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What I’ve Learned: Our Talk with Top-Ranked Criminologist Alex Piquero

NAME: Alex Piquero

AGE: 45

HERITAGE: Cuban-American

HOMETOWN: Grew up in Washington DC, now living in Dallas, Texas

OCCUPATION/TITLE: Criminologist

Alex R. Piquero is the Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology and Associate Dean for Graduate Programs in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. He has published over 330 peer-reviewed articles in the areas of criminal careers, crime prevention, criminological theory, and quantitative research methods, and has collaborated on several books including Handbook of Quantitative Criminology (Springer, co-edited by David Weisburd). He has been ranked as the #1 criminologist in the world since 1996 in terms of scholarly publications in elite criminology/criminal justice journals and in 2015, United States Attorney General Eric Holder appointed him to the Office of Justice Programs Science Advisory Board.

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a pro baseball player. My dad was an amateur league baseball player in Cuba and as a kid we would literally throw baseballs for two hours every day. I wanted to play ball all the way up until in high school when I realized that there were so many other people better than I was at the game.

How did you end up in criminology?

I started out as a Radio/TV film major in college. I wanted to be a disc jockey and I even had my own show where I played a little two-hour set of rock and roll. That was the mid-80’s so I played a lot of Aerosmith, Poison, Ratt, Bon Jovi, you know – hair metal. I also worked in the music library for one semester.

What took you away from the glamour of rock music?

I took an elective course, introduction to Criminal Justice, and the teacher made the class and the topic so exciting. She told us that everyone has an opinion on crime, but that her class was not about opinions, it was an objective look at what police do, crime statistics and what Departments of Corrections do. I had never been exposed to this subject before and she really roped me in.

I changed my major in the spring semester of my freshman year and I never thought twice about “What am I going to do in my career?” I just kept learning more and more. Then in my senior year that teacher who inspired the passion for topic in me was doing a research project surveying Baltimore police officers for stress and asked me to assist her. From that project I wrote my first academic publication and realized I love collecting data, answering research questions and thought: “You get paid for this? That’s the job I want!”

"I’m very interested in preventing crime by uncovering what we can do to help parents and kids in the earliest years - our entire lives are about self-control and we’ve done a lot of research on the kinds of programs that work for nurturing it."

It just goes to show you how these small coincidences can change your life. Had I not taken that particular class I would be in a totally different place. Just imagine if I had taken intro to psychology or journalism as an elective. Who knows where I’d be if I hadn’t gotten a teacher that just invigorated the topic for me.

How does one progress in a career in a field like criminology?

As I got to my senior year of college, I asked some faculty members, “What am I going to do?” The answer was grad school and it was new for our family -- I’m the only one in my family with a PhD. But I had incredible luck. In addition to having great support from my parents, I happened to have done my undergraduate at the University of Maryland, which has historically had the number one criminal justice program in the world, so I stayed on for grad school. I lived at home, literally two miles from campus, had great mentors in a great program, I just happened to luck out.

That said, it was really hard, a lot of work – there’s a reason why they don’t just hand out PhDs left and right. It was a totally different experience than undergrad – graduate school is materially different. To give you an idea, I started out in a cohort of 30 students and only four finished. Only the best come out of this program and they are among the world’s leading scholars in terms of citations and awards.

You’ve had some interesting “pop” research published, like your most recent paper, which found that the majority of NFL player arrests are not for violent crimes, which runs counter to the media narrative about bad-boy professional sports stars. Where do you get your inspiration for research topics?

I’ve always been interested in the questions of: Why do people offend? Why do some continue and others stop? Why do people do what they do? And why are males different from females, and are those differences true for Hispanics versus whites versus African-Americans, etc. The hope is that those kinds of research questions lead to answers that can help prevent crime through the right kind of interventions. We all want to have productive, pro-social members of society, but how do we achieve that?

I mean, I always wondered, why did we – children of immigrants who came to this country and had to start from the bottom – turn out the way we did, given the risk factors? Why do some of us do fine while others with no risk factors turn out a mess? How do we create an environment to produce the best possible citizens?

The NFL study came from those same kinds of questions. It’s a fun piece of research, but also serious. The Internet, Facebook and social media have changed everything. When I grew up, I read the Post every day and that’s it. There wasn’t 24/7 media and that really does influence people’s perception. So it’s easy to see why people might believe that all NFL players are bad.

I’m very interested in preventing crime by uncovering what we can do to help parents and kids in the earliest years. A lot of my research and policy work is on the topic of what we know about early family prevention. Parents don’t just have a book that says, this is how to socialize kids, how to teach them to delay instant gratification in favor of hard work, how to exercise self-control. But our entire lives are about self-control and we’ve done a lot of research on the kinds of programs that work for nurturing it. There is a tool kit out there that can be effective and the earlier you invest in minimizing risks, the more crime you can prevent in the long run.

Words of wisdom for the aspiring – or armchair – criminologists out there?

If criminology is something that interests you, take an intro class and get exposed to it. The exciting thing about criminology is that it’s multi-faceted and always changing – there’s always a lot to discuss and that creates an opportunity for making changes that can result in a lower crime and a lower incarceration rate.

When I talk with undergrads, they love the crime shows – they think a case is solved in 44 minutes, they think a DNA test can be done in an hour. But it’s really more about understanding the methods of criminal justice and how all the aspects of law enforcement work together and about looking at objective data instead of leaning on our opinions about crime.

Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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