Detroit Violence Reduction Network Crime Analyst Placement Program: Leveraging Researcher Expertise to Improve the Public Safety Mission

In 2014, Detroit, Michigan, joined a consortium of cities in the Violence Reduction Network (VRN), a nationwide, locally focused Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) training and technical assistance (TTA) initiative to reduce high rates of violent crime in communities through strategic and innovative measures. Similar to other communities in the VRN program, Detroit has one of the highest violent crime rates in the United States and has endured deep public sector resource constraints and challenges with police-community relations.

Closure rates for homicides and non-fatal shootings have fallen below national averages due to frequent lack of cooperation from victims and witnesses in the community and manpower constraints among justice personnel. The prevalence of systemic domestic violence and gang-related criminality also burdens law enforcement and the justice system at large. To further complicate the policing effort, prior years’ budget cuts for crime analysis and technology enhancements had degraded analytical capacity, which is vital for addressing violent crime.

To overcome these challenges, researchers from the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University (MSU), working with the Detroit Police Department (DPD) and other criminal justice partners, devised a TTA approach that sought to leverage existing programming, develop and bolster community partnerships, and ultimately reintroduce a data-driven analytical capacity to assist justice practitioners in Detroit. As part of a TTA engagement through BJA’s National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC), Detroit city officials and MSU implemented the Crime Analyst Placement Program, in which graduate students introduced complementary analytical skills to inform problem-solving approaches to crime and violence. In total, seven student analysts were placed in local agencies, including the Detroit Police Department (specifically the Crime Control Strategies and Gang Intelligence units), the Detroit Public Schools, the Wayne County Prosecutors Office, and the Michigan Department of Corrections.  Dr. Ed McGarrell, MSU Professor and the lead researcher for this effort, emphasizes that academic researchers and students “bring cutting-edge analytic techniques that can provide new perspectives on the nature of crime and violence problems in specific jurisdictions.”


Aiming to bolster the multiagency, multidisciplinary efforts already underway in Detroit to combat violent crime, BJA NTTAC support of the MSU Crime Analyst Placement Program first enabled student analysts embedded in all local agencies to support Ceasefire Detroit, a program that utilizes evidence-based strategies to address group-related violence. In contrast to other cities that had successfully implemented Ceasefire, the proportion of gun-related homicides and non-fatal shootings associated with gang or street group activity was lower in Detroit. While this pattern likely reflected a greater variety in the nature of gun violence in Detroit, MSU analysts recognized opportunities to enhance law enforcement’s analytic capacity to address this.

Social Network Analysis

MSU student analysts helped introduce and support social network analysis that could be used to identify nexuses between shootings and active, violent street groups and gangs in supporting Ceasefire Detroit. They assisted the DPD Gang Intelligence Unit (GIU) in developing a database of known gangs and gang members. Through a mobile app for smartphones, concurrently designed by an individual within the larger VRN program, the GIU was then given timelier and more efficient access to the gang database. MSU student analysts also used social network analysis to support the Special Grand Jury Initiative within the Wayne County, Michigan Prosecutor’s Office, producing reports that identified potential witnesses with information on non-fatal shootings. Although not originally part of the placement program’s support of Ceasefire Detroit, social network analysis and the gang database became invaluable components of the program’s focused deterrence strategy.  These analytical approaches will now be extended to a Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative focused on the city’s west side.

Risk Terrain Modeling

One of the MSU analysts, a doctoral student with expertise in Risk Terrain Modeling (RTM), also supported Ceasefire Detroit by conducting initial RTM analyses. RTM is a hotspot-focused diagnostic tool developed to support public safety practitioners in forecasting the geographic risk of criminality. These analyses identified high-risk locations for shootings and armed robberies within Detroit, with the goal of complementing Ceasefire’s people-based strategies with location-based strategies. Several other student analysts were then trained in RTM to provide increased analytic capacity to support place-based crime prevention strategies.  RTM is now being utilized to support Detroit’s Project Greenlight that creates partnerships between DPD and small businesses to support crime prevention and will be included in a new Smart Policing initiative.

Lessons Learned

While the Detroit VRN Crime Analyst Placement Program has successfully improved the analytical capabilities of different entities within the Detroit justice community and positively impacted efforts to reduce crime, program success was not fully realized without encountering some hurdles. Embedding students alongside justice practitioners brings together personnel from two very distinct disciplines. Dr. McGarrell noted that students began their assignments with varying levels of skills and experience, adding that “there was experimentation with different analytical techniques at the same time that on-the-job training was occurring.”

The program faced logistical challenges as well. In some instances, students had to juggle academic work, analyst responsibilities, and/or full-time employment. Turnover among the program analysts was also an issue as students graduated and moved on to new opportunities.

Despite these challenges, the MSU Crime Analyst Placement Program is described as a “win-win” by Dr. McGarrell: “For criminal justice agencies, the student analysts provide human capital to engage in crime analysis with minimal expenditures for the agencies.” He adds that the program “provides an outstanding opportunity for students to be engaged in active learning and to develop skills with utility.” Demonstrating this value, four participating students have been hired as full-time crime analysts since graduating, both for the City of Detroit and for other law enforcement agencies in the United States.

Student analysts introduced analytic techniques that have not only complemented the work of Ceasefire project managers and technology specialists, but by supporting project managers and the Crime Intelligence Unit, have also introduced a new level of accountability across all agencies within the Ceasefire partnership, for crime and violence patterns across neighborhoods and citywide. This academic-practitioner partnership provided new sets of eyes and new areas of expertise to address complex challenges and succeeded in filling important analytical gaps for justice practitioners in the Detroit region. 

Moving Forward

As with any programming that relies on non-local funding, MSU’s Crime Analyst Placement Program will continue to focus on sustainability in order to continue to support the Detroit VRN. Researchers are presently seeking alternative sources for financial support (e.g., foundations), demonstrating the proven successes of the student analysts’ work to date in their proposals. The Crime Analyst Placement Program also benefitted from local investment in crime analysis capacity that has resulted in a Real-Time Crime Center and increased numbers of crime analysts. Researchers and student analysts are now cross-training with departmental personnel in various analytical capacities to build lasting institutional knowledge within justice agencies. BJA NTTAC continues to provide other operational support services to the Detroit VRN, as well as to other U.S. cities in the Violence Reduction Network, by delivering innovative strategies and programming to address complex public safety challenges.

At a time when the public sector increasingly has to operate under tighter budgets and do more with less, a program like the MSU Crime Analyst Placement Program demonstrates that academics and researchers can bring much to the table at little or no cost. The program also reflects how the implementation of emerging technologies can directly support the public safety mission and enhance the day-to-day operations of practitioners. Ultimately, Dr. McGarrell and his team of researchers at MSU hope that their work in Detroit can serve as a blueprint for multidisciplinary efforts to address complex justice issues in jurisdictions across the country.

If your agency or community is experiencing issues with courtroom productivity and would like to apply for technical assistance, please contact BJA NTTAC at to discuss your unique justice needs.

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