Finding practical solutions to real crime issues

David Makin sitting in front of multiple computer monitors in office.
David Makin

After leading police on a slippery, high-speed chase through snowy Spokane neighborhoods, running red lights and stop signs, driving through a resident’s yard and slamming his stolen Subaru into a Jeep, a chronic car thief finally was caught, several minutes — and thousands of dollars in property damage — later.

Could anything have been done to prevent this crime spree?

A team of undergraduate researchers in David Makin’s Crime Prevention Strategies class would say yes, based on the in-depth study of vehicle theft prevention the students conducted last fall on behalf of the Spokane Police Department.

In the 14-page report they presented to the department, they recommended in-home monitoring devices, such as electronic bracelets, as effective ways to curb repeat offenses. They analyzed the department’s actual crime data, along with statistical information and other evidence-based research, to develop their recommendations.

Collaborations bridge academic and applied worlds

The Spokane project was one of eight semester-long investigations overseen by Makin, assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology. The students themselves directed the projects aimed at providing area public safety agencies with practical solutions to crime-prevention issues they face.

Students in the innovative course worked with agency partners on a range of issues spanning the nexus between public health and public safety. While one team analyzed property crime for Spokane police, another worked with police in Moscow, Idaho, examining incidents involving mental illness and heroin. Other students worked with Pullman police to assess appropriate staffing levels and other groups collaborated on projects with the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

“When you think about WSU’s land-grant mission, in many ways this course epitomizes what it means to advance knowledge, extend knowledge and apply knowledge in a way that benefits students and the wider public. It is a remarkable win–win,” Makin said.

The course, which Makin designed, “deals with the relationship between crime analysis and crime prevention by connecting the theoretical traditions of criminology with the practical knowledge of the criminal justice system,” he said. Students learn how to develop public policy focused on strategies for preventing and deterring crime.

“This unique method bridges the academic and applied worlds by introducing both students and public safety practitioners to the important contributions possible through their collaborative efforts. What makes this course innovative is not the team-projects approach, nor the experiential learning, but the applied aspect of students working alongside community partners to solve real, complicated problems,” Makin said.

His students learn about the myriad operational and organizational challenges that agencies face and they gain a better understanding of the pressures and limitations placed on them. They conduct SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) assessments to better understand each partner organization and the environment in which it operates.

In addition, they also develop and apply skills in written and verbal communication, data analysis, and project planning while learning and practicing valuable technical skills, such as database creation and management, basic and inferential analysis, data visualization, technical writing and presentation development.

Their community partners benefit from the careful research and analysis of particularly relevant issues as they work alongside the student teams.

Working with WSU student researchers was “a great experience,” said Teresa Shackelford, program manager in behavioral health for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. “They looked at general problems with delivering rural mental health services and offered good suggestions for reducing stigma related to seeking and accepting behavioral health services, so that was exciting,” she said.

Some of the collaborations revealed money-saving opportunities for the agencies. For example, the Spokane Police Department project found that improving electronic monitoring is a much cheaper alternative to incarceration while it also helps reduce repeat offenses from criminals.

Tackling real crime, solving real problems

Although policy development is a critical undertaking for public agencies, junior Savanna Obernberger admits it didn’t hold much appeal before she started her class project with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

“At first I thought, ‘I don’t like traffic or policies or anything like that. It’s not something I’d be interested in at all,’” said the junior from Poulsbo, Washington. “I just never really thought about traffic crimes as being such a problem, but it is so huge and it affects a huge population.”

Obernberger and four classmates delved into multiple types of information about repeat-offending drunk or impaired drivers. They analyzed demographic, geographic, temporal, cognitive behavioral and other kinds of data to develop policy recommendations geared to the particular interests of primary stakeholders, including police departments, insurance companies, bar owners, bartenders and the drivers themselves.

Her first experience conducting real-world policy research was “eye-opening but not super-surprising or shocking,” she said. “I just think all of it is really fun.”

This spring, Obernberger opted to take a related course in crime-prevention strategy centered on independent research. Supervised by Makin, her new project focuses on contract and policy development to enhance public safety within the Desert Aire community in Grant County, Washington.

“I just love working with different people and learning about how to solve a problem and get them what they need,” she said.

A transferable model

Makin hopes his course’s success will inspire other educators to adopt the concept and adapt it to fit their schools and communities.

“It doesn’t require any special equipment, location or exceptional investment in resources,” he said. “In rural areas, for example, focusing on state agencies would open up an entirely new range of projects to address challenges faced by local communities or even the state.”

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