Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Dallas PD teaming up with U of North Texas for research-training institute

I can't quite put my finger on it. On the surface, it seems like I should welcome news that the Caruth Foundation has devoted $9.5 million to allow the Dallas Police Department to partner with the University of North Texas (DMN, Jan. 8) to create a:

research institute dedicated to training officers and developing crime-fighting strategies.

The city and the University of North Texas will team up to run the W.W. Caruth Jr. Police Institute at Dallas. It will be funded with a $6 million endowment and $3.5 million for start-up costs provided by the W.W. Caruth Jr. Foundation fund through the Communities Foundation of Texas.

Organizers say the institutes's mission will be to train the next generation of Police Department leaders and to give officers opportunities to obtain college degrees through the doctorate level.

The institute also will study the department's crime-fighting strategies to determine what works and what doesn't in an effort to place Dallas at the forefront of the national conversation on best policing practices.

Somehow that strikes me as posing many of the same potential benefits, detriments, and conflicts of interest created by collaborations with the military by universities. Chief David Kunkle said:

"If our supervisors and managers and executives are better trained and have better backgrounds and are better skilled, then they will make better decisions," he said. "If they make better decisions, regardless of what direction the city or the department or the city takes, you're likely to have better outcomes."

It's hard to argue with that. And yet, will the academics at the Institute be comfortable exploring the full implications of their research when working in such close association with field practitioners, and will that create conflicts that potentially harm academic freedom or a commitment to openness and public dissemination of research?

Will DPD impose limits on publication for researchers using their data that eliminate their ability to fully and honestly assess the agency's problems? I don't know. The role of a university is different from that of a consultant: It's supposed to be more independent, not necessarily institutionally intertwined with the subject its researching.

In any event, reports the Dallas News, the new Institutes's research will build on recent consulting work performed by the Rand Corporation

Rand found that one major hurdle facing the department was that crime analysis and crime-fighting efforts are hampered by dozens of databases that don't link to one another. "If you want to do a search on Robert Davis, you'd have to go to potentially 40 places for that information," Mr. Davis said.

Rand also found that the department's efforts to train rank-and-file officers and its leadership needed an extensive overhaul.

Researchers found that only about 10 of the department's 125 senior staff members are sent to outside training programs each year, and less than 40 percent of the senior staff members have had any leadership training at all. Those out-of-town training programs are often expensive, take a lot of time away from the job and are frequently better suited to the needs of smaller policing agencies.

Promotions are also based on an archaic testing process. Only about 30 percent of the department's patrol officers had bachelor's degrees, Mr. Davis said.

Because other efforts are under way to improve the department's technological capabilities, officials decided the remainder of the $15 million should be invested in the department's workforce. The idea for the institute grew out of that realization, Mr. Davis said.

"They need to have the right training, the right motivation and the right career paths and retention to be able to make it possible for the department and the people to carry out the vision that the chief has," he said.

Organizers hope to eventually involve other police departments in their work. The University of Texas at Dallas is also expected to be involved in the institute.

Mr. Davis said Rand will stay involved with the institute because its researchers are in the midst of developing an extensive performance measurement system.

This may turn out to be a great idea, and I support all the stated goals. But something about the partnership doesn't sit right. The academic freedom issues seem too ill-defined and potentially troublesome. I'd like to understand better just what protections will be afforded UNT researchers participating in the program, and what limits are imposed on rights to publish research based on DPD data.

I want to be for this project, but for now count me as "neutral."

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