Doctoral Level Graduate Research Assistantship for Public Safety

David Makin, smiling.
David Makin, associate professor and director of the Complex Social Interaction Laboratory

From abstract to concrete and from basic to applied: These two fundamental concepts informed the development of an innovative proposal to integrate research, teaching, and service into graduate student education and training. Emerging as a proposal within the Provost’s Leadership Academy, David Makin, associate professor, proposed the creation of a Public Safety Assistantship to embed doctoral-level students into police departments for learning how to conduct research, translate research, and assist agencies in data-driven initiatives. With the support of the WSU Graduate School, College of Arts and Sciences, and Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology (CJC), Professor Makin proposed a pilot program to the Pullman Police Department (PPD).

At the core of the proposal was leveraging data to make informed decisions. By embedding a doctoral student into the data of the agency, PPD could be more responsive to funding opportunities (PPD recently received a COPS Grant to support employee health and wellness). It could also be better positioned to implement evidence-based practices and, most important, could have resources, in both the research fellow and Makin, to explore opportunities for improvement. In 2019, Megan Parks was the inaugural recipient of the Research for Public Safety Assistantship. Megan’s three-year reflection is below.

Over the next three years, Megan became embedded in PPD to analyze agency data, develop protocols for new data collection processes, identify relevant funding opportunities, write grant proposals, and provide supervision and guidance to undergraduate researcher assistants working in the Complex Social Interactions Lab. During each milestone review, the assistantship was meeting or exceeding expectations. In fact, the program received an international award for innovation. With the success of the first program, Makin proposed extending the program into a second three-year program and adding a second department. Starting in Fall of 2022, the department is pleased to announce there are two (2) three-year graduate research assistantships with the PPD and the City Pasco Police Department.

While the program has changed slightly from a fellowship to a research assistantship, the core of the program remains—integrating research, teaching, and service into graduate student education and training through collaborative experiential learning imparting research support for the police department and allowing for engaging undergraduate and graduate students in research opportunities within the department. Importantly, this assistantship would not exist were it not for the support from our University partners (the Graduate School, College of Arts and Sciences, the Provost’s Leadership Academy), and most importantly our agency champions: PPD Chief Gary Jenkins, Chief Roske of the Pasco Police Department, and their respective city councils who approved the funds to realize this collaborative research partnership. 

Assistantship Reflection

Megan Parks, Ph.D. Candidate, smiling
Megan Parks, inaugural recipient of the Research for Public Safety Assistantship/Lab Manager, Complex Social Interactions Lab,  from fall 2019 to spring 2022

The Research for Public Safety Assistantship and the knowledge I have gained through my involvement with the Pullman Police Department is extremely unique and will undoubtedly serve as a benefit when I transition into my career. The practical experiences gained have clarified the type of career I will pursue and have shaped my trajectory as a researcher immensely. I have learned soft and hard skills throughout the process. The direct work conducted allowed me to communicate with practitioners across different fields in criminal justice and it allowed me to contribute to efforts producing positive changes in the field and within the Pullman Police Department. I was able to shadow an evaluation consultant as the city considered the development of a municipal court. Through this process, I learned how to conduct a thorough evaluation and even more about the importance of incorporating qualitative elements in my research. I have been fortunate to aid the PPD in other projects, including an evaluation of the suitability of red-light camera systems, a research brief on best practices in responding to domestic violence, and the development of a police-contact survey in collaboration with the Police Advisory Committee. Deploying a contact survey is a costly expenditure for departments, and by way of the fellowship, the PPD will be able to collect this important data on police and community interactions with minimal costs—that is the costs of printing new business cards.

I have been the manager of the Complex Social Interactions (CSI) Lab for the last three years. In this position, I have learned how to manage projects, from developing research questions that matter to the agency to figuring out proper and effective data-collection methods to answer pressing questions to the agency. The research conducted in the CSI Lab helps the agency in better understanding use of force, de-escalation, and professionalism. The Pullman Police Department is among the first agencies in the nation to integrate the analysis of body-worn camera footage into risk management and training processes. I manage 25 students each semester and my skills as a leader and a teacher have improved greatly. This position and the work we have conducted with the PPD has helped me understand the current challenges facing policing. Most important, and a benefit that only an assistantship of this sort can offer, is that I have learned about the experiences of officers and how research findings can be effectively translated into the working day-to-day operations of a police department.

Recently, through assisting with the writing of a COPS Office LEMHWA Grant, I learned about the grant application process as well as the process of accepting and carrying out a federal grant in a department. My gained experience in grant writing and evaluation while working closely with the PPD is the type of work many PhD students strongly want though are seldom able to acquire in their years of study.

The assistantship position has allowed for a beneficial researcher-agency relationship to form between myself, Dr. Makin, and the PPD. This type of partnership is invaluable, as it has allowed the opportunity to address the disconnect that we often see between academia and practitioners. Often this is not something graduate students are able to experience and learn until they are working in the field. Frequently and prominent as of lately, there is a concern among police that researchers may seek out opportunities to portray the law enforcement profession in a negative light. I believe being able to highlight the experiences of officers in my research is more important than ever. The partnership this fellowship has created allows for such an in-depth approach to practical research to occur. The fellowship supplies the police department the ability to embed research in their practices and processes. This is a benefit not only for the research fellow but it aligns with the PPD’s vision to be a leading agency in the law enforcement profession. A desire to incorporate research into their processes is what makes the Pullman Police Department the effective, progressive, and respectable department that it is. The Research for Public Safety Assistantship only aids in furthering this vision all while providing the most beneficial and practical experience a criminal justice PhD student could ask for.

Research Partnership between WSU and City of Pullman

On April 26, 2022, Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins received approval of a $70,000 research assistantship program with WSU’s Criminal Justice and Criminology Department. That program will cover 2.5 years, and Chief Jenkins has already listed about six projects that are under way. Prior to this approval, the Pullman Police Department and other agencies were involved in research studies in support of the Complex Social interactions Lab and the research assistantship.

For more information contact:

David Makin, CSI Laboratory Director and Associate Professor
Wilson-Short Hall, 117