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K-State Today

April 10, 2014

Partnership between sociology and Riley County Police Department leads to international award

Submitted by Kaylee Engle

A collaboration between Susan Williams, associate professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Capt. Tim Hegarty and the Riley County Police Department, or RCPD, has earned the prestigious 2013 International Association of Chiefs of Police/Sprint Excellence in Law Enforcement Research Award.

Received for conducting innovative research that has exemplified leadership, partnerships, uniqueness of research, quality of research and influence of research findings, the Riley County Police Department was selected as the Bronze Award Winner for its initiative: Laser Point research project. The department was the smallest agency to be selected following the Silver Award winner, the Daytona Beach, Fla., Police Department, and the Gold Award winner, Kent, England, police.

"It's highly unusual for a small agency such as RCPD to be awarded an international award like this," said Williams, associate professor of sociology and principal investigator of the research team. "These awards usually go to very large police units who have lots of resources and, quite frankly, lots of crime to deal with, more than we have here."

Hegarty came across a study completed by the Sacramento, Calif., Police Department that proved the presence of police at micro high crime areas for 15 minutes reduced crime rates. Micro locations refer to street segments no more than a city block in length.

Hegarty turned to Williams and her research team in the sociology program to dig deeper. Williams has assisted the agency with numerous projects and has been an invaluable partner to the Riley County Police Department since 2001.

Hegarty wanted to figure out if it mattered whether the officer was active once he arrived at the micro hotspot, or an area that has a high crime rate. Together they developed a 90-day study, "Initiative: Laser Point," which took what Sacramento had done and adapted it to the Riley County Police Department with a new variable to test two perspectives. If the same process of micro hot spot policing worked in nonurban areas and if it made a difference whether or not the officers were active once they arrived on the scene.

The Riley County Police Department conducted the experiment between Oct. 2 and Dec. 31, 2012. Williams and Will Chernoff, graduate student in the sociology doctoral program, along with members of the police department, analyzed the data to complete the study.

The study showed the micro hot spot policing done by the police department resulted in statistically significant reductions of crime in those hot spots. The finding didn't shock the police department because hot spot policing has been shown to work in multiple studies. However, it was important to test the practice in nonmetro areas, something that had not been done. They also discovered there wasn't any statistical difference between the hot spots where officers were active and the hot spots where officers sat in their car and were simply visible, which was unexpected.

The research team completed writing the study in May 2013 and submitted it for the Excellence in Law Enforcement Research Award. Hegarty, Williams and others from the Riley County Police Department traveled to Philadelphia, Pa., to be presented with the award on Oct. 19.

"It's highly unusual for a police unit of this size to engage in research at all," Williams said. "Most police units, especially smaller ones in nonmetropolitan areas practice what we call reactive policing. In other words, they wait for something to happen and then they show up to clean it up. This police force, Riley County Police Department, primarily because of Capt. Hegarty, is proactive. They look to prevent crime and stay ahead of trends rather than to simply react after the fact. It's pretty unusual for this to happen in a small- to medium-size agency."

Although initially skeptical of the study, the officers have used the findings to change the way Riley County Police Department operates by employing hot spot policing in a similar fashion.

"Our officers didn't believe that was actually going to work," Hegarty said. "Then we saw crime falling and then we saw the results of the study and crime has continued to fall. Now they accept it as 'It doesn't matter how I feel about it, this obviously works.'"

The sociology program's part in the research project should not be overlooked as a local connection between a public agency and a university is not common.

Hegarty further associated himself with K-State by taking the position of an adjunct instructor for a youth and crime class under the College of Arts and Sciences. He's been able to enhance the classroom experience by using real world examples and bringing in data to show what's happening in Riley County. He enjoys the moments where he gets to talk about areas he and the students share an interest in.

"My favorite part is that students want to hang around after class sometimes and ask questions about law enforcement and policing which is really what I'm passionate about. It gives me a chance to share what I love with other people," Hegarty said.

Hegarty emphasized the key role K-State played in conducting the study, earning the award and the way the Riley County Police Department functions.

"It's about Kansas State University and I'm very happy to be associated with them," Hegarty said. "They deserve a lot of credit for this."