Assistant Professors of Criminal Justice Samantha O’Hara and Denise Leifker participated in the U.S. Department of Justice and Michigan State University’s Smart Suite Researcher Practitioner Fellows Academy in Denver, February 7-10, 2017.
The academy was created to help researchers and practitioners work more effectively and efficiently on crime reduction strategies. It’s made up of 30-50 hand-selected professionals from across the country that address the ongoing commitment of the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) for more evidence-based practices and program evaluation in law enforcement, prosecution strategies and community corrections.
O’Hara and Leifker are collaborating with researchers from six other states to provide state-level evaluation of Blue Courage, a curriculum designed to increase collaboration between law enforcement and the communities they serve, starting with individual officer level change.
“The Blue Courage curriculum offers law enforcement officers a way to transition from a mindset of “warriors” to a mindset of “guardians,” Leifker said.
“As a law enforcement officer, you want that connection and respect from the community,” she added. “A lot of what we hear in the news is that this hasn’t been demonstrated. Our job is to see if the Blue Courage training makes a tangible difference. The big picture is to see a shift in the way law enforcement approaches their job and the way the community views them.”
Being selected to participate for the panel is an honor, O’Hara said.
“We were selected because of our partnership with the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy and their adoption of the Blue Courage curriculum,” she said.
“I think we are the first researchers in Iowa to be a part of this Academy. I’m very excited our connections made this happen.”
Indeed, the institutions represented at the Academy are all heavy hitters in the area of criminal justice.
“The fact that Simpson College is at the table with institutions like Wichita State University, Louisiana State University, Brandeis University, Kansas State University and California State University is pretty exciting for us and for the college,” O’Hara said.
Additionally, police departments from Miami Beach, Denver, Minneapolis and Madison, Wis. took part in the event.
The assessment of the Blue Courage curriculum will consist of a questionnaire designed collaboratively by the team and administered to departments across Iowa both before and after they have received the training.
The research will look at both the individual officer level and the agency level to see how effective the curriculum is in changing both attitudes and behaviors. This includes not only the content of the course, but also who delivers the training and the means by which it’s delivered. Does it make a difference if it’s an optional in-service training or if it’s mandatory, for example.
Once it’s decided the curriculum has long-term ramifications, the goal is to redeploy the survey over time to gather longer-term data trends. If it’s not proving sustained change, then the curriculum needs to be changed or modified.
The data will be housed at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) and be accessible by researchers from across the country.
“It’s a unique thing,” O’Hara said. “No one has ever really done it this way before, with multiple stakeholders involved.”
Leifker agrees. “This is our first big research project partnering with an agency, and we hope it can have an immediate effect. It’s part of a national effort but it is very Iowa focused, something that’s near and dear to our hearts. We want there to be good officers, good agencies and a good model of serving the public.”
The life experiences that O’Hara and Leifker bring to this process have helped them see the research’s potential.
“I have a lot of agency experience while Denise’s background is in law enforcement,” O’Hara said. “To be able to work on this together and bring the strength of both areas is really helpful.”
“Honestly I never thought that when I came to Simpson, I’d be involved with the BJA. It’s been a great experience.”
A by-product of O’Hara’s and Leifker’s research collaboration presents amazing opportunities for Simpson College students.
“Exposing our students to this real-life applied research is so important,” O’Hara said. “Program evaluation is a huge part of how departments receive grant funding. If we can bring our own data into the classroom and teach students the process, it’s truly a win-win.”
Simpson’s proximity to the Des Moines metro and the variety of agencies there is also a strong selling point for the criminal justice program. The faculty connections consistently place students in some of the best positions for internships and experiential learning situations.
And it also helps to have a strong network of Simpson College criminal justice alumni opening doors.
“We have a legacy of practitioners who have graduated and are working in the field,” Leifker said. “You don’t have to look very far in law enforcement, corrections, court agencies or some sort of social service agency to find a Simpson alum or connection.”