Version-of-record on publisher's website
La Vigne, N. (2022). Fits and starts: Criminology’s influence on policing policy and practice. In Piza, E. and Welsh, B. (eds.) The Globalization of Evidence-Based Policing: Innovations in Bridging the Research-Practice Divide (pp.53-72). Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge Press.
Criminologists, like most academics, are trained to explore discrete research questions on relatively narrow topics, testing theories, applying rigorous methodologies, and landing articles in top-tier journals with high rates of citation. Promotional criteria in university settings incentivize this approach, with little value placed on ensuring research findings are translated for lay audiences and presented in a manner that informs policy and practice. Indeed, as recently as a decade ago, the news media largely relied on people with law degrees to share their expertise on issues of crime, criminal behavior, and the criminal justice system rather than criminologists serving in this role. The field’s advancement towards more policy relevance and media impact has been spurred by public and private investments and key influencers skilled at translating research for practitioner and lay audiences. This chapter covers that evolution, drawing from a dozen of those influencers to trace the key milestones within the complex ecosystem of actors in the criminal justice and policing space. That ecosystem consists of academic researchers and research centers within universities; scholars housed in non-academic research institutes; the academy, as represented primarily by the two most prominent criminology associations; the federal government; and philanthropy. It closes with an eye toward the future, arguing that in order for criminology programs to remain relevant and attract students (who are increasingly social justice-minded), they must enhance media outreach and incentivize translational research activities.
The foundations of criminology have a long history dating back to the eighteenth century, but the field’s emergence in the US as a discipline solidified in the mid-1900s. American criminology has been evolving ever since, morphing from a discipline initially established to educate police practitioners to an academy focused on generating rigorous scientific evidence. Along the way, the field has wavered in its focus on impacting policy and practice.
In the current moment, issues of criminal justice have become prominent in the general public, particularly in the context of policing. The violent murder of George Floyd at the hands of a sworn police officer, and dozens of similar instances of police use of excessive force, have brought criminology even further into the mainstream. This current context presents a unique opportunity to review the evolution of the field of criminology and its prospects for influencing policy and practice at a time when bringing data and scientific evidence to bear in informing reforms could not be more crucial.
This chapter provides a retrospective of criminology’s efforts to be impactful in the public space of ideas in general, and in the context of applied scientific knowledge more specifically. Its overarching research question explores the factors and contexts surrounding criminology’s engagement with the media, and how its influence on policy and practice have yielded impacts. While this chapter is focused primarily on policing, the experts who were interviewed for its content span an array of subspecialities. Drawing from these experts, this retrospective begins with a description of the early years of modern American criminology, from the 1960s through the 1990s, as the foundation from which the field began to evolve; a description of criminology’s more recent involvement with the media and the role that academics, think tanks, and philanthropy have played in promoting evidence-based research follows. It then turns to an exploration of the academy’s role in elevating the relevance of criminology and the scientific evidence it generates in media and policy circles. The chapter concludes with an eye towards the future, offering suggestions for how the field of criminology can further solidify its practical influence in a manner that is both impactful and sustainable.
A first step in examining criminology’s engagement and influence is to map the collection of actors that together embody the ecosystem germane to this research inquiry. Academic researchers and university research centers are lead actors within this ecosystem. The academy, as represented primarily by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) and the American Society of Criminology (ASC), is another important category. Federal government leadership and its influence on research, policy, and practice also features prominently in the ecosystem, as do long-standing media partners. Similarly, philanthropy has played a considerable role in promoting applied criminological research.
Drawing from this ecosystem, this research inquiry solicited insights from key leaders in each sector, many of whom cover more than one category (see Table 4.1). For each respondent, a semi-structured video interview was conducted to learn about the history of criminology in engaging with the media and policymakers, the degree to which criminology has become more relevant over time, whether and how the academy affords opportunities for or presents barriers to applied criminology, efforts on the part of the academy to bring criminology into greater prominence, and what respondents see as the future of criminology and evidence-based policing, policy, and practices. Questions were posed generically to apply to all of criminology, with probes employed to tease out the specific context as it pertains to the area of policing.
Table 4.1. Respondents by Role and Experience
Academic Institution or Think Tank
Federal Government/ Leadership
University Professor, Rutgers University
ACJS President, 2000–2001; ASC President, 2009
Editor, Crime and Justice News, Arizona State University;
Co-Founder, Criminal Justice Journalists; The Crime Report;
Center for Media, Crime, and Justice
Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland
ASC president, 2002
NIJ Director, 2010–2013
Professor of Criminology, Law and Society and Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University
ASC executive board member (2016–2019), founder and board member of ASC Division of Policing (2014–2018)
Emerita Professor of Sociology and former Director of the Criminal Justice Research Center, Ohio State University
ASC President, 2016; Peterson Fellows
Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University
Assistant Attorney General, Office of Justice Programs, 1993–2000; 2009–2012
Director, Cambridge Police Executive Programme;
Director of Research, Jerry Lee Centre for Experimental Criminology
ASC President, 2002
President, John Jay College, 2004–2016; Senior Fellow, Urban Institute, 2000–2004
NIJ Director, 1994–2000
Executive Vice President for Criminal Justice, Arnold Ventures
Director, Center for Drug and Health Studies;
Professor of Sociology, University of Delaware;
Principle Research Associate, Urban Institute, 2000-
Vice President, ASC, 2001–2002;
Committee Member, CJRA, 2014–2016
Senior Advisor to the Director, National Institute of Justice
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland; Chair, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 1981–1995; 1999–2004; 2012
ASC President, 1996
Director, Federal Justice Research Program, 1976–1981
Executive Director, Police Executive Research Forum
Professor of Sociology and Criminology, Eastern Michigan University
Member, Policy Joint Oversight Committee, 2013–2014;
Chair, ACJS Public Policy Committee, 2010
CJRA Chair, 2018–2020
Respondents range in experience within the field of criminology, with the earliest entry point being 1968 and the latest being 1995; on average, they became active in the academy in 1980. Notes from interviews with each respondent were reviewed for key themes across each of the domains, milestones of note, and specific quotes, with findings synthesized and presented herein.
Criminology has long been engaged in policy and practice, likely through its deep roots in policing. “We have always been grounded in policy,” observed Ruth Peterson, Emerita Professor of Sociology and former Director of the Criminal Justice Research Center, Ohio State University. “It’s important for us to inform the work of organizations and agencies that are directly involved with crime and justice issues.” Nonetheless, the ties between policy relevance and media engagement for the better part of criminology’s short history are tenuous at best, and this was particularly true in the latter half of the twentieth century. Respondents recall “the usual suspects”—a small collection of the same few people—that journalists would return to repeatedly. People like James Alan Fox, Al Reiss, James Q. Wilson, Al Blumstein, and Lawrence Sherman were among the few willing—if not eager—to take media calls. It was exceedingly rare for the field to engage with the media right up through the 1980s. And even when criminal justice reporting grew alongside the historic crime rise in the 1990s, spurring what journalist Ted Gest termed an “explosion of interests on the part of media in this area,” there were very few dedicated crime reporters and interactions with criminologists were episodic.
Academics seemingly lacked the skills to field inquiries from journalists; those who did were often maligned. “Some of the people who were active with the media were viewed disparagingly because they seemed to be able to opine about anything,” recalls Peterson. “And the rest of us were defending them but lacking the confidence that we could even do media.” In those early decades of criminology’s history (and perhaps even today), the theory of change of academic media engagement in relation to policy impact was not clearly articulated, understood, or embraced by the average criminologist. Lawrence Sherman understood the relationship better than most. “Talking to the press … the publicity leads to policy change. It’s all part of the causal model. If you don’t [do media] then your research sits on a shelf and doesn’t do any good.” Chuck Wexler, long-time executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, echoed that sentiment, “If academics do all this good research and the only people who know about it are other academics, there’s a missed opportunity to get evidence-based findings into the hands of the public.”
Despite these challenges, journalists helped spur more connections between criminologists and the media during the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1997, Gest and other journalists established Criminal Justice Journalists, and in 2005, he helped establish the Center for Media, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. One of the center’s earliest initiatives was to establish an annual conference on criminology and public policy, with the primary audience being reporters, including some from national and major media markets. Funded by the Guggenheim Foundation, the conference has been convening for 15 years. Criminologists were further elevated through The Crime Report in 2006, an online news aggregator and outlet established by John Jay that features commentary by leading experts in the field, highlighting research that other news outlets often overlook (that effort has since splintered, with Gest currently editor of the daily Crime and Justice News at Arizona State University). Yet despite the new opportunities for media engagement that Gest’s efforts afforded criminologists, several respondents observed the challenges of people who are trained as academics in feeling comfortable engaging with the media. As Gest observed, “the most common conclusion to any research inquiry is to say that we don’t really know the answer and that we need more research. While that is true, it means that many criminologists shy away from making firm statements or cloak their statements in caveats. Yes, findings are nuanced, but that makes many academics reluctant to make firm statements, which is what journalists typically seek.”
In all fairness, even if criminologists were enthusiastic about interacting with the media, their credibility and the value of the knowledge they produce is often hindered by a climate driven by anecdotes and politics. George Mason University Professor Laurie Robinson, former Assistant Attorney General over the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), recalled vividly a 1973 congressional hearing on federal criminal code revision (the Brown Commission) at which a member of congress challenged the commission chair, saying “Well, my brother-in-law is a criminal lawyer, and he had a case in which …” “Far too often that’s how policy was made back then—it was more anecdote than evidence.” Or as Todd Clear, University Professor and former Dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, put it, “It’s pretty obvious that public policy is produced largely through a political process, and that process is largely orthogonal to evidence—although smart politicians know how to marshal evidence in support of their causes.” It wasn’t until the federal government took on a stronger leadership role in promoting criminal justice scholarship and evidence that the field began to evolve.
Most respondents marked the launch of federal leadership in criminological research with the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (the “Johnson Commission”) of 1967. As observed at the mark of the commission’s 30th anniversary, “The task [of the commission]—breathtaking in scope—reflected not only the ‘can do’ attitude of Johnson’s Great Society, but also a growing confidence in the ability of science and technology to solve problems” (Feucht & Zedlewski, 2007: 21). Many of the commission’s recommendations were codified with the passage of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) along with the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, the precursor to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). While its short-lived predecessor, the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance, issued grants to states and localities, they were primarily to support law enforcement agencies. By contrast, the LEAA was established with the goal of developing and bringing knowledge to all criminal justice professionals. In academic settings, this prompted “wild optimism that we were going to reform the field, upgrade the profession, invest in criminal justice departments, etc.” recalled Clear.
Such optimism was largely merited, with LEAA pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into criminal justice crime control and prevention strategies, including research, with the bulk of the funding dedicated to policing studies, and comparatively smaller sums supporting research in corrections, courts, and prosecution (Allinson, 1979). A few years later, Robert Martinson’s infamous (1974) “Nothing Works” article summarizing the poor quality of research on prison reform would be used by politicians for decades to argue against evidence-based practice. In that very same year, the results of the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment (KCPPE) were released, finding that routine patrolling does not reduce crime or increase perceptions of safety on the part of the public (Kelling et al., 1974). While the KCPPE was not funded by the federal government, the study prompted a meaningful investment in subsequent experimental studies in policing, along with their replication.
Around the same time as “nothing works” and KCPPE were garnering attention, Charles Wellford, Professor Emeritus and former Chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at University of Maryland, was employed at the US Department of Justice (DOJ) under Attorney General Griffin Bell and later Attorney General Ben Civiletti. Wellford was hired to work on the proposal to develop DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics and later became director of the DOJ’s Federal Justice Research Program (FJRP). He shared how early in his tenure he sat down with Attorney General Bell, who asked “What are the research areas that are important to this administration?” At the top of Wellford’s list was sentencing reform, which led to a massive study on federal sentencing and many other opportunities to take on big research topics with sufficient funding and people who were eager to use findings to promote regulation and legislation. “Then the Republicans [under Ronald Reagan] came in and one of the political appointees inquired about me, asking ‘Why do we have a socialist in the Department of Justice? This isn’t going to work,’” recalled Wellford. “They eliminated the FJRP as soon as they could.”
The 1980s under the Reagan era were dark years for research in many regards, with crime spiking and fear mongering among politicians fueling arguments for more enforcement and greater “get tough” measures, absent any reference to research evidence (Gest, 2001; Visher, 2016). But blessedly, James “Chips” Stewart, a former Captain with the Oakland (CA) Police Department, was the political appointee named to head NIJ. Stewart was firmly committed to building knowledge and continuing the agency’s tradition of supporting applied research and experimental designs.
By all accounts, the passage of the 1994 Crime Bill marked a watershed in criminology’s evolution, spurred by the research set aside in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (Crime Act). As noted by Visher (2016), the bill itself was not informed by science or research recommendations. However, the legislation enabled ample funding for NIJ to commission studies on policing and related topics and for the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to launch the first of its recidivism studies. Present day retrospection leads many to malign the Crime Act, although those detractors paint with a broad brush, overlooking its impact on promoting community policing, increasing access to substance abuse treatment in federal prisons, funneling resources for services to victims of domestic violence, and prohibiting the manufacture, possession, and sale of semi-automatic firearms. Importantly, the legislation was enacted at a time when both DOJ and OJP leadership were composed of people who firmly believed in the value of data, social science research, and empirical evidence. According to University of Maryland criminologist and former NIJ director John Laub, prior to the crime decline in the 1990s and the enactment of the Crime Bill, there was a general sense in much of academia that the police could do little about crime, with the focus of research instead on police operations. As a result, the focus of criminological research was on the causes and correlates of crime instead of on police operations. That rapidly changed with the ample grant resources the Crime Bill afforded, along with the leadership of those in charge of DOJ’s grantmaking and science agencies.
Importantly, while people credit visionaries like Laurie Robinson and Jeremy Travis with elevating criminology to new heights during this period—and rightly so—this author observed first-hand how committed Attorney General Janet Reno was in support of science. In 2000, during near daily meetings with Ms. Reno at which I represented OJP on behalf of the agency, I learned that she read each and every OJP publication and often had questions for me about specific methodologies, findings, and their implications. Countless sound, evidence-based investments were made during the years with Reno, Robinson, Travis, and other OJP agency heads at the helm, from 1993 to 2000. In the context of policing, respondents highlighted NIJ’s establishment of the Locally Initiated Research Projects, the Crime Mapping Research Center, the University of Maryland “What Works” report, and the public/private partnership that launched the ASC journal Criminology and Public Policy.
The Crime Mapping Research Center (CMRC) was established in 1996 in recognition of the increasing accessibility of Geographic Information System (GIS) software to researchers and police agencies alike, the growing popularity of the NYPD CompStat model of identifying and responding to spatial crime patterns, and the appetite of both research and law enforcement communities to develop and test new applications of GIS to answer a wide array of questions associated with crime and place. As noted by one respondent, the CMRC helped spark the professionalization of the crime analysis movement and spurred partnerships between researchers and practitioners. “The crime analysis movement helped create the infrastructure for research to be more accepted in practice,” noted Lum. “That movement was huge and produced crime analysts-turned-academics like Liz Groff and Rachel Boba.”
The Locally Initiated Research Partnerships program was also designed to promote partnerships, and to increase the odds that research findings lead to changes that are then evaluated. Lum observed that the partnerships were driven “not just by academics who were interested in this area, but also the crime analysts and a few chiefs.” NIJ funded dozens of such relationships, many of which continue to this day. Lawrence Sherman, Director of the Cambridge Police Executive Programme and the Jerry Lee Centre for Experimental Criminology, believes the program was highly successful, but only at the margins. “The partnerships were shotgun marriages of sorts. A lot of academics were not interested and ultimately the connections [between researchers and agencies] were personal.” And even then, police partners were reluctant to implement policy changes based on research findings. “For generations, we have had people knock on the doors of agencies and ask if they can do research,” recalled Sherman. “It’s like saying ‘Can we cook in your kitchen? Here’s the food we made—would you like to try it?’ That’s been the history from 1970 through the beginning of this century.”
And then came “the Maryland report”; to many of the field, the report needs no other name. Released in 1997, Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising was produced by a team of University of Maryland professors. Mandated by Congress, the report embodied a team effort and close collaboration among its authors and NIJ. Sherman, the lead author, credits Visher in assisting with the publication, who, as Senior Advisor to then NIJ Director Jeremy Travis at the time, met with the six authors on a routine basis.
A seminal piece, the publication refuted Martinson’s “nothing works” findings while raising the bar for the field on what accounts for rigorous evaluative research. Travis pitched the report to New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield, who penned a front-page article of the findings. Overall, the report made a huge splash, helping to garner support for funding interventions that worked, like Head Start and home visitation, and even leading to the defunding of programs like DARE, said Sherman. The report’s methodology had a lasting impact, particularly with regard to “The Maryland Scale.” According to Sherman,
The depth of the report was the hierarchy for levels 1 to 5 in rigor; the United Kingdom is using the Maryland Scale to justify policies, Crime Solutions adopted it, and many others—they all go back to the Maryland report template and serve to stop letting crappy studies influence policy.
A few years later, in 2000, Todd Clear, Rutgers University professor and former dean of its School of Criminal Justice, became president of ASC and partnered with NIJ Director Travis on a new journal, Criminology & Public Policy, to elevate the policy implications of criminological research. Releasing its first volume in 2001, the journal’s goal was to “strengthen the role of research in the formulation of crime and justice policy through publishing empirically based, policy-focused articles.”1 NIJ awarded a grant to pay for a managerial assistant and cover some of the early expenses in support of the journal’s establishment. “I think the articles have been really good, on the whole, and the journal has a personality that people now recognize. It is very different from Criminology [ASC’s flagship journal],” observed Clear. The journal filled an important void and included a unique format (since eliminated) in which a collection of research articles on a specific topic is coupled with a reaction essay from someone who has a policymaker or practitioner perspective germane to the topic. “I was hoping for a more policy-discussion format,” recalled Clear. “That is why we did the reaction essays. But somehow, an informed policy debate has not really happened.”
The ebbs and flows of federal research investments typically covary with changes in administrations, with Democratic administrations infusing new resources and launching new initiatives and Republican ones tending to narrow the focus of research investments. As such, the years from 2001 through 2007 were relatively uneventful, save for the post-9/11 climate, which shifted the focus towards more security- and technology-based inquiries, but little in the way of innovations and landmark initiatives. Barack Obama’s election in 2008, and the appointment of Eric Holder as Attorney General, revived the federal role in criminology. OJP was able to hit the ground running through the benefit of Laurie Robinson returning to lead the agency at the request of Holder. She appointed John Laub as director of NIJ, the first criminologist to hold the role, and James Lynch, another renowned criminologist, to lead BJS.
Criminologists were thrilled to see two of their own leading these science agencies, and both had important roles in influencing academics in ways that perhaps past directors outside of the academy were unable to do. Laub arrived at NIJ with a specific mission to translate academic research into findings and language that can be policy relevant, what he termed “translational criminology.” As Laub and Frisch (2016) observe, in order for research to inform policy, academics need to understand the knowledge application process, which includes understanding the means by which practitioners become aware of the research. Yet relatively few practitioners consult academic journals, instead prioritizing their own networks and professional associations. Breaking through that barrier requires intentionality in forging partnerships between researchers and practitioner communities and building trust between the two (Laub, 2012, 4–5). “Translational criminology became my mantra—I learned that to make any inroads I needed to repeat it over and over again,” recalled Laub.
Robinson, a long-time advocate for evidence-based practice, made connecting science with policy and practice her top priority during her second stint as Assistant Attorney General over OJP. With the backing of Attorney General Holder, Robinson created the OJP Science Advisory Board, composed of top scientists and influential practitioners who embraced evidence, established to infuse science into all aspects of OJP’s grantmaking and activities. She aspired to establish stable funding for the OJP’s science agencies, convincing congress to create a 2 percent set-aside from the OJP budget for the purpose of research and evaluation (Robinson, 2013). And in an effort to translate research for practice, Robinson launched Crime Solutions in 2010, a clearinghouse of systematic reviews designed for policymakers, practitioners, and grant applicants to refer to when applying for funding.
All told, Robinson led DOJ’s science and grantmaking agencies for over 10 years. While several of the initiatives launched under her leadership did not survive over time, her legacy has been indelible in reshaping the field and DOJ’s research agencies. As she wrote in 2013
… work of this kind is not for the short-winded; it’s a long-term commitment … Bridging the gap between science and practice will undoubtedly take real focus and effort for years to come, but I am convinced the commitment and will are there in the field to sustain that important work and move it forward. (Robinson, 2013)
The election of Donald Trump as president in 2016 proved Robinson right to some degree. While the political pendulum reversed course yet again, bringing with it discernible changes in philosophy along with the demise of the OJP Science Advisory Board, the government’s commitment to evidence did not entirely falter. Language in programmatic and technical assistance grant solicitations requiring proposals that are evidence-based, and requirements that research proposals adhere to rigorous standards of evidence, are now quite literally boilerplate. Moreover, Trump’s political appointee David Muhlhausen, NIJ Director from 2017 through 2020, made it his number one priority to promote randomized controlled trials.
Federal support seesaws in accordance with changes in political leadership, but despite that political volatility, over the course of time, advancements in applied criminology have flourished through think tanks, professional associations, and academic centers advancing policing. Much of these advancements were made possible through an infusion of resources from philanthropy.
The vast majority of respondents referenced the KCPPE as representing a monumental shift in the field of policing. “That kind of work was seminal—it was quite astounding in the policing world, because for the first time it was systematically testing conventional thinking and providing insight into what had been common practice in many cities. It ushered in a new generation of thinking,” recalled Wexler. That was the first major work produced by the fledgling Police Foundation (now known as the National Police Foundation), founded in 1970 with a $30 million grant (over $200 million in 2020 dollars) from the Ford Foundation.
Travis described the Ford Foundation’s investment in the Police Foundation as a “gutsy move” which positioned the Police Foundation to be a thought leader in policing reform just a few years before LEAA was being launched.
This infusion of private foundation resources enabled Ford to support the [KCPPE] and promote the notion that RCTs could challenge basic assumptions about the policing enterprise. It’s a stellar example of the catalytic effect of philanthropy in thought leadership in policing.
A few years later, the Police Foundation used some of its Ford Foundation funding to establish the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). According to Wexler, “A group of reform-minded chiefs of larger police agencies wanted to create an organization with the capacity to do research on itself and question conventional thinking.”
In its early years, this hybrid policing think tank/membership organization was best known for bringing policing scholar Herman Goldstein’s (1979) vision for problem-oriented policing (POP) to life. Over the years, PERF has bridged research and practice, producing foundational, leading-edge work in areas such as community policing, violent crime reduction, officer wellness, and use of force. PERF focused significant attention on the importance of race in policing and provided guidance on uncovering racial biases in traffic stops and training officers in implicit bias training. PERF has conducted seminal work on developing guidelines on use of force and evidence-based de-escalation training that has been adopted by agencies across the country. “Part of our credibility comes from the fact that we straddle these two worlds of practitioners and research,” noted Wexler. “We are fortunate that we have a reputation in the field that allows us to test cutting-edge strategies that can make a difference.”
This same example of trained academics bridging research and practitioner communities has played out in think tanks like RAND, RTI, Abt Associates, CNA, and the Urban Institute, but perhaps to a lesser degree than those entities that have police in their names and as their primary members and audience.
Another instance of philanthropy promoting evidence-based policing is the investment in research and evidence made by Jerry Lee, who founded the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, was the original donor of the Stockholm Prize in Criminology, and was a founding trustee of the Campbell Collaboration, which came on the heels of the Maryland Report as a means of further promoting systematic reviews in criminology. According to Travis, “[Lee championed] a lot of strong messaging on the importance of research. He worked magic on the Hill and became an effective advocate in addition to being a generous funder.”
Arnold Ventures has also had a considerable impact on bridging the academic and practitioner divide through support of academically based research centers. The School of Criminal Justice at University of Cincinnati has a long history of research partnerships with police, but it upped its game in 2016 by teaming with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to establish the Center for Police Research and Policy, whose mission is to conduct “rigorous research that has practical implications for the field,” developing actionable and translatable recommendations to enhance policing.2 Led by Professor Robin Engel and funded by Arnold, the collaboration is producing rigorous evaluations of some of the most relevant policing topics.
Not all university-housed research centers have benefited from foundation funding, and clearly some do not need to in order to be impactful. John Jay’s National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC), an “action research center that provides proven, evidence-based, life-saving violence reduction strategies to dozens of communities across America and beyond,” has been primarily self-funded or supported by the agencies that benefit from its services. According to its director, David Kennedy, “Ours has emerged as the primary evidence-based violence prevention portfolio, and the investment on the part of federal leadership and philanthropy and the like has been negligible” (2020).
Similarly, George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy (CEBCP) was internally funded by the university to make “scientific research a key component in decisions about crime and justice policies … serving as an informational and translational link to practitioners and the policy community.”3 Founded in 2008, CEBCP has made translational criminology a priority, establishing a journal by that name “to showcase research conducted in practice,” said Lum, CEBCP’s director. “We started an annual symposium on what we know about certain types of interventions, bringing together practitioners and academics. The first one had fewer than 100 attendees, but for the most recent one, registration was over 400 people.” CEBCP began doing Hill briefings and established the Evidence-based Policing Hall of Fame whose goal, according to Lum, is to “reward and normalize research within police agencies and recognize high levels of achievement in implementing research evidence in practice.”
For the purpose of this discussion, “the academy” is defined as the scientific and cultural community of scholars in criminology, criminal justice, sociology, and related social science disciplines who publish in criminology journals and affiliate with criminology membership associations. The academy is also embodied by organized associations such as the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, the American Society of Criminology, the National Academies of Sciences, and the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA). This section summarizes findings on the academic environment within criminology that have created both opportunities for, and barriers to, engagement with those in media and policy circles and describes the role that ASC, ACJS, and COSSA have played in furthering that type of engagement.
Both ASC and ACJS, arguably the two most prominent membership associations in criminology,4 have their roots in policing. Prior to becoming ASC in 1957, the organization was called the National Association of College Police School Administrators and later the National Association of College Police Training Officials.5 A few years after its first renaming, members of the original organization splintered from the group because they were unhappy that the association had drifted from its original mission of police education towards a more academically based organization drawing primarily from sociology (Oliver, 2013). These adherents to policing established ACJS’s predecessor, the International Association of Police Professors (IAPP), in 1963 (Oliver, 2013), changing its name to ACJS and expanding its focus beyond policing to the larger criminal justice system about a decade later.
These early histories of ASC and ACJS highlight philosophical differences between the two that remain today. According to Clear, “Historically, ACJS saw itself as a group that was supposed to change the criminal justice system, arguing that policies were being made without evidence. In ASC, there was an almost religious disinterest about taking a position on anything.” Some respondents opined that criminology, as a latecomer to the social sciences, has long suffered from an inferiority complex that persists to this day. Rather than embracing its practical, applied roots, criminology has felt the need to fight for respect in the academic community, perhaps overcompensating by focusing on theory and the rigor of methodology at the expense of relevance and impact. “For a long time, and even today, the prestige associated with the field was about theoretical or dispositional criminology or traditional sociological approaches—scholars who explored big macro questions, structural issues,” observed Cynthia Lum. “More practice-oriented criminologists, sometimes called ‘administrative criminologists,’ were often not viewed as among the criminological elite.”
Respondents were universally aligned in the view that, historically, the academy has done little to promote engagement with the media and in the policy realm, listing the greatest barrier to such engagement the singular focus on criteria needed to earn tenure and promotion. Several respondents noted the tension between doing impactful research at the expense of checking the traditional boxes that will lead to professional advancement. Peterson recalled that
Back in the day, there were all these rules about being value-free and keeping your nose to the grindstone until you were tenured. And what was needed to get tenure was getting published in certain journals and the quality of your teaching; if you were messing around with the media you weren’t going to be able to achieve these goals.
Thirty years later, this tension remains strong. “The academic culture stresses so many irrelevant things,” lamented one respondent, who cited lengthy faculty meetings devoted to how to rate journals rather than talking about the issues of the day and how research can inform them. “There’s a pull in both directions,” noted Clear.
On the one hand, Op-Eds were [historically] viewed as unimportant, irrelevant—it wasn’t part of your job but something you did as a citizen. The other pull is the postmodern line of logic that if you can think of a bigger word to use to describe something, use it.
Both of these factors pull academics away from meaningful engagement.
As Laub observed,
So much of what is needed is not going to be rewarded in the current university system. The university needs to change—not just in departments but as you go up the food chain. It’s so much easier for deans and provosts to count things like publications and citations, which reinforces the traditional reward structure for tenure and promotion.
And as Lum noted,
When you are talking about the tenure and promotion process, it’s still very traditional—it’s all about getting published in a good quality journal. You can work with police all day long but if you aren’t published in a journal it doesn’t count. That’s starting to change, but the rhetoric about visibility and impact is hindered by an infrastructure that hasn’t always helped that along.” Indeed, there remains an ongoing debate about whether and how engagement with policy and practice should count towards tenure and promotion.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the above-referenced barriers to criminology’s engagement with policymakers and the media, the academy has engaged in organized efforts over the years to enhance the academy’s impact. Both ACJS and ASC have had policy committees for several decades, with efforts to combine forces to yield a greater impact in policy circles wavering over time. In 2009, the two associations established a public policy coalition composed of members of both associations, consulting with the Washington, DC-based Raben Group to raise awareness of the academy and its research on Capitol Hill.
A collection of criminologists from both associations began making visits to congressional offices, meeting with staff to describe the importance of funding for research and access to data and sharing research findings on leading crime and justice issues of the day. According to Professor Peter Wood,
The [group] consisted of four members appointed by ASC and four members appointed by ACJS. For several years, it organized visits by ASC and ACJS members to DC to urge legislators and their staff to increase crime and justice funding.
Around the same time, George Mason’s CEBCP began hosting legislative days and congressional briefings. In addition, Howard Silver, executive director of COSSA from 1988–2013, was active in representing the interests of criminology with federal DOJ leadership.
In 2013, efforts to formalize the policy partnership between ASC and ACJS resulted in the establishment of the curiously named “joint oversight committee,” composed of four members appointed by ASC and four appointed by ACJS. According to a few sources, there was considerable disagreement among the group’s members over what the entity should be. Debates surrounding whether they should be producing white papers and if so, on what topics, concerns about appearing “too political,” and disagreements about the scope and purpose of the entity consumed the vast majority of the group’s time. “It never got off the ground,” observed Wood “it went in fits and starts.”
By late 2014, the group went through its most recent transformation, bolstered by making a convincing argument to ASC and ACJS leadership that without external support and expertise in lobbying and media relations its charge was unlikely to be successful. Funding soon followed, enabling the group to retain the Brimley Group for government relations and KizComm for media relations. The next order of business was to rename and rebrand the group, developing a logo and web presence that spoke to the expertise of both organizations. The logo represents the tree of knowledge and the name, Crime and Justice Research Alliance (CJRA), was intended to convey the specific research expertise of its members as well as to signal that the group was a partnership (alliance) representing both ASC and ACJS. Recognizing that the outside world does not know or care about the difference between ASC and ACJS (indeed, the overlap of membership between the two organizations is considerable), CJRA board members felt that combining the two groups under the Alliance umbrella would give it more heft and sway. The board of CJRA retained the same structure as its predecessor, with four members from each association and the chair alternating between each for a term of three years.
Brimley encouraged the group to develop the CJRA website swiftly, arguing that upon outreach to key congressional staff such as those on the appropriations and judiciary committees, the first thing they will do is search for a web presence for CJRA. The group established a mission statement and began populating its new website with the names and pictures of experts who were already listed on ASC and ACJS websites. In addition, it was important to the CJRA board that reporters covering crime and justice, and congressional staff of both political parties, perceive of the Alliance as a non-partisan resource and advocate for research and data. This involved conducting routine outreach to congressional staff, particularly those on the House and Senate appropriations and justice committees; submitting letters in support of research funding from CJRA to key legislators and committee members; and hosting Hill briefings showcasing experts on pressing criminal justice topics in partnership with COSSA.
Since its inception, the CJRA has secured hundreds of interview opportunities with national and local media outlets and established strong relationships with dozens of reporters covering crime and criminal justice topics. It has also had a critical translational role, working in partnership with the editors and publishers of ASC and ACJS’s flagship academic journals (Criminology, Criminology & Public Policy, Justice Quarterly, Justice Evaluation Journal) to summarize and promote new research to journalists. From 2015 through 2020, the Alliance established a comprehensive website, developed a robust social media presence, fielded hundreds of media inquiries, trained academics on media engagement, and held an annual Hill briefing on current crime and justice policy topics. In addition to advocating for funding for DOJ’s science agencies, “CJRA worked to restore 50+ missing data tables to the annual [Crime in the US] report in late 2018, protected the National Institute of Corrections from elimination, and continues efforts to investigate missing data collections and reports at BJS, and to reinstate the OJP Science Advisory Board,” observed Wood.
Despite these efforts, awareness and support of CJRA has been inconsistent at best. In its early years, CJRA board members learned that they needed to do a better job of tracking CJRA activities and outcomes and engage with ASC and ACJS leadership more routinely and proactively, particularly given the annual changes in both associations’ leadership, which rendered institutional memory minimal and required the re-education of executive board members each year. By way of example, while all respondents were aware of CJRA and its activities, they questioned the degree of its support by those who held the purse strings. “The CJRA newsletter and attempts to intervene on very specific current issues with the credibility of social science are very helpful,” observed Clear. “But the way it’s funded and supported seems like an afterthought on the part of ASC—as if ASC is thinking ‘This is a thing we started doing and we haven’t yet figured out how to stop it.’” Similarly, while Lum firmly supported the work of CJRA as essential to the field, she lamented that the group is perpetually confronted with the same questions: Who are they? Why are we doing this? What does it cost?
When asked where they see the future of applied criminology, respondents’ views were decidedly mixed. While they generally felt that the field was moving in the right direction, several were circumspect about the academy’s ability to be impactful in policy spaces absent meaningful change. On the positive side, all respondents noted that progress has been made. Several credited this progress to people whose work intersects both academia and policy or practitioner circles. “The big battle that we’ve won is the need for an evidence base for anything. Lawrence Sherman can be credited with that,” observed Wellford. “It’s irreversible,” said Clear. “The debates used to be about whether evidence matters. Now it’s not so much over what the evidence says but about how to get from here to there.”
According to Travis, “Criminology has become much more relevant. There’s a generation of criminologists who are committed to being engaged in policy discussions and shaping policy.” Relatedly, Peterson pointed to people like Joan Petersilia and this author as helping to move the needle, recognizing the value of “… those who are trained academics but working outside of—but alongside—academia—and are more policy focused. They’ve helped get more PhDs into places where policy is the focus—not necessarily just in academic settings.” At the university level, some observed that progress has been tangible. “Public Criminology is now a phrase—it means something,” argued Clear.
At Rutgers we just developed tenure and promotion criteria around public scholarship in recognition of the idea that social scientists have a legitimate place at the table in public policy. And that it’s coming not just from researchers but from policy folks.
Respondents also noted meaningful progress on the part of criminology’s engagement with the media. “Compared to my days as a doctoral student, there’s been a huge improvement in the ability of academics to do media interviews, pen op-eds—these activities are now recognized in departments, with quotes of scholars featured prominently on university websites,” observed Visher. And today, to the younger criminologists, “it’s unquestionable that you have to speak out and figure out what your policy work is going to be, and that your writing is not just around important issues but that it can speak to what can be done about them, or lay a foundation for doing so.” said Peterson. According to Lum,
The last two decades have seen a huge push to increase visibility and impact. A move to create some structure to train criminologists and normalize media engagement. That has been positive for younger criminologists—especially those who know their way around Twitter.
Respondents looked to the future with optimism with regard to the change in administrations, particularly in juxtaposition to the Trump administration’s studied indifference to scientific evidence. Indeed, respondents (all but one of whom were interviewed prior to the 2020 presidential election) conjectured that if the Biden–Harris ticket won there would be several new leaders who recognize the importance of evidence-based policy and practice who would help continue to move the needle. Sherman conjectured that a Biden Administration could provide leadership on national standards of police education and certification of police executives, requiring them to be well-schooled in the research evidence on how to reduce crime and increase fairness and effectiveness of policing.
Many also observed the unique moment in time in which knowledge on police reform could have a meaningful impact on policy and practice. Clear expressed hope that policing is where mass incarceration was several years ago, which evolved through the benefit of data. “I see a shift from the defensive posture that ‘police have an untenable job to do and criticizing them is unfair’ to a more data-driven and evidence-based approach grounded in what works in improving policing.” And some observed that the “Defund the Police” movement presents an opportunity to open what has traditionally been a very closed system. Researchers can help force more introspection on the part of police that could lead to new models. “We need to involve community and minority voices. We need to understand the reaction of people to police activities. We need better evidence on that and better evidence collection on perceptions and experience,” observed Lum.
Despite these generally optimistic views, many respondents questioned how far the field can go absent a significant reboot of academia. “[Engaging with the media] doesn’t happen on its own, and criminologists don’t do it on their own, and individual scholars don’t have the time or resources. It needs sustained effort. Even universities with robust media infrastructures need coordination,” argued Wood. Indeed, several respondents felt that, while progress has been made, the academic culture tends to revert to traditional ways, influenced by what counts for tenure and promotion and the academy’s lack of firm commitment to support outreach to the media and policymakers. “Each year it’s a battle to get the [ASC and ACJS] executive boards educated on who CJRA is, what we do, and what the return on investment is,” lamented Wood.
It’s ironic that as my writing comes to a close, ASC has decided to cease funding CJRA, although ACJS has continued to support the communications component of its work. The stated reason for this about-face is that ASC desired to invest in its own brand rather than that of CJRA, which represents the field of criminology rather than one association. It’s a classic example of how academics are motivated by and rewarded for impressing each other rather than the world outside: writing for each other in academic journals, measuring success by the number of citations they’ve received in other academic journals, essentially preaching to their own choir rather than understanding that criminology will never increase its impact on policy and practice solely by elevating its own academic brand. This author conjectures that until the leadership of these associations is replaced by a newer, younger, and more diverse generation of criminologists, getting sustained support for such efforts will continue to be challenging. As Peterson called for in her presidential address to ASC in 2016, the best strategy for informing policy debates and developments is for ASC
to continue to grow the diversity of its membership and to integrate the research and findings of scholars of color into the mainstream of criminology; and to take further steps to conduct research and share findings with diverse audiences to ensure that post‐truth does not become normative regarding crime and justice issues. (Peterson, 2017)
Thanks to the research participants who agreed to be interviewed for this chapter, who were exceedingly forthcoming and generous with their time and provided nuanced observations and insights that serve as the foundation of the chapter. Many of them have been trusted mentors and close collaborators over the years, and to them I am truly indebted.
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