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Criminology students assist Trinidad and Tobago

August 20, 2008

If it takes a village to raise a child, the village touched by students in ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice is global in its scope.

Graduate students Andrew Fox and Kristine Denholm have lent their time and talents to projects targeting youth crime, gang crime and other critical social problems in the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. The country, off the northeast coast of Venezuela, is blessed with natural resources including petroleum and natural gas, and its tourism industry is expanding.

But the government of Trinidad and Tobago is coping with a sharp increase in violent crime. Gangs, guns and organized criminal activity are rampant.

Fox and Denholm became involved in Trinidad and Tobago projects through ASU’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety (CVPCS). Both students have traveled to Trinidad and Tobago to assist ASU professors in efforts to gather crucial data for the country’s Police Service, Ministry of National Security and Ministry of Education.

“It’s really interesting to see how American ideas about crime-fighting apply to a different culture,” Fox says. “We have found that some strategies work and others don’t translate as well. Taking the skills I’ve learned in the master’s degree program and applying them in another country is an opportunity not many students get the chance to experience.”

Fox compiled data from a survey administered to 2,500 high school students, mainly in the capital of Port-of-Spain.

“While youth drug and alcohol use is lower there than in the United States, violence in the schools is a serious problem,” he says.

Based on the survey’s results, Fox and Charles Katz, CVPCS director and associate professor of criminology and criminal justice, submitted an extensive report to the government of Trinidad and Tobago.

“The report was well-received, and it resulted in several new innovations in how police and government officials respond to crime,” Katz says.

On another trip, Fox obtained information related to violence against tourists on Tobago. His data-gathering efforts included surveying owners and managers of hotels, villas and guest houses.

“Andrew gained first-hand knowledge of the challenges researchers often face when attempting to collect data in a foreign country,” says Cassia Spohn, professor and director of graduate programs in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “We often encountered suspicion and reluctance to participate in the survey on the part of the people we were attempting to interview. I think Andrew gained a healthy appreciation of the realities of the research enterprise.”

Denholm also made two trips to the island nation. On her first trip she worked to computerize a police precinct’s records that were kept in huge ledger books. The lack of computerization made it difficult to track suspects.

“I was working in the Besson Street police station, which is in the most violent part of Trinidad,” Denholm says. “This station houses a special police unit whose mission is to capture the most wanted criminals.”

On Denholm’s second trip to Trinidad, she and Spohn worked to track homicide cases through the court system.

“We went through trial transcripts to gather information about defendants, victims, the trial proceedings, and outcomes,” Denholm says. “We had meetings with court officials and spent time reading records from their magistrate’s court. Once again, these records were not computerized.”

Denholm and Spohn worked on this project at the Magistrate’s Court in Port-of-Spain.

“It was an eye-opening experience for both of us, and especially for Kristine, who had never worked with court data before,” Spohn says. “The case files were stored in a vault at the court, and we spent hours just trying to figure out how to find the files we needed. Reading the case transcripts illustrated the enormous differences in criminal law and procedure in the United States compared to Trinidad and Tobago.”

Denholm says the trips have been a learning experience for her on multiple levels.

“I have enjoyed learning about the culture of Trinidad and Tobago and eating local cuisine,” she says. “From a professional perspective, I have learned a great deal from Dr. Katz and Dr. Spohn that I will be able to carry with me when I do research.”

Fox and Denholm will have more opportunities to conduct research designed to make communities safer, even as their career paths diverge. Fox has been accepted into ASU’s doctorate program in criminology and criminal justice, while Denholm is pursuing employment with a federal law enforcement agency.

The Trinidad and Tobago project in which Fox and Denholm participated is a collaborative effort involving the CVPCS and faculty and staff from George Mason University, Harvard, Bowling Green, Penn State, North Carolina-Charlotte, and Justice and Security Strategies.

“Through this data-driven police transformation project, we are working to reduce violent crime on the islands, particularly homicides and assaults with firearms,” Katz says.

More information about ASU’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety is available at