UChicago Crime Lab spearheads a national initiative to reduce gun violence and increase fairness in policing

policing leadership academy

The University of Chicago Crime Lab was founded in 2008 in response to the tragic shooting of University of Chicago doctoral student Amadou Cisse. Around the same time, the Chicago Tribune published a series of stories highlighting the impact of violence on school-age children. These events compelled UChicago economists Jens Ludwig and Harold Pollack, alongside gun violence prevention expert Roseanna Ander, to leverage the research capacity of the University of Chicago to help reduce gun violence in Chicago and in cities across the country.

One of the most ambitious ways the Crime Lab is trying to tackle gun violence is with their Community Safety Leadership Academies (CSLA) – the most robust public safety leadership and management training programs ever offered in the United States.

The Crime Lab aims to equip police and CVI leaders with strategies to close the safety gap that exists in many American cities.

“We're trying to move the needle on gun violence at the national level very quickly to make an impact,” said the Crime Lab’s Founding Executive Director, Roseanna Ander. “And it's a herculean task.”

Announced in May 2022 and launched in May 2023, the CSLA takes a two-track approach, training both police and community violence intervention (CVI) leaders on topics including the data-driven management skills that have successfully helped curb violence in the cities that had the most dramatic decreases in homicides since the 1990s: Los Angeles and New York. 

“American cities that have made the most progress addressing gun violence in the past 30 years, like New York City and Los Angeles, have made it a priority to build up their community violence intervention capacity and coordinate that with what city government traditionally does for public safety,” said Dr. Jens Ludwig, the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor at Harris and the Pritzker Director of the Crime Lab. 

The Crime Lab aims to equip police and CVI leaders with strategies to close the safety gap that exists in many American cities.

“The status quo in America is intolerable,” Ander said in September as the Community Violence Intervention Leadership Academy (CVILA) welcomed its first cohort of 31 participants, which represented 21 cities across America. “It was also intolerable for the Crime Lab to stand on the sidelines, writing papers detailing how terrible it is, but not collaborating directly with policymakers and community leaders to do something. This way, we hope to help actually save lives.”

Those lives include the young Black men in America, for whom gun violence is the leading cause of death, she said, emphasizing that for them, the gun violence toll is higher than the following nine leading causes of death combined. “The estimate of the total social cost of gun violence in this country is staggering,” Ander said.

The CSLA expands the scope and mission of the Crime Lab, which is part of the Harris School of Public Policy, thrusting it onto the national stage and earning it headlines, including for the $27.5 million in seed funding received from Citadel founder and CEO Kenneth C. Griffin and GCM Grosvenor CEO Michael Sacks. The Crime Lab continues to raise funds to enable free-of-charge CSLA participation for the next five years. 

About the Community Violence Leadership Academy (CVILA)

The CVILA’s first cohort is nearly through its six months of training. The participants are leaders working in communities of color that are disproportionately affected by gun violence. They are meeting in Chicago, New York, and Oakland, California, for executive coaching and mentoring, and are studying program management, staff retention, data literacy, and evaluation. 

“The Crime Lab’s research over the past 15 years carrying out randomized controlled trials with our amazing Chicago-area nonprofit partners makes us even more optimistic about the potential for community violence intervention to play an important role in addressing gun violence, a problem unique to America among the rich countries of the world,” Dr. Ludwig said.

Dr. Chico Tillmon, who leads the CVILA, said its goal “is not just to teach individuals but to save lives.” 

Tillmon credited UChicago for investing in community violence intervention leaders from cities nationwide “who put their life on the line day in, day out, who are in all actuality our superheroes throughout our communities.” 

“We want to save lives in Black and Brown communities and continue to move forward so that our [intervention] work is identified as a permanent part of the public safety or community safety ecosystem,” added Tillmon.

The first cohort of the CVILA will culminate with a special graduation ceremony at the White House in February and will be hosted by the Office of Gun Violence Prevention led by Vice President Kamala Harris.

About the Policing Leadership Academy (PLA)

policing leadership academy

Recent Crime Lab research shows that changes in police department management can help reduce violent crime rates and police use of force. Reflecting that, the PLA’s five-month curriculum provides hands-on training in data-driven management, violence reduction, and community trust. 

PLA participants are exposed to actual management science, Ander said, “with world-class Booth School professors developing a course to help police leaders be ethical decision-makers, use data to make decisions, communicate more effectively, and be good listeners — all the things that good managers are trained to do.”

The PLA draws on experts from a range of professions. Retired General Stanley McChrystal teaches a module on leadership. General McChrystal, the former mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, and Commissioner Bill Bratton, and are a few of the notable experts serving on the PLA Advisory Committee.

The first PLA cohort, with police commanders and captains who collectively served cities comprising more than 20% of homicides in the United States, were honored at a graduation ceremony at UChicago in October 2023. Charlie Beck, former Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and former Interim Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, was there to celebrate the graduates. So was Larry Snelling, Chicago’s new police superintendent, who told the crowd gathered in the Rubenstein Forum that “it is vital that we empower the next generation of law enforcement professionals with the tools and insights necessary to build safer communities." The graduates each completed a community capstone project, taking what they learned and putting it to work on a real issue in their district.

The second PLA cohort begins this week and consists of 35 rising police leaders from 35 police departments across the country and world. 

Research on the CSLA

The University of Chicago Crime Lab has a long history of rigorous evaluation. It is bringing that expertise to bear in assessing the impact of the CSLA to generate insights that can drive large-scale progress.

The CVI Leadership Academy (CVILA) curriculum is being evaluated with the goal of elevating lessons learned to train CVI leaders at scale. Dr. Ashna Arora is the Crime Lab research director overseeing the CVILA research in collaboration with Boston University Associate Professor of Management Dr. Rodrigo Canales.

“When researchers study community violence interventions — which we broadly define as anything that's not enforcement related that tries to address violence — you usually see a standard evaluation about whether a specific intervention is working, or if it reduces violence, or if it has unintended consequences,” Arora said.

“The academies are taking a different approach,” she said, “which is to say that if we are trying to build management capacity and leadership capacity within these organizations to try to maximize their impact, we must adapt instruments that have been used to measure management in other contexts for our specific contexts and then try to measure what management and leadership look like before the academies and after.”

Led by the Crime Lab’s Dr. Dylan Fitzpatrick in collaboration with experts at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, the research team for the PLA is conducting a multi-city, randomized controlled trial to measure the impact of investing in the leadership and management skills of police leaders on both community safety and the harms of policing. The team is gathering data on how police organizations are structured and how leadership training can affect operation strategy, managerial practices, and leadership styles.

“It's unprecedented to do a randomized control trial in the way that we are with this many police agencies,” Fitzpatrick said. “We haven't seen a rigorous program evaluation at this scale in the field of criminology, so it’s a new frontier for us.”

Arora said that preliminary CVILA results will likely be released early in 2025 — but some impact may be visible much sooner.

Fitzpatrick said the Crime Lab will look to the PLA capstone projects as examples of ideas being taught in the academy having an immediate impact in participating cities.  “That's just one example,” he said, “of how we could impact overall violent crime rates and improve public safety in these areas.” 

A National Impact

Before CSLA, the bulk of the Crime Lab’s work was based in Chicago, Ander said. “But on the heels of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the resulting lack of trust in institutions, particularly policing, and a huge surge nationally in gun violence, we stepped back and said, ‘What can we do that could potentially have a very immediate impact not just in Chicago but also in cities across the country?’”

“In retrospect, it feels so obvious that it's senseless that we didn't see it before and that it took this horrific set of circumstances to see the need for CSLA,” she said. 

Ander credits support from university leadership, including from interim Harris School Dean Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, who spoke at the PLA graduation in October, and — as CSLA moved from vision to reality — from President Paul Alivisatos and Provost Katherine Baicker, formerly dean of Harris. 

“They were all in on Day One," Ander said. “Even when we were getting cold feet, they recognized that this is exactly the kind of thing a place like the University of Chicago should be doing.” 

“We are a world-class educational institution that does world-class research and generates very, very rigorous evidence to help address the challenges we face,” she added. “And gun violence, I would argue, is the most important pressing challenge facing our country.”

“With the CSLA, the University of Chicago Crime Lab is proud to be at the forefront of innovation in policing and community safety at a national level,” Ander said. “We are thrilled to pursue this important work.”

Watch a video about the CVILA: 


Watch Policing Leadership Academy students talk about their experience: 


Read more about the CSLA.


This story was first published by The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy

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