Students survey hotspots to cool down county crime

While some students might plan to prepare for final exams in Morris Library, a group of criminology and criminal justice students will spend the weekend before finals conducting hands-on research.

The students will take their fourth trip this semester to St. Louis County on Saturday as a result of a $400,000 grant obtained last year from the National Institute of Justice. Tammy Rinehart Kochel, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice, said although the grant was awarded to her specifically, the students will work with her and the St. Louis County Police Department to research community members’ opinions and attitudes about neighborhood police methods.

This is the second year the group has been funded through the grant, Kochel said, and the research has been ongoing since the funding was first received. The ultimate goal, she said, is to create an efficient police strategy to address crime hotspots.

“We ask people in these locations about police effectiveness and how they feel about crime in their area,” she said.

Hotspot policing is a practice where police increase patrol in areas where the most crimes occur, Kochel said, and evidence has shown that crime incidents decrease when police target hotspots.

She said the students will continue the research they’ve been working on this semester by surveying to residents in 71 different crime hotspots in the county. Students from St. Louis University, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and SIUC volunteer, receive class credit or get paid to conduct the surveys.

Kochel said the police’s focus on hotspots can sometimes affect the community’s cooperation and the likelihood for individuals to report crime.

She said there are two hotspot strategies that include collaborative problem solving and directed patrol. Collaborative problem solving, she said, puts community action into place to change factors that cause crime. Directed patrol involves increasing regular patrol on hotspot areas.

The research is in the form of door-to-door surveys of the hotspot addresses.

She said this research would help decide the most effective strategies to police hotspots.

Kochel said part of the grant money goes to SLU and SIUE students, who also contribute to the research, as well as to pay for the police analysis, crime information, the travel expenses and to pay for the time other professors put into the project.

This weekend is the first time that SIUC students will be paid for their work in St. Louis, she said, though some are participating for volunteer hours.

Criminology students have to pass a basic ethics class and criminal background checks to conduct research involving surveys, Kochel said. As of Monday, she said she has received 409 completed surveys from the trips the group has taken earlier this semester, 325 of which were conducted by volunteer students.

She said student participation in the research is essential, and volunteer students provided 325 of a total 995 surveys in 2011, while the paid students completed the rest.

Kochel said it can be hard to convince residents to participate in the surveys because students oftentimes have to convince them that they are not police or door-to-door vendors.

“It is challenging when people say no,” Kochel said. “I think it is all the more rewarding when someone does say yes or thanks us for asking their input.”

George Burruss, an associate professor of criminology who is a consultant of the grant project, said students benefit more with a combination of the project and work done in the classroom.

“We teach this type of surveying analysis and research in the classroom, so it benefits them to actually do it hands-on,” Burruss said.

Ian Sims, a senior from La Grange studying criminology and criminal justice, said he learned how important communities are to their residents and the ways people are affected by their neighborhood crime during his experience.

“I talked to this one lady, and she lived in the neighborhood (for) 20-plus years,” Sims said. “She seemed sad that a place she had sentimental value for was becoming a more crime heavy-area.”

Stephanie Mottinger, a senior studying criminology and criminal justice, said she was surprised that some residents did not feel safe in their homes.

“This made me realize that for my type of career, it is so important to establish good connections,” she said.

Joy Casperson, a senior from Metropolis studying criminology and criminal justice, said she found that conducting research takes a lot of work.

“It gives you a greater respect for researchers in our field,” she said.

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