Should Criminologists partner with local Criminal Justice Agencies to conduct research?
September 21, 2023
by Jeffrey Ian Ross, Ph.D.
Satisfactorily answering this question is difficult and there is neither a single, nor a simple answer. Why? There are lots of conflicting messages that Criminologists are given and trying to sort out what makes sense on an individual basis is challenging.
For example, depending on a job candidate’s background, members of an academic department recruitment committee, in an effort to convince the individual that their institution is an attractive employment option, may enthusiastically promote the potential for forming research partnerships with local criminal justice agencies, and painting a picture of these organizations as welcoming collaborators. Whereas the reality may be something completely different.
That being said, both job candidates and criminologists working in academic departments should carefully assess the advantages and disadvantages of embarking on this path before they invest considerable resources and find that they are totally frustrated with the outcome.
There are at least seven benefits when professors from local universities co-produce research with nearby criminal justice agencies (they are rank ordered from least to most important)
To begin with, building a research partnership with a local criminal justice agency may not only facilitate hands on learning experiences for some of your more motivated students, but it may also provide data for their masters thesi or doctoral dissertations and/or pave the way for future employment for them.
Additionally, working closely with the local criminal justice agency may lead to valuable networking opportunities. This can help to build and sustain relationships that may lead to additional future research collaborations or job opportunities.
Moreover, collaborative efforts may result in tangible and practical results, such as reducing official crime rates, increasing officer retention, and enhancing community satisfaction. In other words, this type of research might provide a practical and relevant dimension to academic work.
Conducting research with a local agency often provides access to valuable data and resources that may be otherwise difficult to obtain.
Collaborative projects with criminal justice agencies may open doors to additional funding sources and grants, which may not be available to Criminologists who have not decided to partner.
Furthermore, the experience gained through partnerships can enrich the Criminologist’s teaching, enabling them to bring real-world examples and insights into their classrooms, which can benefit students.
Finally, and most importantly, conducting research with local criminal justice agencies may lead to a series of important scholarly publications, than what might be afforded through alternative strategies.
Partnering with local criminal justice organizations is also fraught with challenges. There are at least nine prominent drawbacks that Criminologists should be aware of.
To begin, although you might think that any self-respecting criminal justice agency would welcome your expertise, and be willing to partner. But criminal justice agencies may be skeptical about the need for external researchers mulling through their records, data, or obseserving their activities. Building trust can be a challenging process, and not all agencies will readily embrace outside assistance.
In a parallel manner, agencies may be hesitant to partner due to past negative experiences with other outside researchers or organizations that have since departed.
Not only inside your academic department, but within your university and beyond, there may be professors or departments with existing research relationships with local criminal justice organizations. This might lead to collaborative opportunities, but more likely competition for scarce resources.
Another point to consider is that the objectives and priorities of a university researcher and a criminal justice agency may not always align. For example the scholar may be interested in improving conditions inside a correctional facility, but the management would rather have you do work on employee retention.
Similarly researchers may have to compromise on their autonomy and research agenda, as projects with organizations may be guided by the agency’s needs and priorities.
Also it may be very difficult to get access to sensitive data and this may raise ethical and legal concerns.
Most importantly, establishing and maintaining research partnerships usually require long-term commitments. And sometimes these relationships go bust. For example, a new police chief/commissioner is hired, they worked in a city on the other side of the country, and they want nothing to do with you or your university. Or they have colleagues that they worked with in their previous position that they prefer working with.
This investment may divert your attention away from publishing, teaching, service activities and family and friends.
Alternatively, if you have a variety of different/diverse scholarly research interests, anticipate changing universities that are geographically distant from the local criminal justice agency, or you are considering moving into university administration (positions where conducting research is much harder to do) then forging a research partnership with a local criminal justice agency might not be wise. In other words, it may be difficult to justify the initial investment to spend on the collaboration.
Making Peace with your decision
The decision to partner with local criminal justice agencies is a complex one, one that should be carefully considered, including a engaging in relatively sophisticated cost-benefit calculation. The decision and process should align with your career goals, your department’s, college’s and university’s organizational culture, the specific agency’s needs and receptiveness, and your willingness to make a long-term commitment.
Ultimately, while partnerships with local organizations can be rewarding, they require careful consideration and a nuanced approach to navigate the potential advantages and disadvantages.
Co-producing research with a local criminal justice agency can offer numerous advantages and opportunities for criminologists working at a university.
However, this relationship also comes with its own set of challenges and potential disadvantages.
Ultimately, the decision to partner, as well as the individual researcher’s career goals and interests is a personal one.
Effective communication, clear expectations, and a shared commitment to the goals of the partnership can help mitigate some of the challenges and maximize the advantages.
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