Bryanna Fox, a criminology professor, and Edelyn Verona, a psychology professor, realized long ago that their interests in fixing the criminal justice system overlapped.
Over the years, the University of South Florida researchers began working together on projects, melding their perspectives to come up with solutions.
On Thursday, USF announced that the two will jointly direct its new Center for Justice Research and Policy, a move that follows through on the university’s pledge to be a force for change in the wake of last summer’s racial justice protests.
Working with the two professors will be researchers from various fields as well as law enforcement officers from the Tampa and Clearwater police departments and the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
The center will research ideas for improving police work and achieving equity in the justice system. It will be funded using a $1.2 million grant from the National Institute of Justice and $75,000 in donations from Tampa Bay’s professional sports teams — the Buccaneers, Lightning, Rays and Rowdies.
Verona said many of the problems the center hopes to tackle have existed for decades.
“These issues that came up in the last year, they’ve been around for a long time,” she said. “We’ve always had different priorities as a country, but you read some articles from the ’60s and ’70s and they were discussing bail reform. They were discussing issues of use of force and implicit bias, those kinds of things.”
The center will try to “build connections” between people with varying viewpoints and roles in the system, Verona said. “I think in the end most would want to do what works instead of what doesn’t work but might feel good.”
As the criminal justice system came into sharp focus last year with calls for reform, Verona and Fox started to think about what data-backed solutions they could provide. And they wondered if other fields of research — public health, mental health, medicine, sociology and anthropology — could be drawn into the discussion, too.
“The justice system is interdisciplinary,” Fox said. “If we only look at it through one specific lens, we’re missing out on all these other risk factors and issues.”
They also didn’t want to limit it to academic silos.
“It’s not about publications or that sort of thing,” Verona said. “It’s about creating solutions for really essential needs out there.”
Fox, a former FBI agent, was also involved in providing feedback to Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s Community Task Force on Policing following what came to be daily protests over the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
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She said law enforcement involvement was essential to create buy-in for solutions and to help provide information for researchers.
Clearwater Police Maj. David Dalton, who serves on the center’s leadership team, said the issues plaguing the system are echoed around the area and many “forward-thinking law enforcement officers” have been trying to tackle them for years. A center focused on data-backed research could help, he said.
“We’re trying to always better our agencies,” Dalton said. “Having this center breaks open those silos.”
Amanda Hunter, public information officer at the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency is looking forward to being part of the new center. The office is already working on a study with Fox and Verona about reentry and recidivism issues.
“We are a research-driven agency with partnerships across the academic spectrum and believe in creating best practices that align real world experiences with academic research,” she said in an email.
The researchers hope to create a system with solutions that work and that the public can trust, Fox said.
The center will allow for undergraduate and graduate students to participate in research projects, and will also host trainings for community organizations wishing to get involved.
Tampa Bay Lightning CEO Steve Griggs said in a statement that the organization was happy to be a part of the initiative with other Tampa Bay sports teams, which expressed condemnation of systemic racism and police brutality last summer.
“Ensuring that courageous conversations like these are ongoing is incredibly important for continuing to advance our community,” he said. “The Lightning remains committed to ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table and this new USF social and criminal justice center will do just that.”
Buccaneers co-owner Darcie Glazer Kassewitz that the Bucs are also fully on board with the initiative.
“Our players and staff are steadfast in their commitment to creating programs and enhancing initiatives that reverse the course of systemic injustice,” Kassewitz said in a statement. “It takes all of us to foster an equitable society, and we will continue to work hand in hand with our community partners to implement purposeful change throughout Tampa Bay.”