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Crowd Expert Helps Create Safer Places

UNLV professor uses crime science to head off chaos in public spaces.

Research  |  Dec 21, 2017  |  By Pashtana Usufzy
Tamara Madensen outside T-Mobile Arena.

Tamara Madensen, a professor of criminal justice at UNLV, is an expert in place-based crime prevention. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services) 

At this time of year, “crowds” can be something of a dirty word — conjuring up images of packed shopping malls and New Year’s celebrations getting dangerously, even criminally, out of hand.

When Tamara Madensen-Herold turns her eye on gathering spots — from specific street corners to gigantic stadiums — she looks for ways to mitigate the risks that accompany complex crowd dynamics.

Through a lens that mixes psychology and criminology with urban design, the criminal justice professor dissects environments and human behavior for clues on how to keep crowds safe.

"Crime scientists study places — the way that they’re designed and managed and how these factors influence human behavior,” she said. “We look for ways to manipulate environments in order to create safe spaces," she said.

She partners with police departments and security groups around the country to assess the impact of specific place characteristics on crowd behavior and safety.

"There’s no cookie-cutter approach to creating safe environments. We can’t use the same physical design or management strategy in all spaces or for all events,” Madensen-Herold said. “In one location, more entry and exit points might increase crowd security. In another location, it might not."

With appropriate techniques, however, police and security officials can help to reduce crime in a given area or more quickly restore order and safety after the chaos of a catastrophic event such as the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Madensen-Herold said.

"I still believe that Las Vegas represents the very best in crowd safety and management," she said of the area's crowd security techniques. "The outcome of every event presents an opportunity to assess and learn. We’ll dissect the dynamics of what happened (at the shooting), and we’ll ask ourselves what we can do to further enhance security at these events."

In the rare cases of such large-scale disasters, Madensen-Herold said the key is front-line staff training to guard for potential threats or reduce chaos in the aftermath.

Madensen-Herold’s work in the field began when she was a Ph.D. student soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She was the first graduate student at the University of Cincinnati to focus on the burgeoning area of crime science, also known as environmental criminology.

Her work since has focused on prevention strategies that make it more difficult for offenders to engage in crime and disorder.

“We work with police departments and cities to disrupt crime opportunities in specific areas. We remove the place networks that offenders use to engage in illegal activities. Illegal enterprises need locations to operate — by removing access to or altering the dynamics within particular places, you make it more difficult for offenders to commit violence and other types of crime,” Madensen-Herold said.

She partnered with Cincinnati police to develop a violence-reduction strategy for persistently violent hotspots. The program, called PIVOT (Place-based Investigations of Violent Offender Territories), drastically reduced crime in targeted areas and has drawn interest from a number of other police departments. Her team earned the 2017 Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing for their efforts. Now as the director of UNLV's new Crowd Management Research Council, Madensen-Herold is bridging the gap between academic theory and practice.

She has partnered with local police agencies, security chiefs on the Las Vegas Strip, and other UNLV researchers to optimize techniques for tourist safety and security. The idea, which came about more than a year ago from an on-going academic-practitioner partnership, will allow UNLV to act as a resource for the local community on tourist security issues.

"Crowd management is about nuisances. It involves little things that are sometimes difficult to quantify," she said. "The goal is for UNLV to take our collective expertise and serve as a resource for our greater community. It will offer a platform for generating knowledge and sharing it."

It’s yet another area in which UNLV is helping the region capitalize on its strength as an international leader in tourism and become an exporter of intellectual capital across other disciplines.

"The center will expand our capacity to give back to our community and shorten the timeframe for generating knowledge. We will share what we learn with the people who are developing policies and practicing security every single day,” Madensen-Herold said.