Identifying the biggest threat

November 26, 2015

IMAGE_STORY_Sandy_Jung_SSHRCSSHRC grant allows researchers to help an Alberta law enforcement team assess intimate partner violent offenders

Sadly, you don’t have to dig too deeply into news headlines across the province to find tragic deaths connected to intimate partner violence.

“If you look at the statistics, in most cases the victim or offender has had some prior contact with the police or another agency,” says psychology Associate Professor Sandy Jung who has been studying intimate partner violence and sexual assault cases in collaboration with the Edmonton Police Service. “Intimate partner violence is different than other types of violence because it’s preventable—there have been calls, family members know about it, neighbours hear it. The fact that there are bystanders who can report the violence means we can do something to prevent it.”

Alberta’s Integrated Threat and Risk Assessment Centre (I-TRAC) was created in 2007 to assess threats and identify intimate partner violence offenders who present the highest risk of reoffending—but measuring that risk is complex and needs to be rooted in science, says Sandy.

That’s why she is embarking on a new research project in partnership with I-TRAC and researchers from Carleton University and the University of Toronto to assess how Alberta’s threat and risk assessment centre evaluates cases sent to them from police agencies across the province.

Funding brings experts together from across Canada

With support from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Development Grant of close to $200,000—the first ever awarded to a researcher at MacEwan University—the study will involve reviewing detailed data from 400 cases assessed at I-TRAC. Sandy and her fellow researchers (Kevin Nunes from Carleton, Liam Ennis from I-TRAC and Zoe Hilton from U of T) will work with undergraduate and graduate-level student researchers to code every file, report, risk assessment and criminal record.

The benefit of hindsight (using historic data means they will know if offenders re-offended) will allow the researchers to determine how the Alberta approach works when it comes to predicting future behaviour. And having a system for assessing high-risk offenders that is scientifically proven to work has important implications.

“If everyone uses a tool that we know is predictive of whether or not an offender is going to reoffend, then they can triage and prioritize high-risk offenders, and dedicate higher levels of service and resources to those offenders—more treatment, management and supervision,” says Sandy.

Using science to test risk assessment tools

The idea of focusing on offenders who are the highest risk may seem obvious, but Sandy says assessing risk isn’t something you can necessarily trust your gut on.

“Accurately assessing risk means using evidence-based practices and a validated measure to identify where an offender falls on a scale relative to other offenders. Cases have to be prioritized, but it’s important to do that based on evidence—evidence that we know is predictive.”

She explains, for example, that an offender who has done something quite violent may not have it in their makeup to do it again. “It’s not a matter of simply looking at what a person did, but rather the predictive factors—things like drug and alcohol history, poor relationships, short-term relationships—that can tell police the likelihood of whether or not someone will reoffend.”

The fact that this new research has the potential to make a real, meaningful difference is a big reason why Sandy is eager to get started.

“Research for the sake of research isn’t enough for me—I always want to know what happens afterwards, what it means and what the implications are. That’s why it is so exciting to work with police agencies—because they always want to know what the next step is. That is certainly the case with this partnership—the results of this study will guide the centre’s practices in threat assessment across Alberta and will also contribute to the literature around intimate partner violence, informing practices in other places as well.”

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