PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Dr. Kevin J. Strom, Director of the Center for Policing Research and Investigative Science at RTI International, about RTI’s work on the pandemic, developing relationships between police agencies and researchers, and RTI’s upcoming policing symposium.


COVID-related research

Wexler: What is RTI doing related to COVID-19 and law enforcement?

Dr. Strom: RTI is a nonprofit research organization that has been around since the 1950s. We’re affiliated with some of the local universities here in Research Triangle Park, NC.

We’ve been trying to assist the law enforcement community with this unprecedented COVID pandemic. There are a lot of different messages and information out there, and we know it’s challenging for police chiefs and others in policing to understand what’s going on and what they can do about it. We’ve tried to compile resources and make them accessible to agencies. We’ve also worked with some of our public health researchers at RTI to make sure that information is getting out to the field.

And in North Carolina, where we’re based, some of our colleagues are doing some interesting work on the use of wearable sensors and other technology to help police and other first responders identify COVID symptoms, as well as tracking information across the first responder community.

Recent research on tracking officers’ stress levels or COVID symptoms with Fitbit-type devices

Wexler: Can you give us examples of work you’re doing and results that are important?

Dr. Strom: On the wearables, which is generally a Garmin or Fitbit-type device, we’ve done some work looking at stress among police officers in the field. We’ve found the information can be extremely useful for understanding how officers are experiencing stress during the course of a shift or multiple shifts.

Some of those ideas can be used with regard to COVID symptoms. One of my colleagues, health data researcher Robert Furberg, is leading some interesting work with firefighters in North Carolina to develop a better tracking system for COVID exposure. He’s also working to create a more standardized platform for tracking COVID and understanding the operational impacts of COVID on these agencies. We feel like that’s something that could be expanded to the law enforcement community. And I think this could help us beyond COVID by developing better tracking of health symptoms in police officers and other first responders.

Research shows customizing programs to the local police agency is key to success

Wexler: What are some promising programs from your health and wellness project?

Dr. Strom: There are some promising health and wellness programs out there. We have a project with the COPS Office right now, and one of the things we’ve found is that the key is often how an agency tries to implement a promising program. One aspect of that project is to better understand the needs of the agency, so that whatever program is identified will be implemented in a way that best meets the needs of that agency. There’s often a desire to take something off the shelf, and say, “If it worked there, it’s going to work here.” But that’s not the case. It really needs to be matched to the needs of the agency, and the implementation of the program is key to its final success.

Detectives and death investigators experience stress and trauma

Wexler: What groups are included in your work on health and wellness?

Dr. Strom: When we think about health and wellness, both during the pandemic and more generally, we sometimes forget about other occupations that are highly affected by the stress of their job. One example is a deputy coroner from Charleston, SC who talked about being involved in some highly traumatic events, including a collapsed structure and the 2015 mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. She was basically a first responder to those events, yet she wasn’t involved in any of the stress debriefings or after-action support.

Similarly, medical death investigators respond to death every day as part of their job.

I think detectives and investigators are another group where we’d like to better understand their day-to-day stress, so we can take more proactive steps to address what they’re going through.

So when we think about health and wellness of first responders, we need to think more generally. It’s not just about patrol officers.

Speeding up the research process to provide timely, useful information

Wexler: What should police chiefs and sheriffs know about working with researchers? How do they engage with researchers?

Dr. Strom: Over the course of my career, I’ve seen it change from both sides. Police chiefs and others in policing are becoming more accustomed to working with outside researchers. And I hope the research community and academics are getting better at working with police as well.

Police chiefs and others in the field should go into that conversation with the key questions they want answered, and also be willing to listen and understand the researchers’ perspective. Research that takes 3-5 years before researchers can come back with results isn’t really going to be useful for police departments. For researchers, rapid analysis is important, even if it’s interim results. And that should be in a form that will be useful to that agency.

On the flip side, agencies need to understand that they’re not going to get every answer right away. And some questions may be difficult to figure out with great certainty.

Agencies should try to identify the researchers who will be the right fit. Sometimes that’s a university that’s right down the street, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be nearby. Make sure you’re finding the researcher or group of researchers who are the right fit.

Analyzing calls-for-service data to test alternative responses

Wexler: Do you try to share preliminary findings with police departments?

Dr. Strom: Absolutely. I think it’s important to share information, even if it’s preliminary. And both sides should be able to ask questions.

We’re working on an exciting initiative here in North and South Carolina with agencies that are looking at their calls for service data and trying to figure out some alternative responses they can test out on calls about mental health and other issues. We’re analyzing their data, showing it to them, and going through the steps.

When they start to identify alternative response strategies, we want to test those out in rapid evaluation, so that we’re not waiting years and years for results. They want to get new programs and practices in place quickly, but they want to do it in a responsible way.

How COVID has impacted the process of conducting research

Wexler: How has COVID-19 impacted researchers? Have you had to adapt your methods?

Dr. Strom: Like everyone else, we’ve been doing a lot of Zoom calls. I think overall we’ve been able to respond well. Sometimes getting information from police departments has taken a little longer, especially earlier in the pandemic.

For the work we’d usually do on the ground, we’re having to do that virtually, but it’s actually working out pretty well. We do assessments of investigative units as part of our work, and we’ve done a lot of that work virtually.  We’ve heard from some police and sheriffs’ departments that in some ways, a Teams call or Zoom call can be more efficient for them.

At the same time, no one wants to stay like this forever.

“We’ve seen a lot of reforms over the past two decades, but I think this time is different.”

Wexler: How do you think the past year will change policing in the long term?

Dr. Strom: I’m a fundamental believer that all these things are interrelated. This is certainly a unique and unprecedented time. I’m also an optimist. I believe there will be fundamental changes to the policing field, and I think we’re already seeing some of that. We’ve seen a lot of reforms over the past two decades, but I think this time is different.

You’re also seeing agencies very willing to say, “What can we change and how?” You’re seeing that in the conversations about use of force. And these conversations are also opening up the idea that police departments shouldn’t be responsible for all of society’s problems as the first responder on the scene. Can we address some of these issues by sharing responsibilities across the community and across different agencies, and reduce unnecessary police involvement in some of these situations?

A new age of police recruiting

The other piece of this is recruiting. I know it’s very challenging for agencies right now, but I’m hopeful that over the coming years we’re going to see a new age of police recruiting, where we look at different types of experiences and increase diversity. That’s really going to help reshape what these organizations look like.

I’m very hopeful, because I think there are some great leaders in the policing field. I think there are some great thought leaders. And I do think we’re going to come out all the better for it on the other side.

Online RTI Policing Symposium on February 11

Wexler: Can you tell us about your upcoming policing symposium?

Dr. Strom: This will be our sixth annual policing symposium. This year it’s all virtual and online. We’re really excited about these events. One of the goals is to share information between law enforcement and researchers in an applied way. So some of these are presentations and discussions about research work being done by police departments, some are being done by researchers, and a lot of them are collaborative efforts.

This year the theme is data-driven reform. We’re looking at issues around mental health response. We’re looking at use-of-force data collection and analysis on a state and local level, and community perspectives on use of force. We’re also going to look at police recruiting efforts, as well as community partnerships.

We’ll hear a lot of different perspectives. We have a number of law enforcement participants, including the Eugene, Oregon Police Department, where the CAHOOTS model is based, and folks from other places. The idea is to share this information, have some good discussion about it, and talk about how some of these promising programs can be implemented in other places around the country.

That will be on February 11th, and you can find more information on the RTI website.

The final thing I’ll say is that we’ve really enjoyed a strong relationship with PERF and a lot of the PERF collaborators across the field, including those on PERF’s Research Advisory Board. We try to find organizations that have a like-minded mission and strategy. One of the things that excites me is that there are a lot of people with good ideas for the field, and it’s just a matter of putting them into practice across the many agencies out there.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.