01/08/2008

Dallas to create crime-fighting research institute

By Tanya Eiserer
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Dallas is about to become the first major city in America that has a partnership with a university to create a research institute solely 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 institute's mission will be to train the next generation of police department leaders and to give police 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.

"I can't sleep at night, I am so excited," said Dr. Robert Taylor, the chairman of the department of criminal justice at the University of North Texas in Denton who will serve as executive director of the new institute. "It will have far-reaching national implications. What we find here, we will be able to export to other police departments."

Organizers believe it will be the first-ever such research institute based in a local police agency. A formal announcement is planned at a Tuesday news conference.

"This is an investment in the human capital of the Dallas Police Department to provide long-term improvements in public safety for the people of Dallas," said Brent Christopher, president and chief executive officer of the Dallas-based Communities Foundation of Texas.

Backers also hope the institute, which will eventually be located at the University of North Texas at Dallas on Houston School Road in Southeast Oak Cliff, will serve as a boon for ongoing efforts to revitalize the city's southern sector and for recruiting police officers from there.

"Over time, I think it will really put Dallas on the map," City Manager Mary Suhm said.

The roughly $9.5 million in funding for the institute comes from the remainder of a $15 million grant made in August 2005 to the department by the Caruth fund. Backers expect operations to begin in March.

"It's a chance to have an impact on the department that will provide dividends forever," said Police Chief David Chief Kunkle.

"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."

Since taking over in 2004, Chief Kunkle has been overhauling a department that an efficiency study and internal operational reviews found was hobbled by tight budgets, scandals, poor leadership and bad hiring practices. The department also faced problems within the department including low morale, poor equipment and a shortage of officers.

In recent years, the city has pumped millions of taxpayer dollars into the department to improve the situation.

When the Caruth foundation made the grant to the department in 2005, the foundation mandated that the money be spent in three phases. The first $5 million of the $15 million went to immediate equipment needs, such as putting cameras in squad cars and buying hundreds of cell phones for detectives.

"$10 million is a lot of money, but for a department that's got a $400 million budget, $10 million could disappear into the bigger picture of what the department is doing and no one would be the wiser for it," Mr. Christopher said.

Knowing that, the trustees of the Caruth foundation wanted do more than just buy equipment. They wanted to do something that would have a transformative effect on public safety in Dallas, Mr. Christopher said.

This is very much in keeping with the legacy of the late Mr. Caruth who believed that "if people aren’t safe in their homes or at their job, nothing else matters," Mr. Christopher said. "He was interested in ensuring that the money be used in really strategic ways to impact the impact the safety of the citizens of Dallas."

With that in mind, the foundation spent about $500,000 to bring in the Rand Corporation, a private nonprofit research group to analyze the needs of the department.

Rand researchers, led by senior research analyst Robert Davis, who specializes in law enforcement research and crime prevention, interviewed members of the command staff and conducted a number of focus groups with people from all areas of the department and at all levels.

"We got just a wealth of information from all those people," Mr. Davis said.

Rand found that one major hurdle facing the department was that crime analysis and crime-fighting efforts are hampered by dozens of different databases that don’t link to each other. "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.

Their 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 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 already underway 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. It will include community surveys of people who have had contact with the police department to see what kind of service they received.

"If you're a citizen of Dallas, you’ll be able to see how police in your neighborhood compare with police in the rest of the city," Mr. Davis said.

Copyright 2008 The Dallas Morning News

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