Building Bridges Between Researchers and Police Practitioners in Small and Midsize Law Enforcement Agencies in the United States

AuthorJack McDevitt,Robert Bieniecki,Janice Iwama
Published date01 May 2021
Date01 May 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2021, Vol. 37(2) 276 –292
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1043986221999882
Building Bridges Between
Researchers and Police
Practitioners in Small and
Midsize Law Enforcement
Agencies in the United States
Janice Iwama1, Jack McDevitt2,
and Robert Bieniecki3
Although partnerships between researchers and police practitioners have increased
over the last few decades in some of the largest police agencies in the United
States, very few small agencies have engaged in a partnership with a researcher. Of
the 18,000 local police agencies in the United States, small agencies with less than
25 sworn officers make up about three quarters of all police agencies. To support
future collaborations between researchers and smaller police agencies, like those
in Douglas County, Kansas, this article identifies challenges that researchers can
address and explores how these relationships can benefit small police agencies
across the United States.
police practitioner, researcher, partnership, police reform
Over the last 50 years, research has played an increasingly important role in provid-
ing useful information to law enforcement agencies and policymakers to confront
complex crime and public safety problems. Partnerships among police,
1American University, Washington, DC, USA
2Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA
3Douglas County Emergency Management, Lawrence, KS, USA
Corresponding Author:
Janice Iwama, Department of Justice, Law and Criminology, American University, 4400 Massachusetts
Ave., NW, Kerwin Hall, Room 257, Washington, DC 20016, USA.
999882CCJXXX10.1177/1043986221999882Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeIwama et al.
Iwama et al. 277
policymakers, and researchers, for example, have led to the adoption of strategies
that have been leveraged to improve responses to a wide variety of problems in their
local communities. For example, some of the most widely cited examples of
researcher–practitioner partnerships (RPPs) have led to major policy changes in cit-
ies such as Boston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Newark (Kelling et al., 1974;
Kennedy et al., 2001; Police Foundation, 1981; Sherman & Berk, 1984). Many of
the RPPs to date have involved police departments from large cities partnering with
researchers from universities. Unfortunately, small to midsize police agencies face
different obstacles in partnering with researchers than large police agencies; there-
fore, some of the lessons learned from policing studies in larger cities may not apply
directly to smaller and midsize agencies.
In 2015, the Board of County Commissioners in Douglas County, Kansas, formed
a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC). This offers members of the com-
munity with an opportunity to discuss major issues in the criminal justice system that
were brought to the forefront following highly publicized incidents involving police
use of force such as the fatal police officer shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson,
Missouri. The CJCC—which is made up of members of the community, advocacy
organizations, representatives of criminal justice agencies, academics, policymakers,
and other practitioners—began asking questions about racial and ethnic disparities
throughout the criminal justice system. Based on recommendations from members of
the community as well as local advocacy organizations, members of the council
requested agencies to sponsor research to better understand policing practices in their
local communities and inform future policymaking decisions to prevent incidents
such as the fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. Through the leadership and support
of the CJCC, local police agencies in Douglas County entered into a research partner-
ship to address concerns about racial profiling by police officers that emerged from
conversations between the advocacy organizations, local community leaders, and the
local law enforcement.
Although police agencies historically have been resistant to change, recent events
highlighting disparate treatment by police officers have led agencies across the coun-
try to reconsider their policies and practices and the impact they have on their com-
munities. Although progress has been made in adopting evidence-based policies and
practices in some areas across the country based on RPPs involving law enforcement
agencies, there is still much progress that needs to take place to address some key
issues with local policing practices across the United States. As researchers seek to
innovate and help create change in policing policies and practices, it is important to
examine the challenges that community members, researchers, and practitioners face
while advocating for change through collaboration. More importantly, this article
sheds light on the lessons learned while working toward creating changes in policies
and practices in small and midsize police agencies that do not receive the same level
of attention as large police agencies across the United States. Small agencies with
fewer than 25 full-time sworn officers make up about three quarters (75%) of all local
police departments in the United States (Hyland & Davis, 2019). If change is to be
made in policing, it is important to engage in research with agencies of all sizes.

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