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From STPF to the DC Police Department: Neuroscience and Data Skills Are Called into Action

draws on a diverse set of skills to transition from academia to data-driven evaluations of criminal justice efforts in Washington.

Though academic careers often take a straightforward progression from undergraduate studies to a related graduate-level discipline, the path that led neuroscientist Brannon Green to an STPF fellowship at the Department of Justice took many twists and turns.

As an undergraduate, the California native studied Spanish and then added psychology to his degree program at California State University-Chico, followed by a stint teaching English in Korea after graduation. Despite initially not thinking he’d pursue advanced academics, Green returned to CSU Chico for a master’s program in psychology, where he discovered an increasing interest in the brain basis of behavior—biological psychology.

It was during graduate studies that he started musing on how psychology and behavior relate to the criminal justice system: how socioeconomic factors play into decision-making and an individual sense of helplessness; recidivism; and broader issues with the justice system itself. Yet, Green was ultimately more drawn to research in cognition and the perception of sound, so he pursued a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Georgetown University.

A year after completing his doctoral studies, Green decided that traditional academic research wasn’t the right environment for him to thrive, both personally and professionally. He started to cast about for other ways to apply a scientific approach to problem-solving, and hit on the AAAS-STPF program after colleagues who had been through the program encouraged him to apply.

Criminal justice, again, was not in the forefront of his mind when he was accepted, Green said, but it quickly emerged as an intriguing option for applied science.

“I went into it with an open mind to see what the possibilities were, and was thinking of the process as an improvisational choice for where I’d go,” Green said. The Department of Justice appealed to him as a way to apply some of his accumulated knowledge and experience in psychology and neuroscience, but also as a way to pivot into a role where his work would have broader societal impact.

From 2017-2019, Green served as a fellow at the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research arm of the DOJ. Little-known outside of criminal justice circles, the institute funds external research as well as conducts in-house research on a variety of topics related to crime reduction and improving the justice system. Recent projects include an investigation on the effectiveness of school security and academic performance; research into evaluations of leadership training for juvenile corrections settings; and a randomized controlled trial of scenarios and solutions in a gang prevention program.

One recently published journal article from his work at NIJ describes an effort by Purdue University, funded by NIJ, to develop a smartphone-based artificial intelligence system to help keep recently released offenders on track for a successful re-entry into society.

Drawing on digital data analysis experience he developed in his doctoral degree program, Green worked with NIJ computer scientists and data analysts to evaluate research outcomes and data from grant-funded projects. NIJ uses these analyses in a variety of ways: data can be added to the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, or evaluations added to a federal website where others can learn about what projects and strategies work in criminal and juvenile justice. Research results are also shared with policymakers and other practitioners for use in decision-making as well as to advance research in related arenas.

“I was interested in the idea that having academic experience in psychology and neuroscience could provide unique insight into the problems that exist for people interacting with the criminal justice system – either as offender or as practitioner,” Green said.

As his fellowship drew to a close, Green was torn between two options: pursuing a policy-oriented position in the House Science Committee on Capitol Hill, or a data analysis role with the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).

Ultimately, he chose MPD, where he now works with other data analysts to produce reports for command staff related to crime statistics and calls for police service around Washington. But Green noted that his fellowship at NIJ gave him a 10,000-foot view of criminal justice and issues that affect everyone involved—and that with MPD, he could apply that experience closer to the ground level.

“NIJ is a science agency with many people from a diverse set of scientific backgrounds,” Green said. “The fellowship was an opportunity to participate in the process of making policymaking into a scientific, evidence-based practice. It’s important for people from a science background to provide a perspective on problems that affect everybody.”

Author

Michelle Donahue

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