Sometime during 25 years spent behind the wheel of a cruiser on the midnight shift for the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Police Department, Chris Barnum, PhD, developed a keen interest in the stories numbers can tell.
Bob Perfetti is awfully glad he did. Davenport Police Chief Frank Donchez is, too.
As director of the St. Ambrose Master of Criminal Justice program, Barnum, an associate professor, has developed a numbers-crunching research program that can help police departments to better police themselves.
His search for empirical, statistical evidence that racial profiling is being practiced—or is not—within police ranks has led to fellowship grants from the Iowa communities of Iowa City and Davenport.
Each grant helps pay MCJ students—Perfetti in Iowa City and Matt Lint in Davenport—to work with Barnum through the painstaking process of collecting years of data regarding police activity and demographics in each city. They then exhaustively examine the data in search of conclusive behavioral analysis.
Barnum and his students are in their third year of collecting and analyzing data from both cities, and conclusions are only now beginning to be drawn. Barnum stressed that the enormity of the necessary research, the anomalies inherent to the data, and the importance of arriving at the correct conclusions all call for a very deliberate approach.
"We are looking for trends," Barnum said. "Then, those have to be followed more closely over time. This points you where you should be looking. And if you keep looking there, you should be able to draw some conclusions."
The process includes what Barnum describes as the "tedious" practice of sitting curbside at key intersections of each city and attempting to determine the race and gender of the drivers of fast-passing cars. This creates an essential baseline for subsequent comparison to police stops made in similar city sectors, as well as citations issued, searches conducted and stops made.
Numbers involved in establishing that baseline alone indicate the enormity of the research invested in these projects. Barnum has divided Davenport into 26 sections and, using criminal justice students in both graduate and undergrad programs to sit in cars and count, he requires the confirmed identifications of 16,000 drivers per section.
Perfetti said that is harder to do than you might think. "I take someone with me, and we both have to agree on what we have seen or I don't record it," he said. "Which eliminates most of the cars that go by."
Still, Perfetti, a former IT specialist from Buffalo, NY, welcomes the challenge and absolutely revels in the unexpected chance to share his own passion for numbers and research with Barnum. In fact, he has decided research is where his future in criminal justice lies.
"I have been very grateful for the opportunity," said Perfetti, who will begin applying to doctoral programs in the fall. "Going through the program, it became more and more evident to me that this is what I like doing."
Police Chief Donchez said Barnum's program is a blessing as the Davenport PD and the city's Civil Rights Commission seek to either dispel the idea that police in the city are profiling, or to vigorously correct a problem, if one is found.
"We're fortunate to have Professor Barnum and the resources of St. Ambrose at the ready," he said.