform justice and public safety. The studies I refer to require a high degree of cooperation between researchers and law enforcement agencies for the collection of data. Yet, that cooperation begins much earlier in the process, often with informal conversations between NIJ staff and police officers about the needs of the field. In my position as acting director, I hope to build on these longstanding relationships, and I welcome your suggestions about where research is needed to serve the needs of small and large departments alike. As we all are required to do more with less, NIJ will be seeking to discover the next scientific and technological breakthrough—and I believe that is most likely to happen as we work cooperatively to further the field of policing. ♦
Please cite as:
Greg Ridgeway, "National Institute of Justice Seeks to Make America Safer," From the Acting Director, The Police Chief 80 (August 2013): 18.