Will Trump Use Science to Fight Crime?

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Photo by Monique Nascimento via Flickr.

Leading criminologists expressed cautious optimism yesterday that President Trump will embrace evidence-based practices in his administration’s war on crime.

Laurie Robinson, who advocated the use of science in justice as an Assistant Attorney General in the Obama administration, declared, “I do not think the [criminal justice] field is turning back” on evidence-based programs.

Robinson, now a member of the criminology faculty at George Mason University , said that officials “on the front line have to know what works, and how to pay for it.”

She noted that bipartisan justice reform plans had been approved in recent years in such conservative states as Georgia, Louisiana and North Dakota.

Her comments came at the annual gathering sponsored by the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at the George Mason campus, in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C.. The session opened with a discussion on the “Progress of Evidence-Based Crime Policy in the Last Three Decades.”

Some critics have expressed doubt that the new administration will base policies on scientific evidence, noting Trump’s professed disbelief in global warming and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ advocacy of tough-on-crime practices that studies have found ineffective.

Other speakers echoed Robinson.

Denise O’Donnell, who headed the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance under Obama, said many U.S. policing leaders have concluded that “there is power in data.” She cited such developments as the use of public opinion surveys by police departments in formulating policies on officers’ body-worn cameras.

James Burch, a vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation and a former Justice Department official, offered a “qualified yes” to the question of whether evidence-based criminal justice practices will continue under Trump.

Burch said he detected a “different tone” in discussions among police chiefs and sheriffs at national conventions in recent years. Law enforcement officials are asking themselves “how do we hold ourselves accountable?” he said.

Burch noted that several dozen major police departments had offered to disclose data on officer-involved shootings of civilians since the issue came to the fore after the killing of Michael Brown by an officer in Ferguson in 2014. It is now common for police chiefs to concentrate on such issues as officer handling of cases involving mentally ill people and how to provide emergency medical care to people overdosing on opioids, he said.

Speakers pointed out that in opening a national “summit” on crime reduction and public safety last week, Sessions said that in a new national “Public Safety Partnership” involving 12 localities, the Justice Department will provide “diagnostic teams” to “assess the local factors driving increased violent crime, and will help local leaders develop strategies to address those factors.”

Lawrence Sherman, a criminologist on the faculties of both Britain’s Cambridge University and the University of Maryland, discussed the growth of sophisticated studies that are helping to guide today’s policing strategies.

He discussed his establishment of the Cambridge Journal of Evidence-Based Policing, which debuted this month, and is aimed at publishing “peer-reviewed, scientifically rigorous original research, in clear and plain English, written by and for practitioners of evidence-based policing.” The journal aims to “assist police professionals across the democratic world to reduce crime and harm in their communities, while increasing the legitimacy, legality, and fairness of their police agencies.”

Sherman is a research partner of the American Society of Evidence Based Policing, a relatively new group of police officers in the U.S. who formed the organization after deciding that “there had to be a better way of policing… evidence-based policing seems to be the answer.”

Also discussed at yesterday’s conference was the latest research in topics such as body-worn cameras, mental illness and the criminal justice system, research on school safety, and community and police-citizen relations.

The George Mason center gave distinguished achievement awards to Pennsylvania State University criminologist Doris MacKenzie and James “Chips” Stewart, public safety director of the firm CNA and former director of the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice.

The center inducted six new members into its evidence-based policing Hall of Fame: Inspector William Barritt of the Brooklyn Park (MN) Police Department; Sheri Bell of the Winnipeg (Manitoba) Police Service; Michael Kurtenbach, Executive Assistant Police Chief in Phoenix; Deborah Platz, assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police; Sgt. Gregory Stewart of the Portland, Or., Police Bureau; and Richard Twiss, retired chief of the Indio (CA) Police Department.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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