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New Tarleton Research Center Will Use Data Analytics To Try To Solve Policing's Trickiest Problems

There’s a lot of law enforcement data collected in Texas but there hasn’t been a centralized effort to rigorously and regularly analyze that data, said Tarleton criminologist Alex del Carmen, who will lead the Institute for Predictive Analytics in Criminal Justice.

“Here we have one of the largest states in the United States with the largest number of law enforcement agencies in the United States, without this type of capacity across the state to really analyze the data from an academic standpoint, from a scientific standpoint,” said del Carmen, who is associate dean of the College of Liberal and Fine Arts at the school.

The Texas A&M University System’s board of regents approved the creation of the institute earlier this month, in the wake of months of protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, and contentious debates about the role and funding of police departments.

“The institute comes at a time when racial profiling, use of force and increased police officer safety are of national concern,” said Tarleton President Dr. James Hurley in a statement. “The institute will strengthen the criminal justice community worldwide by encouraging policies and practices based on robust academic research.”

The institute, which will be housed on Tarleton's Fort Worth campus, will apply analytical tools and academic research methods to improve police accountability and racial justice in Texas, help departments around the state evaluate the public safety benefits of their programs and identify crime hotspots.

Del Carmen expects to publish a report in the coming weeks analyzing more than a decade's worth of data related to police shootings, jail deaths and other deaths in custody. The researchers are also digging into data from police stops made by the roughly 1,900 law enforcement agencies in the state to look at questions of racial profiling.

“What are some of the issues that are prevalent across the state, as it relates to motor vehicle stops, as it relates to potential acts of racism by law enforcement?” he said. “How do those effect the local community as well as the community across the state and how do we best prevent them in the future?”

The data available now is less detailed than he would like – it makes it harder to draw very specific conclusions about how the outcomes of stops and searches differ by race, for example – but he’s been working with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to improve the template for collecting demographic data from each police department across the state.

“We hope to be able to influence and affect the decision makers, as well as police departments across the state to better understand their data,” del Carmen said, and put it into context.

In addition to criminology research, del Carmen has worked as a monitor for police departments under federal consent decrees, educating police officers and training Texas police chiefs on racial profiling. He said he wants the institute to help make policing more effective and more just, while also helping communities understand how policing works.

There are long-standing tensions and mistrust between communities of color and police departments, but del Carmen thinks the research can help turn down the temperature by adding rigorously derived analysis to the knotty discussion of what legitimate, constitutional policing looks like.

“Science is where the answer is, not politics. We’re not looking for a headline, we’re not looking for which side we’re going to please and who we’re going to make happy today,” he said.

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at cconnelly@kera.org.You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

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Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Christopher Connelly is a KERA reporter based in Fort Worth. Christopher joined KERA after a year and a half covering the Maryland legislature for WYPR, the NPR member station in Baltimore. Before that, he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow at NPR – one of three post-graduates who spend a year working as a reporter, show producer and digital producer at network HQ in Washington, D.C.