Career Profile: Ronald E. Wilson

Ronald E. Wilson, currently directing the Mapping & Analysis for Public Safety Program (MAPS) at the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in Washington, DC, explores various aspects of the use of GIS and spatial data analysis in criminology and public policy. He worked on development of a Regional Crime Analysis GIS toolbox now used in the Baltimore Metropolitan Region, a software application which won Al Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government award in 2000. He also applies spatial data analysis for criminological research projects, policy implementation analyses, methodology development for the evaluation of geographic profiling software, and public policy evaluation. Ron earned a BA in Geology from Thiel College and a MA in Geography from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is now working on a Master of Software Engineering degree at the University of Maryland, College Park. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his daughter and wife, expecting another child this spring.

This profile was published in 2004. Ron is currently Program Manager for the National Institute of Justice.

AAG: What inspired your work combining geography with criminology?

Ron: Originally I wanted to become a police officer. I graduated from the police academy and applied for jobs but when I got married, I decided I wanted to pursue a different course, and so we both went to graduate school. I went for geography and then wanted to find some way to apply what I was learning to criminology.

AAG: I understand that connection runs in your family.

Ron: Yes, My stepfather is a Deputy Sheriff and my mother is a prison guard. All of our family friends are sheriffs, state police officers . . . I had a lot of influences growing up in that way.

AAG: Does that help your work?

Ron: It’s what keeps me grounded as a researcher. It’s fine to do all this research and put out this theory but what can it really do for the community and the public at large?

AAG: Do you bounce ideas off them?

Ron: Lately, I have. I do talk about what I’m doing in my research to see if the ideas make

any sense. They all understand the importance of it and provide insight into what makes sense on the street. Nobody wants to do something that really doesn’t work.

AAG: For example?

Ron: I was talking with one of these friends, a judge, about mass incarcerations. What zesearch is finding is that offenders are being pulled from the same neighborhoods and these problems are becoming more concentrated. As they remove mostly young males, violent crime does get reduced immediately. But the social structures can break down—women have to often get a second job or can’t watch their kids, plus they cut social ties from the embarrassment of a partner being incarcerated. So in the long run, there is a second wave of crime in those neighborhoods, and then it’s more difficult for intervention to be successful.

AAG: How is your work regarded by other social scientists?

Ron: The criminology field is really starting to understand how crime happens somewhere and that areas that surround those places are important in regards to spatial effects and crime. But I don’t really see any of the social sciences looking to geography for answers or methods or techniques. I want to try to change that.

AAG: How might that be done?

Ron: For one, by geographers publishing in academic journals for criminology. I think we need to change the [academic] reward structures to allow geographers to write for policymakers or for public consumption and get credit for that. Also, there are many versions of spatial statistical software that had no input from geographers in its development. But we aren’t even close to a critical mass of geographers working on these problems.

AAG: Is the influence being felt?

Ron: I can’t really gauge yet, but in criminology I think it’s coming around because of the contributions of key geographers who’ve produced a lot of very sound work. In very subtle ways, they see us now and respect us. I take some flack, mostly joking, about being a geographer, but now they know we’ve been to the table . . .

AAG: How are you able to move these ideas forward from your position at NIJ?

Ron: I want to take this position more into the public policy area. Our program bridges the gap between research and practice—through our Mapping & Analysis for Public Safety Conference and analytical work. One of the ways I see that happening is through public policy, whether analyzing it or influencing it. I want to show what can be done toward solving some of society’s problems, with regard to crime.

AAG: How can geography contribute?

Ron: Not only in applications and techniques but also in theory. I think people are starting to see that place matters. You can’t really argue whether this theory works or not, but whether it works in this particular place and context or not. You see geographic principles playing a role.

AAG: What drew you to join the AAG?

Ron: I originally joined for the journals, but now I’m really excited about what you all do and want to be more involved. As an organization you are doing some very, very important things to keep geography moving forward and growing its potential. Like hiring a public policy director, to see about policy implications, how public policy is affecting geography and vice versa.

AAG: What else can we do to live up to this potential?

Ron: Most of us came into this discipline because we wanted to do something for the world and society. If we write for ourselves, and don’t get our work out there, we aren’t quite doing it. I don’t think geography is as bad off as some other social sciences but we could do much more.

Dr. Patricia Solis, 2004