Using Research and Collaborations with Police Departments to Understand and Fight Crime

by Dr Bryanna Fox on 28 February 2018

Bryanna FoxDr Bryanna Fox
Matriculated 2010
PhD Criminology 2013

It may sound like a cliché, but I always knew that I wanted to fight crime. As an American, I admittedly watched too much crime TV (my favorite show being the original “Law & Order” with ADA Jack McCoy), but I was always most interested in trying to understand why people would commit such heinous offenses. While I was intrigued by all forms of human behavior, to me, extreme crimes such as homicide, sex crimes, and serial offending seemed to be some of the most perplexing and horrific forms of behavior. I wanted to understand who would ever do this, and why.

When I went to college I decided to study psychology and criminology, as these seemed to be the best fields to help me address my longstanding questions about criminal behavior. I learned a great deal, but knew I still needed to learn even more. Then came the opportunity of a lifetime. Not only was I admitted into Cambridge University, I was also accepted into Lucy Cavendish College, and became a doctoral student of famed psychological criminologist Professor David P. Farrington. I felt like I had won the lottery three times over! While in Cambridge, I had the opportunity to conduct cutting edge research on the psychological, behavioral, social, biological, and developmental risk factors for criminality, particularly among extreme and chronic offenders. Together with Professor Farrington, I have studied burglars, bullies, psychopaths, violent and repeat offenders, murderers, terrorists, and many more.

Now as a Professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida, I have continued this research to identify causes and correlates of crime among juvenile offenders. These youth, who commit nearly 13% of all violent crimes and 20% of all sex offenses in the United States, have received little attention in the literature, despite their considerable impact on society and extreme antisocial behavior. Results of my research indicate that factors such as childhood trauma and abuse, substance abuse, psychopathologies including low empathy, impulsivity, anger/irritability, and aggression, low cognitive abilities, low socio-economic status, and anti-social peers are some of the strongest predictors of these severe forms of criminal behavior among young offenders.

While it has been an exciting and intriguing experience to learn so much about the complex causes and correlates of criminality, several unique life experiences have further expanded my areas of interest. For instance, I spent several years as a visiting Research Fellow in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) in Quantico. My job in the BSU was to help conduct research to inform the work being conducted by the FBI, and to then convey these findings to the law enforcement executives from around the globe attending the FBI’s National Academy. I later become a FBI Special Agent and was assigned to work transnational organized crime and narcotics in the FBI’s Las Vegas Field Office. Through these experiences I realized that understanding crime etiology is only one part of the equation. We should also aim to find more effective ways to prevent and solve crimes too. Therefore, after returning to academia in 2016, my research has also aimed to directly address “real world” problems faced by law enforcement and the members of our community.

Since then, I have collaborated with over a dozen law enforcement and government agencies across the United States to conduct research to help form effective prevention strategies or identify offenders when crimes occur. Specifically, I  have conducted research and trainings with Tampa Police Department, Clearwater Police Department, Pasco Sheriff’s Office, Winter Haven Police Department, St. Petersburg Police Department, the FBI, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), U.S State Department, and many others, to address critical issues including violent and prolific offenders, burglary, terrorism, gun violence, homicide, missing persons, human trafficking, and sexual offending. In many cases, these collaborations also resulted in considerable benefits to these agencies and the community at large.

For instance, as a member of the ATF’s Violent Crime Task Force, I helped develop, implement, and evaluate a new program designed to combat violent gun crime in the Tampa Bay area. After conducting an experimental evaluation of this program, results indicated that the police department using our crime prevention program had a 57% decrease in violent gun violence one year after administering the program, while the control groups showed a 7% increase in violent gun crime during the same period. Similarly, results of several experiments conducted to evaluate criminal profiles I developed with Professor Farrington at Cambridge University showed that police departments using the profiles of burglars increased their burglary arrests rates an average of 85% increase over the following two years, and solved 33% more burglaries than the control groups in the same time frame. Importantly, results show that the departments using the burglary profiles had 41% fewer burglaries committed in their jurisdictions over the next 2 years, which corresponds to $4.2 million in cost savings for each agency and over 600 fewer burglaries being committed.  In other words, this research made an actual impact on members of our community, by helping police to solve more crimes and even prevent victimization from occurring.

This career has been more intriguing, and fulfilling, then I could have ever imagined. After spending time as a practitioner and a scholar, I have had the opportunity to not only understand why people commit crime, I also had the opportunity to solve and prevent crimes from happening. As an unexpected outcome, I have been honored in many incredible ways. In 2014 I was awarded Cambridge University’s Nigel Walker Outstanding PhD Award, I was named the 2014 recipient of the Excellence in Law Enforcement Research Award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and I received the 2017 Early Career Award from the American Society of Criminology’s Division of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology. I have also been featured in local and national news outlets including CNN, BBC, CBS News, NBC’s The Today Show, The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, NPR, and more.

In short, through my incredible academic experiences, particularly as a student at Lucy Cavendish at Cambridge University, I have learned a great deal about why people commit crime. However, I also know there is so much more left to be understood. Similarly, my law enforcement experience has taught me that although understanding crime is important, solving crime-- or better yet, preventing it-- is even better. Most importantly, I have learned that there is no way academics or law enforcement can fight crime entirely on their own. We need to work together, sharing data, resources, information, and findings, to fight crime in our communities, and help make our world a better and safer place. I look forward to working hard to do that throughout the rest of my career. 

In this section