“Old Hatreds Die Hard: ‘New’ Developments in Far Right Extremism”: Dr. Pete Simi

Dr. Pete Simi

Pete Simi is co-author (along with Robert Futrell) of the book American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate and an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Chapman University.

Dr. Simi’s presentation examined the current U.S. socio-political landscape through a discussion of his work on white supremacist groups, the rise of far-right extremism, and the re-emergence of long standing prejudices in the U.S. and around the world.  

Dr. Simi received a Distinguished Scholar (formerly Research Grant) Award in 2012 for his project “Desistance from Right-Wing Extremism.”

About the second edition of American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate from Rowman and Littlefield:


This second edition of the acclaimed American Swastika provides an up-to-date perspective on the white power movement in America. The book takes readers through hidden enclaves of hate, exploring how white supremacy movements thrive nationwide and how we can work to prevent future violence. Filled with powerful case studies, interviews, and first-person accounts, the book explains the differences between various hate groups, then shows how white supremacy groups cultivate their membership through Aryan homes, parties, rituals, music festivals, and online propaganda.

Featuring updated statistics and examples throughout, the second edition of American Swastika describes most of today’s active white power groups and the legacy of recently disbanded groups. It also discusses new players in the world of white power websites and music and shares new research on how people exit hate groups.

As recent events have made clear that the idea of a “post–racial America” is a myth, American Swastika is essential reading for understanding both how hate builds and how we can work to prevent violence. 


“Why We Fight”: Dr. Chris Blattman

Dr. Chris Blattman is the author of Why We Fight: The Roots of War and Paths to Peace and Ramalee E. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies at The University of Chicago, in Harris Public Policy and The Pearson Institute. 

What’s behind the war in Ukraine, and what is next? Why did the Unites States remain so long in Afghanistan? What’s driving gun violence in so many US cities? Dr. Blattman will talk about how these disparate kinds of conflict have surprisingly many things in common, and will talk about what decades of social science can tell us about the answers.

Dr. Blattman received an Emerging Scholar Award (formerly Dissertation Fellowship) in 2006 for his project “The Impact of War on Young Ex-Combatants and the Determinants of Reintegration Success: A Study of Children and Youth in Northern Uganda.”

About Why We Fight: The Roots of War and Paths to Peace from Penguin Random House:
  
Why We Fight draws on decades of economics, political science, psychology, and real-world interventions to lay out the root causes and remedies for war, showing that violence is not the norm; that there are only five reasons why conflict wins over compromise; and how peacemakers turn the tides through tinkering, not transformation.
 
From warring states to street gangs, ethnic groups and religious sects to political factions, there are common dynamics to heed and lessons to learn. Along the way, through Blattman’s time studying Medellín, Chicago, Sudan, England, and more, we learn from vainglorious monarchs, dictators, mobs, pilots, football hooligans, ancient peoples, and fanatics.

What of remedies that shift incentives away from violence and get parties back to dealmaking? Societies are surprisingly good at interrupting and ending violence when they want to—even gangs do it. Realistic and optimistic, this is a book that lends new meaning to the adage “Give peace a chance.”


At The Crossroads February 17, 2022

“There Are Clearly Spaces Where Law Enforcement Does Not Belong”: A Conversation with Tracie Keesee

By Greg Berman

Dr. Tracie L. Keesee

Tracie L. Keesee has been a serial trailblazer. 

The first African American commander in the Denver Police Department. 

Denver’s first female police captain. 

The first deputy commissioner for equity and inclusion in the New York City Police Department (NYPD). 

And the cofounder of the Center for Policing Equity, an organization dedicated to reducing racial disparities and promoting cultural change within American police departments. 

All told, Dr. Keesee has spent more than three decades thinking about police-community relations. Throughout her career, she has sought to advance what she calls “the co-production of public safety.” Dr. Keesee believes that police cannot create neighborhood safety by themselves. She has argued that police need to cede authority to communities in ways that departments have traditionally resisted. This includes listening to community voices who want to narrow the scope of police activity.

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, Dr. Keesee contributed an opinion piece to The Washington Post entitled “After this crisis, policing should never be the same.” In it, she wrote, “As the deaths of Black men and women continue to mount and the collective pain of a community boils over, some argue that improving policing is pointless—that we’d be better off defunding departments entirely. I can sympathize; this is difficult and, at times, discouraging work. But on the other side of this crisis, we will still need policing in some form. We should strive to align it with the values of communities as much as possible.”

In the fall of 2021, Dr. Keesee spoke with Greg Berman, the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, about race and policing. This transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed. 

Berman: I’m curious to hear how the past couple of years have felt for you given the various cross-cutting identities that you inhabit — former police official, Black woman, reformer, grandmother, etc. What has it been like to walk in your shoes over the past twelve to twenty-four months?

Keesee: I would tell you that the number one thing that always comes out of my mouth is that it continues to be exhausting. For most of us who are in these intersections, it has been increasingly heavy over the last two years. 

There is a lot of eagerness right now to understand how race is showing up and implicating criminal justice and law enforcement. But this work is hard. You have to be able to understand the different perspectives and try to help folks think through ways that we can move forward. 

I am a part of a broader community that has historically experienced injustice. There are millions of people across this country who look like me and carry this burden of Blackness. It is both a joy and a burden. And it is weighing on me in ways that only Black police officers, and Black female police officers, would understand. 

And then when you compound it with this pandemic that no one saw coming and that a lot of folks were not ready for…it makes you reevaluate what you believe about yourself and what you believe about others. So it’s been heavy. It’s exhausting and it’s tiring. You can burn out quickly if you don’t do self-care. 

Rewind for me: why did you join the police force to begin with?

That was thirty-something years ago. I was looking for a job with benefits. I was a single parent at the time, and I needed to find something that provided a bit of stability and medical insurance. I come from a family of uniformed folks, but not in the policing realm. A military family. And my mother was a nurse. So we always have had this ethic of service that you should be doing something.

When I sat down to take the police test, I was twenty-five and I needed a job. I was born and raised in Denver. I applied to three places actually—Denver, Houston, and Colorado Springs. This would’ve been in 1989. My mother narrowed my options down really quickly saying, “One, you’re not moving to Houston, and two, you’re not moving to Colorado Springs.” Luckily enough, I got the call from Denver. And so that started my career. 

I had an opportunity to serve my community and I did. I am one of the lucky ones, in that I was the commander of the district where I grew up. That was a big honor. But it also meant that a thousand eyes were on me, including my parents. 

How do you think being a part of the police department changed you as a person?

It changed me in profound ways. It provided me with a huge learning opportunity, sort of a lab to do different things, to think about what’s happening and what are the determinants of crime. If it were not for the Denver PD, I would not be the person I am. I also would not have been prepared to go somewhere else and begin to try to have these conversations in a different way. So I honor my experience, because it has shaped me. 

Whenever we have tragic events, the first thing that comes out of everyone's mouth is, “Well, they should do more training.” And that is not always going to be the appropriate answer... But one of the things that we still have not gotten really good at is doing long-term evaluations to see how people use their training.

When you look back on your career, you can see that you’ve grown in many different ways. I was able to meet just incredible people. But I was also exposed to the other side of things, people who were just downright nasty, racist, and misogynistic, where you wonder how some of these people can get into the uniform.

But, as I tell a lot of folks, I’m grateful for my career. I had somebody ask me if I would do it again. And I said, of course I would. I absolutely would. For me, the experience was definitely on the joyous side and the plus side. It was a pleasure. I enjoyed it. 

How would you compare and contrast your experience in the Denver PD to the NYPD? Denver isn’t exactly a small town, but I would imagine that the NYPD is a whole different kind of ecosystem to operate within.

When you talk about the fundamentals, all departments have a lot in common. What is different is the culture within each department. The thing that struck me about NYPD is that it is very, very rich in tradition. There is a tremendous amount of reverence for that tradition. I learned that NYPD is a really large family. Of course, as with many families, there are dysfunctional uncles. But there are also people within the NYPD who are doing beautiful things in the community, trying very hard to provide safety. 

You have to recognize the scale of the NYPD. When you are that size, you have to have processes and systems. In smaller agencies, you can do pilots much quicker. In very large organizations, it is hard for a commissioner to push change all the way down to the precinct level. There are exceptions to the rule, but most commissioners and chiefs only last four years on average. You can only get so much done in four years. And so that means that you have to prioritize. When you have commissioners that only last three or four years, the community’s expectations have to be managed about how much movement and change you can really make in four years.

I would say you get resistance to change no matter where you are because we’re cops, and we don’t want to change, period. I think in your larger organizations, it is a bigger challenge because you have folks who either don’t want to know or who are confused about what you’re asking them to do. 

When you were at the NYPD, you oversaw the department’s training program. I was wondering whether you could help me make sense of how to think about the potential impacts of training.  Obviously, we should be training officers for the roles we want them to play and the values we want them to embody. But a lot of the research I have been reading recently about implicit-bias training and anti-racist training induces skepticism about how effective it is in actually changing people’s behavior. So I guess my question to you is this: what should we reasonably expect of police training?

It’s a good question. Whenever we have tragic events, the first thing that comes out of everyone’s mouth is, “Well, they should do more training.” And that is not always going to be the appropriate answer.

One application of training is not going to give you the outcomes that I think people are looking for. Training for police officers is not always evidence-based. In some cases, folks are doing what we might call check-the-box, liability training, to protect themselves in case something bad happens. 

We need to make sure we have the right people doing the right jobs. Once you do that, you can then begin to design your training around what outcomes you would like to see. We historically have not done outcome-based training. That has changed over the past ten to fifteen years. But one of the things that we still have not gotten really good at is doing long-term evaluations to see how people use their training.

You are now hearing some of the same conversations that happened in the ‘90s, that we are going to need more officers to get spiking crime under control. I think we need to be very careful about this.

We assume a lot. We assume that people leave the academy and eventually go on the streets and that all of their training is intact. That’s not necessarily the case. We really have not been clear about how officers are implementing their training. But body-worn cameras now allow you to go in and see if officers are using their training or not. This technology has really begun to move police training in ways which we just have not thought about before. 

I would also say that the environment in which police learn is pretty important. Not everyone has an academy like NYPD. I don’t think the community understands that a lot of police organizations don’t have facilities like that. In smaller departments, if they get training once a year, they’re lucky. 

There are a lot of things we have to look at. We have to look at whether the training is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. And then there is the actual officer. What is going on with that individual? How have they digested the training? Are there non–work related issues that are going on with that individual that may be complicating the way that they’re showing up at work? And that is just something we’ve historically never talked about. When you got sick, you still showed up for work. If you were going through a divorce, you showed up for work. If someone was terminally ill in your family, you showed up for work. You’ve got officers who are traumatized and the culture and the way in which we deal with that is still not healthy. So, for me, training is helpful for a lot of things but there’s also some real deep-dive questions still to be asked.

Do you have a take on why we’ve seen shootings go up in New York and other cities over the past year or two?

You have these conditions on the ground that are happening. You have a country that has a tremendous amount of firearms. You also have people who have been locked down. People have lost their jobs and they don’t have health care and they’re trying to feed their children and care for themselves and their mental health issues. You’ve got people who are desperate and they don’t have anything to lose. I think you also have parts of the community who are telling us that this has been happening for decades, that there’s been a lack of investment in people who are most in need. 

You are now hearing some of the same conversations that happened in the ‘90s, that we are going to need more officers to get spiking crime under control. I think we need to be very careful about this. I 100-percent believe that there are occasions where you need to have someone who’s armed respond to a call for service. That is my experience. And that is just what it is. But what the community is also asking for—not all communities, but some—what they’re asking for is a lot of investment in prevention and a lot of focus on the social needs that people have and making sure that those things are also taken care of. 

It is going to be interesting. We are seeing conversations about how to define public safety. Typically, the first thing you think about public safety is law enforcement. But when you talk to the community about it, the community is not thinking about law enforcement as the first priority for public safety. For them, public safety means housing security. It means food security. It means health care. They want to get those things in alignment and make sure that armed response personnel are not the primary thing you go to when you talk about public health safety. A lot of folks are trying different ways to get to that promise. Those types of experiments are what you’re watching play out in Minneapolis and a lot of other places as well.

In the op-ed that you wrote for The Washington Post last year, you expressed sympathy for those who argue for defunding the police, but also said that for the foreseeable future, we’re going to need policing to continue to exist. I don’t know if it’s how you intended it, but I read the piece as you trying to carve a path in between the abolitionists, on the one hand, and the people that believe we have to back the police, no matter what, on the other. I’m wondering what kind of response you got to the piece. 

For me, it’s about finding a way to have a conversation where you don’t have to pick one or the other. There are clearly spaces where law enforcement does not belong. Because of the historical relationship with Black communities, I get it. I understand the concerns about calling 911. Why would you want to call somebody who comes to you, and you end up either hurt or dead? Every day folks are calling 911, and people are getting hurt, people are getting victimized. 

What’s happening now is that there is a real conversation about alternative ways to respond. Take domestic violence. When I became an officer, there was no mandatory arrest policy for domestic violence. Then you had a movement and activism around mandatory arrest. Fast forward to today, when you have conversations with community members about domestic violence responses. In communities of color, the question is: why are the police coming? Because when they come, they set up a chain of things that happen that are not helpful for the family. 

Over the last couple of years, there’s been a real awakening about how governments are providing service to their community and whether or not there's a political appetite to do what needs to be done for the good of communities. It is creating a tremendous amount of stress for service providers on the ground and for cops on the ground.

I can tell you as a police officer, I was really surprised to hear that. There are community members that do not believe police officers should be the first ones to respond to a domestic situation. And me, I’m thinking, some domestics are very violent. I question how you set it up where you have a service provider walk into a household that may be violent. But those are the kinds of conversations we are having today. The community is asking whether the mandatory arrest policy impacts women and men of color more so than anyone else and whether it is helpful in protecting individuals and family.

You have to allow space for these types of conversations. It’s what we’ve done for the last thirty years. Is it doing what we wanted it to do? Is it having an impact that we never anticipated? And if so, what other things should we be doing? I say all this recognizing that you have folks that absolutely don’t want that effort changed. You have to look at it from different perspectives and different lived experiences.

But the community is saying we need to take a deeper dive and really begin to ask ourselves some hard questions. And when we start really thinking about alternatives, it triggers other issues. It triggers issues of power. It triggers issues of who gets served. It triggers budget issues. Over the last couple of years, there’s been a real awakening about how governments are providing service to their community and whether or not there’s a political appetite to do what needs to be done for the good of communities. It is creating a tremendous amount of stress for service providers on the ground and for cops on the ground. 

We’ve got to figure out a way to begin to shift things and provide service in a different way. And it doesn’t have to be the same in every community. What I’m talking about is customizing public safety for the neighborhood. How do communities define what it means to be safe, and how do we fund that to make sure that they have the safety that they need? 

Talk to me about the history of policing in this country. Some people argue that American policing grows out of slave patrols. And then you have people like former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton who say that the roots of modern policing in the U. S. are in ideas that were first raised in England in the 19th century. Part of me thinks that this is just an academic debate, but part of me actually thinks that it is important to get this right, because it has implications for how we see our current problems with policing. Do you have any thoughts about that?

It’s not one or the other. You need to learn the whole story, the whole experience. 

I had the pleasure and honor of working for Commissioner Bratton. I had many conversations with him about race and policing. He understands it. He gets it. He understands the whole ugly truth, the whole history. 

You hear conversations about Sir Robert Peel and the [19th-Century] principles of policing that were brought over to the United States [from Britain]. That is true. But the roots of how we manage Black bodies clearly comes from our history and from slave patrols. When we talk about the great migration and Black folks trying to leave the South to go North for a better life, they’re met with the exact same thing—they were told to stay in this neighborhood, don’t think about taking these jobs. It’s the same thing. 

This is what the conversations with police officers around race are about. They need to understand that slave patrols and Jim Crow laws and redlining—this is a part of our culture. Understanding that doesn’t mean you can’t also understand Robert Peel’s principles, which are, on their face, absolutely on point. Police are part of the community. But how those principles got implemented has been very erratic when you’re talking about policing in the United States.

One of the things that we have to be careful with is really trying to step over the bad part of our history. I think people often think when they hear talk about Jim Crow laws and things like that that it is ancient history, and why are we still talking about it. It is not ancient history. My mother is eighty-three. There are a lot of elders in our community who lived through this. This is not ancient history. 

I think that when people are uncomfortable, they have a tendency to want to move through it. And that’s not what’s being asked for here. What’s being asked is that you understand what that uniform represents in different communities and what it has meant historically. When you can do that, then you can spend time in the community and not feel that you need to control the room and control the narrative. We don’t teach how to listen in the academy, for the most part. That’s a hard tactic to learn — to sit, to take it in. It’s going to make you feel some kind of way. How do you manage that? How do you manage being uncomfortable? There used to be an effort to try to make cops feel comfortable around these types of topics. That’s not happening anymore. There’s pure exhaustion around trying to make somebody feel okay about what is wrong.

Black folks are not all monolithic, they’re not all thinking the same way. They’re not all in agreement. That means that you have to create spaces where you’re hearing from a tremendous number of people. And that is the challenge for a lot of chiefs right now: how do you provide service for multiple perspectives around public safety?

The Center for Policing Equity’s motto is “justice through science.” I’m curious about how the organization is navigating the current moment when it feels like you have some on the right who are questioning the very notion of science. And then on the left, you have some academics who won’t acknowledge that there’s evidence that policing can make a positive difference. Does that make the terrain complicated for your organization?

At CPE, we have under our roof social scientists, of course, but we also have activists, we have former police officers, we have people from the community. We have incredible people who have chosen to join CPE. Because we are science-based, our North Star is what we believe will work. We have very difficult conversations on both the left and on the right about what policing should look like. We pride ourselves to be able to have those kinds of conversations with everybody. We try to bring unlikely folks into the same space. For us, it is about what is best for the community, what is best for public safety, and what is best for the police officers. But some days are hard, really hard.

I’ve heard you say that the window of opportunity for change is only going to stay open for a short time. Are you feeling optimistic, pessimistic, or something in between when you think about the conversation about policing in this country?

I’m always going to be somewhere in between, because I’ve lived through these cycles before. I do think that for policing itself, as a profession, there’s some self-reflection that is happening. But for me, the question is at what level is that happening? Because there’s always been a political disconnect between what the chiefs may want versus what the folks on the ground who do this every day are asking for. And so there has to be some internal reckoning around who are we and what are we supposed to be and to who. 

Everybody wants the cops to be one way or another, but no one can give a straight answer when I ask them: what is their role? If their role is no longer to respond to X problem, then tell them that and train them for that. If their role is no longer to make low-level traffic stops, then tell them that, and train them for that. You also have to leave space for the human condition. In any employee setting, they’re going to be asking questions. And this is where we often find leadership breaks down. When officers ask, “Why are we doing this?” or, “What’s going on?,” oftentimes leadership can’t answer that question. There’s a void of silence.

I think that most cops have awareness of why we’re in this moment, but there’s still quite a few of them who don’t understand how we got here. And there are also some that don’t think it’s an issue and think this is something that was created just to divide folks. So I would tell you that many police chiefs today feel like they are walking through land mines. 

Over the next five to ten years, it’s going to be interesting to look back to see what is really different. I see the people on the ground who are committed to doing the work. There is a tremendous amount of heart and optimism on the ground that we will get to the other side and that it will look and feel different. And so I tend to latch onto that.


Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


Previous At the Crossroads interviews:

“Intimate Partner Violence and Armed Conflict in Colombia”: Dr. Maria Restrepo-Ruiz

Dr. Maria Restrepo-Ruiz

Dr. Maria (Mayte) Restrepo-Ruiz is a Research Associate with the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut. She completed her PhD work in the summer of 2021 titled Armed Conflict, Intimate Partner Violence and Women’s Mental Health in Colombia: An Explanatory Mixed-Methods Study.

“Intimate Partner Violence and Armed Conflict in Colombia” explores Dr. Restrepo-Ruiz’s research on the direct and indirect effects of the Colombian armed conflict with a focus on how it is associated with women’s increased risk of intimate partner violence and mental health problems. 

In 2020, Dr. Restrepo received an HFG Dissertation Fellowship (now the HFG Emerging Scholar Award) for her project IPV in Armed Conflict Contexts: The Case of Colombia.

About “Armed Conflict, Intimate Partner Violence and Women’s Mental Health in Colombia: An Explanatory Mixed-Methods Study::

Colombia has one of the highest prevalence rates of intimate partner violence (IPV) against women in Latin America. Colombia is also a country that has experienced more than six decades of armed conflict that has led to the largest number of internally displaced people by armed conflict in the world. The purpose of this study was three-fold. First, it measured the armed conflict’s direct impact on women’s mental health. Second, it assessed the association between armed conflict intensity and intimate partner violence. Third, it compared intimate partner violence prevalence between women who were displaced and who were not displaced by the armed conflict and associated psychological wellbeing outcomes.

All armed actors in the Colombian conflict, government forces, guerrilla groups, and paramilitary armies, mainly used war strategies that intentionally targeted the civilian population. Between 1996 and 2018, 90% of all 252,249 war events documented by the Observatorio de Memoria y Conflicto corresponded to violence against civilians and the remaining 10% corresponded to direct confrontations between armed actors. Among events targeting civilians, 79% corresponded to selective tactics such as selective assassinations, kidnapping, sexual violence, forced recruitment of children, and forced disappearances. These tactics intentionally and selectively targeted individuals and families creating collective fear by attacking one person at a time, which made violence less visible to the public eye. Women represent a significant proportion (30%) of the victims of selective violence.

The findings of this research indicate that the armed conflict in Colombia directly affected the mental health of millions of individuals who are at higher risk from adverse mental health effects than the general Colombian population. A statistically significant association was found between experiencing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms and being a victim of sexual violence by armed groups, having a loved one forcibly disappeared, and witnessing massacres.

Furthermore, findings show that the armed conflict contributes to increased risk for intimate partner violence for women during times of high political violence. When armed conflict-related violence decreases or during post-conflict times, however, high intimate partner violence levels persist. The Colombian armed conflict intensified adherence to traditional gender roles and women’s subordinated position in society, which continued even after peace agreements. In addition, by increasing stress levels in intimate relationships, the armed conflict contributed to an elevated risk for intimate partner violence.

Lastly, this study showed that women who have been displaced by the armed conflict are at higher risk of experiencing intimate partner violence while they are also at higher risk experiencing negative outcomes in their psychological wellbeing than non-displaced women. The quantitative and qualitative findings of this study showed that women displaced by the armed conflict in Colombia experience multiple effects on their psychological wellbeing, including decreased self-esteem, distrust of people, and indicators of depression such as sadness and suicidal ideation.


At The Crossroads January 20, 2022

“You Have to Crack Down on Gun Offenders”: A Conversation with Peter Moskos

By Greg Berman

Peter Moskos

Over the past couple of years, John Jay College professor Peter Moskos has been a prominent voice warning about the rise in violence in American cities and the potential perils of depolicing. 

Moskos brings a unique point of view to the public conversation about policing: in addition to being a Harvard-trained sociologist, he spent more than a year working as a police officer in Baltimore, Maryland. That experience served as the basis for his first book, Cop in the Hood, which offers a first-person perspective on the challenges of street-level law enforcement.

Moskos is working on a new book, an oral history of the New York City crime decline that started in the 1990s, told from the perspective of police officers on the ground. In addition, he hosts a podcast, Quality Policing, and curates the Violence Reduction Project, a collection of essays about short- and medium-term strategies for reducing neighborhood violence.

Greg Berman, the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, talked to Moskos about New York City’s historic success reducing crime and incarceration and about what has gone wrong in recent years as shootings have increased. This transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Greg Berman: Your father, Charles Moskos, was a sociologist who devoted his career to studying the military. Is it just a coincidence that you are a sociologist who spends a lot of time looking at paramilitary organizations?

Peter Moskos: I’m an apple that did not fall far from the tree. My brother’s a businessman in Holland, so he did not take that path. But both my dad and my mom, who’s still alive, were both thinkers so we had lots of intellectual conversations around the dinner table. I thought that everyone did, but when people would come over they would say, “No, this is a little bit odd.” I grew up in an intellectually rigorous household, but I was never pressured to follow in his footsteps. But I did. I went to the same college, and I’m in a field that’s shockingly similar to his. I think part of it was I saw that my parents were both teachers—my mom was a high school teacher—and we had a pretty good life. Certainly, I don’t think I’d be where I am now if it weren’t for them.

Your first book, Cop in the Hood, was about the time you spent working as a police officer in Baltimore. I’m interested in experiential learning versus book learning. How did your experience of being immersed in practice compare to your graduate studies?

It was very different. 

When I started grad school in ‘95, I went to study something urban-related because I’ve always been a city boy. That was when murders were plummeting in New York. And when I read some of the literature, all the experts said it couldn’t happen. Not unless we fixed the root causes and changed society. That was the traditional sociological argument. I thought they were wrong on some fundamental level. It seemed obvious that the data didn’t fit the theory. I thought to myself that sociology is probably a good field to get into if all the leading experts are basically wrong about it.

In a graduate class, I read John Van Maanen’s Observations on the Making of Policemen, which is a great ethnographic work on the Seattle Police Department in the late ’60s. My original plan was just to replicate his study and look at socialization in the police academy. I set out to try to get access for that. It wasn’t easy. Police departments don’t want researchers. Certainly, they didn’t back then. 

Most researchers aren’t part of the group they study, and, of course, there are issues about bias and objectivity. But absolutely the things I learned as a cop I could not have learned just as an observer.

But Baltimore said I could do it there. And  when I got there, the politics had changed and there was a new commissioner. They said, “You can’t do it.” I said, “If I go back to Harvard, I don’t have a place to live.” And that’s when they said, “Well, why don’t you become a cop for real?” So that’s what I did. I went through the process and got hired. I told them that I was going to quit after a year and write a book about it. My advisor at Harvard was not pleased with this plan, but in the end, it all worked out.

Why was your advisor opposed to it?

I think he thought I’d pulled a bait-and-switch on him, because it wasn’t my original plan. Some of it might have been just pure class snobbery. Eventually it got smoothed over and ultimately he was supportive. But there were a rough couple of months there where I was having problems on both sides. 

But I’m lucky. I think I could have gotten a dissertation out of my original research plan, but it wouldn’t have been anything more than that. The academy is not where the real story is. Ultimately, it is about being a cop on the street. Where I was assigned was a pretty good place to learn if you’re going to be a cop for a short period of time. Most researchers aren’t part of the group they study, and, of course, there are issues about bias and objectivity. But absolutely the things I learned as a cop I could not have learned just as an observer. And certainly as an observer, you wouldn’t have that access. And that experience in Baltimore has given me access to cops ever since. I can talk to cops because I walked a mile in their shoes. 

Before we get into what’s gone wrong in New York and other cities of late, I want to spend a minute talking about what went right previously. When I talk to my kids about criminal justice in New York, I tell them that, up until very recently, basically every indicator that we care about was pointed in the right direction—crime was down, jail was down, complaints against the police were down, use of force was down, etc. They are shocked, because the only things they have heard about the criminal justice system are negative. What’s your answer to what New York City got right prior to the past two years?

Well, that’s what I’m working on right now. My next book is going to be an oral history of the crime drop in the ’90s. I think the fundamental thing that went right was when William Bratton became [New York City police] commissioner for the first time, he said, “We’re going to reduce crime, fear of crime, and disorder.” He got the police back in the crime-prevention game. That was really revolutionary. If you go back to the Kerner Commission [convened by President Johnson to study U.S. civil unrest in the 1960s], they articulated what became the sociological party line about crime: that we have to fix society to address crime and that police don’t play a large role in that. In fact, they blamed police for a lot of the riots that happened. And that was just accepted by everyone. 

In New York City before Bratton, if you made arrests in 30 percent of the serious crimes, you were doing okay. As long as there was no scandal, you were fine. It was very much an anti corruption-obsessed department post–Serpico and the Knapp commission. That was business as usual. There just wasn’t any drive to do better.

Bratton effectively said, “To hell with that.” The idea of going back to the crime-prevention game was the major switch. It was essential that he said, “This is our job.” I think a big part of what has been lost over the last year or so is that police departments suddenly said, “Okay, we won’t be in the crime game again. If you’re worried about police use of force, we can focus on that and disengage.”

[The crime-tracking tool] CompStat gets a lot of credit, but at some level, it’s just a crime map. But it was an accountability tool and that was the key. It was about saying to precinct commanders, “This is your job and you have to know what’s going on.” The results were shockingly quick. 

Violence in New York didn’t start to go down in 1995 because lead was removed in 1980. All those macro things, I’m not saying they don’t matter, but they don’t matter so much in New York City. It was so basic, this idea that the police should care about crime. Other departments quickly followed suit. It was basically saying, “This is our job again.” And we’re still going to worry about corruption, but we’re not going to be obsessed by it. And of course there are tons of little details, like the broken windows approach of saying we are going to focus on public order.

I want to return to broken windows in a minute, but first I wanted to ask you how much credence you give to Patrick Sharkey’s argument that some percentage of the crime decline in New York City was due to the existence of community groups, business improvement districts, and other nongovernmental organizations?

That’s part of the story, certainly. I don’t focus on it because I’m focused on policing. But my book actually starts with three stories that don’t get enough attention, that really have very little to do with policing. Bryant Square Park reopened in 1990. The Times Square business improvement district remade Times Square. And the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey started cleaning up the bus terminal. The courts in New York ruled that the Port Authority and the subway system could make and enforce rules. They said that begging on the train wasn’t a constitutional right. It couldn’t have been done without that course correction. All this happened before the crime drop and, in a way, set the stage for it.

To say it's bail reform's fault that shootings have gone up is not accurate. But people are using bail reform as a proxy for the whole movement in general. In that sense, I think it's a fair criticism. 

Another important milestone was getting graffiti off the subways in the ’80s. This was significant because it was the first victory against disorder that the city had seen in literally decades. This problem that was supposedly insurmountable was fixed. The idea that we can actually make a difference here was, I think, an important philosophical foundation for what happened in policing. 

But the actual major decline in violence was primarily, I think, a focus on gun offenders and on public order. The police got back in the crime-prevention game. But I don’t want to dismiss these other things. New York was also in a good position. Compared to other cities, we had money. We also have a rich tapestry of treatment and alternative-to-incarceration programs. They’re all little pieces in the jigsaw puzzle. Collectively, I have to assume it makes a difference. 

Let’s talk about broken windows. In other forums, you have said that broken windows policing has basically ended in New York City. I’m wondering what your reaction is to those who argue, “Well, that’s a good thing because it lightens the touch of the system, particularly on overpoliced populations like young Black men”?

I would say: ask people in those neighborhoods what they want. There’s a great strain of paternalism out there. People are telling other people how their neighborhoods should be policed. 

Broken windows is not the cause of mass incarceration. It’s about changing behavior. When broken windows was first implemented, it was part of a community policing strategy. Bratton certainly saw it as community policing. It was part of the police asking the community what they wanted us to do. It was a bottom-up approach.

[Co-author of the broken windows concept] George Kelling, before he died, said maybe broken windows was a bad metaphor in hindsight, because he never expected the phrase to take off like it did. And he certainly saw problems in the way it was interpreted. But Kelling and Bratton were close until the end. Bratton really did fundamentally change the police department culture. And broken windows was a part of that. 

But the problem is that after Bratton left, some things went off the rails. I’m pretty sure that stop, question, and frisk would not have taken over the police department in the late 2000’s had Bratton still been commissioner. That’s what a lot of people say and I believe that. Bratton was very much against zero-tolerance policing. Those two concepts have gotten linked by opponents, but they’re fundamentally at odds. 

In terms of broken windows, I think the label has become toxic, but you could come up with a new name and do the same concepts again. Because we are having the same problems again.

I know that you haven’t done an empirical study, but what’s your sense of whether bail reform actually has had an impact on the streets of New York?

The idea that it has no impact is crazy. When people don’t get detained, some of them commit crimes. I don’t think it’s a huge number, but it’s not zero.

But bail reform is being used as a crude weapon to say, “Something’s going wrong, let’s blame bail reform.” Bail reform is a multifaceted thing and much of it is good. But, as I’ve said on Twitter recently, the absurd parts are so absurd. You could just fix it. You could allow judges to consider public dangerousness. You could fix the witness disclosure part of it. There are a few things that would be so easy to fix, and you could have the rest of it. But the politicians and activists who are rooted in the police and prison abolition philosophy don’t want to fix it. 

So to say it’s bail reform’s fault that shootings have gone up is not accurate. But people are using bail reform as a proxy for the whole movement in general. In that sense, I think it’s a fair criticism. 

Speaking of the movement, on Twitter you have written, “Prominent police reformers don’t want better policing, they want less policing and abolition. Reform is too often a disingenuous tool masking a misguided, dangerous, and unpopular goal.” Do you think that anything good has come out of the Black Lives Matter protests?

My first thought is no, but that’s not entirely true. Police do need accountability. And they’re not inclined to be self-reflective on that matter. Part of the reason I think New York is better in policing than other cities is because there has been accountability. Al Sharpton is a divisive figure in policing circles, but he and others did hold the NYPD’s feet to the fire. And the NYPD is better because of that. They don’t get away with things other departments do. Police should be under pressure. Police need critics. In that sense, it’s good. 

How do you respond to the argument that American policing is rotten to its core, that it has its roots in slave patrols and that it is essentially a mechanism for oppressing Black people and always has been? 

Well, it’s historically just inaccurate. I think it’s an important issue. It’s not just an academic debate, because this claim does lay the groundwork for everything that follows. If it were true that policing was a legacy of slavery, then yeah, you’d want to get rid of it. I think there’s a parallel to the 1619 controversy. Is American policing a bad concept that we’re doing our best with, or is it a good concept with flaws? 

There’s no mystery how police in the North were established. And even in the South, before it came crashing down with the end of Reconstruction, the police were set up by an occupying army imposing a northern way. And it failed, unfortunately. 

Look, it was a weird year and there was COVID, but the evidence that [the increased violence] was policing-related is pretty strong. Police got out of the crime-prevention game. There was a push and a pull that led to less policing.

It is true that, wherever they are, policing reflects American society and American society has often been quite ugly. Police are a part of city politics, and that was a pretty flawed institution when we’re talking about the late 1800s.

I recently looked at Frederick Douglass’s newspaper in Rochester, New York, because he was writing when police were established in Rochester. If it were really a White supremacist concept, you’d think he might have said something about it. But it just wasn’t on their radar. 

Look, at a functional level, policing fills a need. That’s why abolishing policing will never work. Someone’s going to fill that vacuum. I’d much prefer to have it done by public employees who have to abide by the Constitution as opposed to private security guards and gangs. These experiments in Seattle or Minneapolis where you have police-free zones, they all come crashing down. We’re not ready for that yet.

Do you think that the police in New York have a legitimacy problem? 

Legitimacy is a relatively new concept. Legitimacy is important for any organization, especially policing. But the same people that raise the issue of legitimacy are the ones actively working to undermine police legitimacy. The same people who are saying that police need to be more legitimate are also saying that they’re slave catchers. Well, you can’t be legitimate if you’re a slave catcher. So I find that argument disingenuous. 

I think legitimacy is an outcome of good policing, broadly defined. Policing has legitimacy when it’s effective. That’s how police gain legitimacy primarily. Legitimacy is more of an effect than a cause, I think. Some people are never going to like cops for ideological reasons. And I don’t see any efforts to increase the legitimacy that actually do increase it. 

There are reports that clearance rates are down in New York City. Do you think that is unrelated to people’s perception of police?

I don’t think the public really cares or knows about the clearance rate.


That’s probably true, but I’m asking if the clearance rates have gone down because people are less willing to participate in investigations.  

I think there’s a link to bail reform. I talked to a reporter the other day who said that she is hearing people in the streets say that they’re not willing to be witnesses because they can’t remain confidential. That hasn’t gotten any attention yet. That does a lot to decrease the legitimacy of the system.

I also think that there’s more crime and that does lower clearance rates. When shootings double, you can be certain clearance rates are going to go down because suddenly there are twice as many cases. It’s not like they have twice as many detectives to resolve these things.

Look, it’s not like people were talking to the cops ever. I mean, the very first shooting I handled, the victim wouldn’t tell me his name. The idea that you don’t talk to cops, it’s been around forever. It’s very hard to convict someone if you don’t have someone who’s willing to testify. I’m inclined to believe it’s gotten a bit worse recently, but we don’t actually have data on that. And then the question is: why has it gotten worse? Well, if a guy’s got a gun and he’s not detained and he’s back on the street, then I think it’s understandable that people don’t want to tell the cops. The fact that the system isn’t working like it used to has an impact. 

Tell me about your Violence Reduction Project, in which you invite a variety of people to explain how they would reduce violence.  Are there good ideas out there that you’ve been unearthing beyond Cure Violence and focused deterrence?

When shootings started to rise in 2020, you had respected academics saying, “Violence can’t be up this much.” And then you had people saying, “Well, it was worse in 1990.” What a stupid debate to be having. I don’t care that it was worse in 1990. It just doubled now. More people are getting shot every week. This is real. And then, very quickly, you started to hear the same arguments that you heard in previous decades: “We have to fix society.”

Look, it was a weird year and there was COVID, but the evidence that [the increased violence] was policing-related is pretty strong. Police got out of the crime-prevention game. There was a push and a pull that led to less policing. Some of it was changing laws and decriminalization and legalization and nonprosecution. And some of it was police saying, “Well, screw it.” Cops are upfront about this. They’re like, “Yeah, if I see someone with a gun, I’ll still go after them. But if I see someone suspicious in an alley, I’ll just drive on. Because if I stop him, what if a crowd gathers and he resists and I have to use force and suddenly…” The bottom line is there was less policing and that correlates perfectly with violence in a way that COVID or the economy doesn’t.

Just hearing gunshots outside your house is traumatic. Most privileged people have no connection to that level of violence. And I think that's part of the problem. It needs to be a higher priority. 

So I said to myself, well, maybe I should figure out what can be done. So I put that website together. The only condition for contributors to the violence reduction project is: I don’t want long-term solutions. It’s got to be short- or medium-term. And it has to be somewhat feasible, politically. Give me your solution.

Do you have a favorite among the contributions?

They’re all my babies, but I think gun prosecution is key. It was key in the ’90s and it’s key now. You have to crack down on gun offenders. That’s probably the single most effective thing that can happen. But that’s more of a prosecutorial thing than a police thing, because cops are arresting the gun offenders, at least in New York. 

But part of me doesn’t want to have a favorite because I think you do have to do everything. I want effective violence interrupters, though I do think it’s vastly overblown. I don’t think any of it will work without police. For these programs to work, you need a certain level of public safety. You’re not going to improve society if people are getting shot every day on your block, or you hear gunshots. For people to say that things were worse in 1990, I don’t think they understand the trauma of gun violence. It really should dominate everything.

I think, in particular, people don’t understand the ripple effects of shootings.

Just hearing gunshots outside your house is traumatic. Most privileged people have no connection to that level of violence. And I think that’s part of the problem. It needs to be a higher priority. In terms of absolute death, it’s actually about 20,000 a year, which is less than a lot of things. But the trauma is so much greater. People sometimes say, “Well, someone was shot, but they will recover.” No, you don’t. You don’t recover from a gunshot wound, really, ever.

How hopeful are you about New York City Mayor Eric Adams and the new administration? 

Adams wasn’t my first choice, but I’ve liked everything he’s said and done since the primary. And it’s interesting that he basically won all of Black and brown New York while the progressives all voted for Maya Wiley and all the New York Times readers voted for Kathryn Garcia. 

A lot of New York still speaks with a New York accent. I think it’s important that Eric Adams feels that that’s his base. And he made crime an issue. No one else was talking about crime before he did. As I said before, before you can solve the problem, first you have to say, we’re going to care about this. So I think Adams is passing that first test. The devil is in all the details, but I do have an atypical feeling of optimism right now. 

Do you think Adams will close Rikers Island?

Rikers is a frustrating issue. Who would have thought that the plan to close it was going to get outflanked from the left? Rikers is horrible. But I think the left may have effectively killed the idea of building new jails. At some point, there are going to have to be jail beds for people, whether they’re on Rikers or somewhere else. The idea that we’re going to achieve prison abolition simply by closing prisons…it’s not going to happen. I fear it’s going to backfire. I don’t want a right-wing overreaction.

From the outside looking in, it seems like the intellectual climate in the academy is bad right now and that things have become very politicized. Do you think this is a fair assessment? And have you paid any professional price when you have departed from the social justice orthodoxy of the moment?

I don’t think so. I’m always afraid it’ll happen. I think it helps that I’m in a nontraditional department in terms of my academic field. I think it also helps that I’m not a right winger, though certainly I know many people think I am. 

Academics are a weird breed. It’s amazing how afraid academics are. My own theory is that the PhD weeds out people who don’t comply. In my mind, the press is a bigger issue. I hear from respected older journalists a lot and they’re afraid. They’re afraid of the newsroom. That’s troublesome, that idea that objectivity is somehow bad.

I do find in general that the left is far less willing to engage. I don’t get invited to those panels. They don’t want to hear dissenting views, and I think that’s worrisome. There is an attack on the traditional model of free speech that I think is probably the single most dangerous part of the movement. But hopefully the pendulum will swing back.


Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


Previous At the Crossroads interviews:
At The Crossroads December 16, 2021

“We Need to Value Black Lives in the Same Way That We Value Others”: A Conversation with Kami Chavis

By Greg Berman

Kami Chavis

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protesters took to the streets in many American cities to condemn police brutality. Some places also suffered from widespread looting and property destruction that will take years to restore. 

Little of this came as a surprise to Kami Chavis, the director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University School of Law. A former federal prosecutor, Chavis has spent the bulk of her academic career focusing on issues of police accountability and racial justice. When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, Chavis wrote: “This is a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, and every police chief in America should be asking: ‘How do I ensure that I maintain the integrity of my department and earn the trust and legitimacy of my community?’” The sense of urgency has only increased since then.

In this interview with Greg Berman, Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, Chavis talks about issues of police reform and the relationship between police violence and the recent increase in shootings in many American cities. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Greg Berman: I wanted to start by asking you about your time as a prosecutor. How did that experience shape you?

Kami Chavis: I was only a prosecutor for three years, but the experience definitely shaped my scholarship and teaching. It was one of the reasons I entered academia. 

I did a lot of domestic violence, guns, and drug cases at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC. I had a very busy caseload. It really put me face-to-face with how vulnerable some people and some communities are, not only to violence but also to the criminal justice system itself.

There were just so many disparities that I saw within our criminal justice system. As wonderful as our U.S. criminal justice system is, I just saw a lot of times where, quite frankly, it fell short. You would look at a person and see all the times that they had been arrested or convicted. Is the criminal justice system really the only response that we have for this individual’s actions? I guess I would say I saw the criminal justice system being overused.

[What] the George Floyd era—has done is really elucidated the need for local reform and how local communities really are going to drive this reform.

Before I became a prosecutor, I was certainly aware of the role that race has played since the inception of our country. We’ve always punished marginalized communities more harshly. So I can’t say that what I saw when I was a prosecutor was a surprise, but I can say that it was very different being a part of that system. It was very weighty for me, the power that I had, even as a young, inexperienced prosecutor, really to change the trajectory of someone’s life.

You have said that we are in the midst of a criminal justice revolution in this country. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about how things are going?

At the time that I wrote that, there had been a number of high-profile shootings of unarmed Black people—Michael Brown, Freddy Gray, Philando Castile, Keith Lamont Scott here in Charlotte. I can name others across the country. 

This had been something that, of course, had been happening for decades. Black communities were very familiar with the tension that existed between police and their communities. But it seemed like the rest of America had awakened and recognized these problems. The body-camera footage and cell-phone footage corroborated what had been happening all along. So that was very powerful. And people were really spirited about the need for change and for reform. 

You asked me whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic. I’ll say that I am cautiously optimistic because I think what this era—the George Floyd era—has done is really elucidated the need for local reform and how local communities really are going to drive this reform. Certainly federal legislation is important. But in the wake of what happened to George Floyd, a lot of local communities enacted some really important changes, whether it was banning certain use-of-force tactics or requiring greater transparency, those kinds of things. These are small, incremental steps. We are still a long way from transformative reform in policing, which is really going to require us to think about our use of the criminal justice system to deal with so many social problems.

Help me understand the scale of the problem. Some people say that we have an epidemic of police violence in this country. Others say that, if you actually look at the numbers, very few unarmed Black people are killed by the police each year. I’m curious to hear your sense of how big a problem we’ve got in this country.

Oh, my gosh. I think we have a huge problem. I would say that if you have one unconstitutional violation, one preventable death, it’s one too many. 

Do you think that we can realistically get to zero preventable deaths?

I think we should try to get to zero but I don’t think we’ll get to zero, because I don’t think that we will be able to enact the policies and cultural change to get there. 

But to answer your question about the scope of the problem, it’s not just about the number of people that are being killed. It’s the number of people who are impacted at every point in our criminal justice system. Who do the police stop? Who do they search? Who do they decide to arrest? Who do the prosecutors decide to charge? How severe are those charges? What sentence do they receive? We see disparities in every single aspect of our criminal justice system. So, to me, it is endemic. And policing is the entry point for all of that.

I think that the scope of the problem really is understated. One reason I say that is because we really don’t keep great statistics. For a long time, it was the Guardian, a British newspaper, that was one of the most reliable sources to figure out how many Americans had been shot by police. Thankfully, that’s improved. There are now other groups that are keeping track of that. 

But I think that we’re still underestimating the disparities that happen all throughout the criminal justice system—and the effects that those disparities have on the legitimacy of our system. Black Americans and White Americans view our criminal justice system very differently. When you have that type of divide, it’s ultimately going to impact the legitimacy of your entire system.

Help me parse what role implicit bias plays in all of this. I’ve been to a number of implicit bias presentations and I generally have found them to be pretty persuasive. On the other hand, I have read that the implicit association test is useless and that there’s no indication that implicit bias training makes a difference. So I’m kind of confused about how to think about implicit bias.

I think implicit bias certainly plays a role in some of the disparities that we’re seeing. But I also think we have explicit bias that we haven’t really dealt with. Our case law really protects officers and other actors in the criminal justice system because the standards are so high for making an equal protection claim. You have to show intentional discrimination. Even if it exists, it can be very difficult to prove. Our laws and our standards also allow pretextual stops to occur. And so before we even get to implicit bias, I think that we have a problem with how we deal with explicit bias. 

You’ve called President Obama’s task force on 21st-century policing a missed opportunity. Why was that?

This was a national conversation that was taking place in the wake of a spate of shootings of unarmed African American men. There were so many experts convened, so much information. You had some of the greatest law-enforcement officials themselves who were involved in this, as well as renowned scholars. 

I don't think it's just an issue of a few bad apples. What I think is that there’s a lack of accountability for bad actors. We cannot overestimate the role that police culture plays in police misconduct. Even if you have one or two officers within a department that are causing the problem, they are part of an ecosystem. Their actions can really harm the entire department.

There’s a lot of good information in that report. For example, they talked about technology in law enforcement and how we have to be careful about how those technologies might be used. They basically forewarned about some of the things that people are talking about today, in terms of gun-shot detection software and aerial surveillance and how that’s deployed. 

That document contains a wealth of ideas about how to improve policing. And they made some very good recommendations that we still haven’t been able to codify. It would have been great to see a lot of local police departments adopt some of these principles internally.

You mentioned that police were engaged in shaping the Obama reform agenda. Just to play devil’s advocate for a second, if police are the problem, why do we need to engage them in the reform process?

Oh, my goodness, that’s just a basic principle of stakeholder participation. If you have top-down policies and you want to implement them without the input and advice and expertise of the people that are very close to the problem, you’re not going to get great solutions. And not only are you not going to get workable solutions, you’re also not going to get the buy-in that you need to sustain any reform that you put into place. 

We say that police are the problem. Actually, I don’t think it’s all police that are the problem. I think that a fraction of police officers engage in these negative behaviors. There are a number of police officers and police executives around the country who also think that our system needs to change. I think if you were to ask any number of police officers, they would tell you that their role has expanded unreasonably and what they are tasked with doing on a day-to-day basis has an impact on their morale, their mental health, their ability to do their jobs effectively. And so I think that we do have to involve law enforcement in the conversation about reform.

I recently talked to Andy Papachristos from Northwestern, who has done research that echoes what you just said, which is that when you’re talking about the worst kinds of police misbehavior, you really are talking about a handful of officers in any given department. But of course many progressive reformers reject talk of “bad apples” because they think this obscures the need for structural change.

I want to make a distinction. I don’t think it’s just an issue of a few bad apples. What I think is that there’s a lack of accountability for bad actors. We cannot overestimate the role that police culture plays in police misconduct. Even if you have one or two officers within a department that are causing the problem, they are part of an ecosystem. Their actions can really harm the entire department.

How do we deal with these officers? In my opinion, I don’t think you can train away bias. We have to figure out a way to get rid of people who have shown a propensity for violence. When we keep officers in the ranks that are doing these things, that’s very problematic.

President Biden comes to you and asks you to lead an updated version of the Obama task force on policing. If the goal is to change the culture of police, what’s your best guess on where we should be focusing our energies at this point?

I don’t think that there’s just one thing. I’ve always said that there’s a wide array of tools available to solve this problem. It’s not going to be one single thing. I think the first thing we need to do is to rethink the role of police in society. I don’t think we need police officers to engage in all of the roles that we’re currently asking them to engage in. Do we need an armed first responder for every police call? We don’t.

So I think the first thing we have to do is to rethink the role. And then I think that we have to have clear policies and procedures that elevate human life over some of these small criminal violations. Nobody should ever need to break down the door of someone’s home in the middle of the night just to serve a drug warrant. We have to weigh the value of human life against the value of a few grams of cocaine. That happened here in North Carolina in Elizabeth City. Seven armed sheriff’s deputies came to execute a warrant for something like three grams of cocaine. The guy’s dead now. Why are we doing this? It doesn’t make sense to me. 

We know that police officers can show great restraint. We saw that on January 6. No matter what you think about that event, I know I saw lots of people disobeying law-enforcement orders and breaking down barricades and entering and trespassing into a building, and we did not have mass casualties. So that shows me that police can exercise restraint. It’s just they choose not to in certain circumstances. We need to value Black lives in the same way that we value others.

Do you think there’s a link between the kinds of police violence that we’ve been talking about and the gun violence that we see in the streets of American cities? 

I think that they’re both very complex problems with long histories. But I do think that there is a connection that we need to explore if we’re going to address either of them effectively. The first thing to say is that the gun culture in our country endangers everyone. Police officers don’t know who’s armed and who is not. So that plays a role.

I also worry about what happens when an officer goes into an area that's been identified as a hot spot. You're going to go into that area with a different mindset than you would in another area. You're automatically going to put on your warrior hat rather than your guardian hat.

When you have the type of police misconduct that we’ve seen, it delegitimizes our entire criminal justice system. And so you won’t have the community partners that you need in order to prevent and address the violence that’s happening. People don’t necessarily want to turn someone in or to help in an investigation. There are instances where people have tried to be helpful, and then they themselves have been arrested or made a suspect. And so there are legitimate fears in some communities. 

If there’s massive distrust, you’re not going to have the partnerships and collaboration that you need to address these other underlying issues. And it can actually exacerbate problems because perpetrators can move about freely without fear that someone in the community is going to cooperate with police in an investigation against them.

When I spoke with David Weisburd, he talked about how crime tends to cluster in a handful of locations within a neighborhood. We also know that crime tends to cluster among a discrete handful of people. I’m wondering how you think about hot-spot policing and efforts to target individuals who are at high risk of committing violence. Do you have any concerns that these kinds of strategies might exacerbate racial disparities? 

I think that it is true that when we look at what we would call a high-crime area, usually you can identify the drivers of that crime. You don’t have a community of people who are all engaging in criminal behavior. It’s usually a small number of people who are having a really big effect.

But we have to be very careful with hot-spot policing or predictive policing because one thing that we know is that a lot of the algorithms used to determine whether an area is high-crime or not—the underlying data is biased because communities aren’t policed in the same way. We know that there’s an over-enforcement of certain crimes in certain areas. We know that Whites and Blacks use drugs in the same proportion. But there’s a disparity when you look at the people who have criminal convictions for possession and things like that. People in marginalized communities are having disparate outcomes. So my point is that when it comes to hot-spot policing, you’re using data that could be potentially biased. If we’re talking about predictive policing, we know that these algorithms are proprietary so we don’t even know how they are making this determination. 

I also worry about what happens when an officer goes into an area that’s been identified as a hot spot. You’re going to go into that area with a different mindset than you would in another area. You’re automatically going to put on your warrior hat rather than your guardian hat. Is everyone you see a potential threat to you? I worry about that and the implications that it could have.

In 2016, you played a role in putting together a report on engaging communities in reducing gun violence along with the Joyce Foundation, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and the Urban Institute. That report included a survey. Half of Black respondents ranked police misconduct as an extremely serious problem, whereas 80 percent ranked gun violence that way. How do you read those results looking backward? Do you think we’d get the same results if that survey were done again today?

I don’t know. I can’t really speculate. We often try to be dichotomous about these issues. I’ve always said that respecting the civil rights of people is not mutually exclusive to effective law enforcement. I think you can have both. You can investigate and prevent crimes and you can do so constitutionally. And it really is disappointing to constantly hear it framed in this dichotomous manner. If you critique the police, then you’re antipolice. If you don’t believe in defund the police, or if you want to address gun violence, then you are pro-police. 

I think the survey results indicate that communities are concerned about violence in their streets, but they are also concerned about the way in which they are policed. The thing that we learned from that survey is that people didn’t necessarily not want police. They want police to really focus on community priorities. They want police to focus on violent crime. Our communities are not simplistic or monolithic. How I read those surveys is that both police misconduct and gun violence are important issues to address. 


Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


Previous At the Crossroads interviews:

“Soldiers in Exile”: Dr. Godfrey Maringira

Dr. Godfrey Maringira

Dr. Godfrey Maringira is the author of Soldiers and the State in Zimbabwe and an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Sol Plaatje University, South Africa.

Exploring the ways in which former soldiers maintain and ‘reuse’ their military training for survival, in contexts of violent inner cities with high unemployment, Dr. Maringira’s talk, “Soldiers in Exile,” will offer new insights into demilitarization and the need to assist former combatants.

Dr. Maringira received an African Fellows Award (formerly Young African Scholars) in 2015 for his project “Sex in War: When ‘Professional’ Soldiers Rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

About Soldiers and the State in Zimbabwe from Routledge:

“This book explores the barrack experiences of soldiers in post-independence Zimbabwe, examining the concept of military professionalism within a state in political crisis.

Drawing upon interviews with former soldiers of the Zimbabwe National Army, Soldiers and the State in Zimbabwe casts a light on the oppression of soldiers by commanders who sought to repress and control the political thinking of their men. By contextualizing the political, economic and material conditions in which Zimbabwean soldiers existed, Godfrey Maringira reveals the everyday victimisation and violence of the barracks. Exploring such events as the imposition of the Defense Act, the desertion of soldiers, and the 2017 military coup in Zimbabwe, the book presents and discusses the politicized nature of the military in post-independence Zimbabwe, and the political consequences of service in a state in deep political crisis.”


At The Crossroads November 23, 2021

“Violence Is Contagious”: A Conversation with Andrew Papachristos

By Greg Berman

ANDREW PAPACHRISTOS

“Gun violence is tragic, but, in the majority of cases, is decidedly not random,” Northwestern University sociology professor Andrew Papachristos told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this year.

Employing both statistical models and qualitative methods, Papachristos has been able to show that a relatively small number of individuals are involved in gun violence within any given community—and that these people tend to be connected to one another by a web of relationships. 

For example, in a study published in the Journal of Urban Health, Papachristos and two coauthors looked at young men with an elevated risk of gunshot victimization in Boston and found a social network of about eight hundred individuals. On average, individuals in the network were less than five handshakes away from the victim of a shooting. Strikingly, the closer someone was to a gunshot victim, the greater the probability that person would later be shot; each network step away from a gunshot victim decreased a person’s odds of getting shot by approximately 25 percent.

Unlike many academics, Papachristos is committed to translating his research into policy and practice. To facilitate this, he recently helped launch the Northwestern Neighborhood & Network Initiative, which seeks to leverage the university’s expertise to address problems facing the residents of Chicago and surrounding communities. 

In September, Greg Berman, The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Distinguished Fellow of Practice, talked to Papachristos about his research into neighborhood violence and about the challenges faced by academics who choose to venture beyond the ivory tower. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Greg Berman: A lot of your work, some of which has been supported by The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation in the past, has been devoted to network science. I wonder if you might start by explaining what you mean when you use the expression “social network” and in particular what you have found about how homicides tend to cluster in a place like Chicago.

Andy Papachristos: When I talk about network science or social networks, what I’m actually talking about are the social relationships that link people, places, and institutions. There’s a whole field that uses statistical models, as well as qualitative data, to understand how patterns of relationships affect what we do. 

A lot of my work has applied this idea to understanding patterns of crime and violence, specifically gun violence. One of the most robust criminological findings is that delinquency and crime are group phenomena. The same is true of violence.

I started out looking at conflicts between groups and gangs and how stable these conflicts are. This was actually the original work that was supported by the Guggenheim Foundation. It was really looking at how these patterns endure. A lot of the murders that we see today, especially those that involve gangs or groups or crews, are actually determined long before any particular member even joins the group. These structures exist in unseen ways and they actually shape who your enemies are and who your allies are. And so I used network science to figure out if we can understand how these structures essentially inform or predict subsequent acts of violence.

We went from there to looking at individuals to see if we could figure out who’s going to get shot as an individual, not just as a bucket of risk factors. Criminologists and sociologists know a lot about the risk factors associated with violence—being poor, being young, being Black or Latino, living in a particular neighborhood. But when you look on the ground on any given day, those risk factors only take you so far because everybody in a particular neighborhood has risk. So how do we figure out which one or two or three people are going to get shot?

Sometimes people are saying that they feel so unsafe that they have to protect themselves, even though they know carrying a gun is going to potentially get them in trouble, or get them killed. I do think people have agency, but I think those are forced choices in some ways. 

So we went back to try to understand the shape of people’s social networks, and their placement within them, and how that affected their probability of getting shot. The methods that we used borrowed from epidemiology, from the study of infectious disease. When you apply these ideas to violent behavior, homicide becomes an interaction. 

We found that gun violence concentrates within social networks. So a small proportion of individuals are at the center of gun violence within any given community—and by small I mean a couple of hundred people in a community of tens of thousands. Exposure matters: when people around you are getting shot, your probability of being shot skyrockets. Violence is contagious in a very real sense—it cascades through networks in very predictable ways. It actually does spread like pathogens. There are others, but those are the key findings that we’re seeing in multiple cities and that we’re trying now to leverage for violence-prevention efforts.

Not long ago, you gave a talk to a class at Princeton University that was entitled Society Didn’t Do It; Networks Did. I don’t mean to put too much weight on a cheeky title that maybe you didn’t even come up with, but it made me wonder how you think about individual agency when it comes to violence. I have always thought that there was an implicit moral argument in saying that violence is like a disease, since we tend not to hold individuals accountable for getting an infectious disease in the same way that we hold people accountable for shooting someone.

I did not come up with that cheeky title, [Princeton sociology professor] Fred Wherry did. However, it’s pretty apt for the type of work that I do. So just to be clear, I think that networks do it, but that society makes networks. 

Let me explain with an analogy. I like to think about networks, especially networks of violence, like an interstate highway system. The system gets built over time, sometimes with good plans, sometimes with bad plans. It’s built with certain purposes in mind: which places are you going to connect, are you going to destroy a given neighborhood to open up access, etc. And once that structure is in place, those massive, six-lane highways, it is really hard to create a whole new system. Once it’s in place, that’s what you use to get around. Sometimes you can make shortcuts or new pathways or whatever, but you can’t really choose not to use the highway. When people are born, they inherit these systems. They don’t always understand the history. They just know they need to get around.

And that’s what happens with a lot of these networks where violence is concerned. They were built through patterns of housing segregation and school catchment zones and police districts and geographic political boundaries. It’s not random. There’s no randomness about why some neighborhoods don’t have grocery stores or why some neighborhoods do have lead pipes and others don’t.

When you think about neighborhoods that have high levels of gun violence and gangs or street crews, those networks help you get around. You need to know what the conflicts are, so you know how to be safe when you walk down the street, especially young people. So people navigate these networks and then they have to make decisions. If you feel unsafe, are you going to carry a gun to protect yourself? Are you going to call the police? Are you going to try to change networks? 

I do think people make choices, but the choices are severely constrained. And sometimes the choices are not choices at all. Sometimes people are saying that they feel so unsafe that they have to protect themselves, even though they know carrying a gun is going to potentially get them in trouble, or get them killed. I do think people have agency, but I think those are forced choices in some ways. 

I’ve heard you say that the average age of a gunshot victim in Chicago is about twenty-seven years old. That seemed high to me.

It surprised me the first time I saw it, but I’ve seen it consistently, which means it’s real. And it’s not just Chicago. In Evanston, the average age of gunshot victims is even older. What’s important about understanding the age distribution is that what a twenty-seven-year-old needs is not what a sixteen-year-old needs, and vice versa. I think people tend to find a young person, a teenager, more sympathetic. A twenty-seven-year-old who might have a felony conviction is more likely to be portrayed as a gang member. When we talk about today’s victims, it’s crucial to understand who they are so that we can give them the resources that they need to thrive. If you want to save the lives of gunshot victims today, you have to think about young men who are in their late twenties, who don’t have access to formal schooling systems, many of whom have their own children. 

What are the implications for policy and practice if we were to recognize this reality—that many of the victims of gun violence are not-so-young men with criminal records?

I worry about pitting short-term and long-term solutions against each other. I think when you’re talking about on-the-ground violence prevention, that network thinking can help stop cascades of violence. I think you can use this information to reach people to intervene, to prevent violence, and to save lives. I think that’s really important. But, going back to my highway analogy, if you don’t fix the structural elements, it still means the next time an outbreak happens, it’s going to be in the same place and affecting the same people. 

If the question is how do we stop gun violence today, the most important thing we need to do is build an infrastructure around the people who are doing neighborhood-level violence prevention.

Especially in the current political moment, we’re often pitting the need to address structural problems against the need to intervene in the here-and-now. The truth is that we have to do both. I don’t think we should ignore these large issues and how these systems were built. But to take those apart, whether it’s to dismantle them or to build new systems, that work is going to take generations. We have to do this work, but at the same time we have to save lives today. 

I share your belief that we’ve been confronted with what feels like a false choice between engaging in interventions to stop the violence now versus longer-term investments that might alter the structures that you describe. I’m wondering whether there are one or two examples of investments, in either of these two categories, that you think we should be making?

New York City is actually an example of a place that I think has done some things right. If the question is how do we stop gun violence today, the most important thing we need to do is build an infrastructure around the people who are doing neighborhood-level violence prevention. This means investing in the human capital and social capital of the people who are doing things like street outreach or violence interruption. How can we bolster them? What sorts of training do they need? We do a decent job of this when it comes to the police and EMT and firefighters. But our ability to support people doing neighborhood violence prevention tends to be limited and often supported mainly through philanthropic grants.

One of the things I’d like to see in almost every city is the development of a dedicated office for violence prevention—with somebody with real power overseeing a real budget—that can coordinate public safety efforts. These offices have to be properly staffed and resourced. You can’t just build these things and set them up to fail. I think New York City has done a very good job on this with their Office of Violence Prevention. Los Angeles has too. 

You can’t just invest in street outreach but then not think about schools or housing. All of those things are intertwined. But you do have to start someplace. I think having a public entity with resources coordinating violence prevention is a massively important first step.

You didn’t mention policing. If the goal is to combat a serious spike in violence right now, is there no role for hot spot policing or focused deterrence to play?

I think the research is pretty solid that policing can have an impact when it focuses on a small number of places and people and behaviors. And there are discrete models, like focused deterrence, that can be impactful when they are focused and not overreaching. 

I think police have a nonzero role in this debate. When we’re talking about gun violence, we know that they can have an impact. The other role for police, and this is crucial, is investigating. Most people can agree that we want police to investigate shootings and homicides and to solve cases. I think the problem is, as we see a surge in gun violence, people’s gut reaction is to think we need more and more police. That’s not what we want to do here. 

I want to turn to another cheeky title of yours that I liked, which was a piece you co-wrote called Why Do Criminals Obey the Law? What did you learn from asking the question in that way?

We asked the question that way in part because there’s this idea that “offenders” are somehow different, right? We were combatting the old trope that criminals believe different things than noncriminals. We already knew that wasn’t true, but what we wanted to look at was what happens if you ask them the same questions we ask the general population around things like trust in the police or belief in the law.

And so we sampled individuals who were arrested and convicted of a serious violent crime involving a firearm and we asked them, “What do you think of the law? What do you think of the police?” And what we found was that most of the individuals in our sample absolutely believed in the substance of the law. They know what’s right, they know what’s wrong. And they’re in compliance with the law the vast majority of the time. Most people that get arrested are not spending their days figuring out ways to break the law. 

Let’s be clear: their opinions of the police and the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly negative, in part because of their treatment by the system, but there’s variation. The people we surveyed could distinguish between the institution of policing versus what they had experienced personally. 

Another paper of yours was More Coffee, Less Crime?, which looked at the effects of gentrification on crime in both Black and White neighborhoods in Chicago. What did you find? 

We wrote that paper in the early 2000s, looking at how gentrification played out across neighborhoods. We used coffee shops as an indicator. The pattern was consistent: those sorts of resources emerge in White neighborhoods and not in Black neighborhoods. There’s a corollary decrease in crime in White neighborhoods that gentrify.

I think one of the things that's always hard with these kinds of programs is that you start with a small experiment to see if it works, but then when it is applied to the entire force, it's not clear that it has the same "oomph" like it once did. Scaling up is always a big problem.

Patterns of development that are often called “gentrification” are vastly different in Black and White neighborhoods. What research has shown since then is that it’s the Black middle class that gentrifies Black neighborhoods, not the sort of White hipster gentrifier stereotype. That’s another signal of the importance of race.

A lot of your work is focused on Chicago. I’m interested to hear how you think about translating ideas from one place to another. How valuable is it to compare Chicago to New York when it comes to things like street violence?

I should say, in addition to Chicago, we’ve done research in Newark, Boston, New York, Oakland, Stockton, New Orleans, Cincinnati, New Haven, and Hartford. We’ve looked at a dozen or so cities. The same three lessons—that gun violence is concentrated, that exposure matters, and that it is contagious —seem to be reproduced everywhere we look. However, network structure varies from city to city. Some cities, for example, have high-rise housing projects and some have lots of vacant, empty land. So the networks will look a little bit different, but people’s behavior within them often looks very similar.

You’ve recently turned your attention to police misconduct. I’m wondering what you’ve learned about police violence by looking at it through the lens of network science?

So it turns out police violence is a group behavior. 

Every cop I’ve ever talked to tells me the same story about their first day on the job. They come from the academy, they’re all excited, and they are paired with some field training officer or veteran who tells them, “Hey, Rookie. I know you learned all this stuff in the academy, but let me show you what real policing is like.” And then they proceed to show them all the unwritten rules of policing, including how to get away with things. At a basic level, you learn from your peers as far as policing is concerned.

Our research has shown that a small number of cops are responsible for a large number of complaints. As with gun violence in the community, exposure matters: if you’re around other cops that are doing bad things, you’re more likely to do bad things. We are learning that whether you are part of the police department or a member of a street gang, deviance is a group phenomenon. 

We’re really trying to unpack what that means because, theoretically, you have more control over policing than you do over an amorphous friendship group in a neighborhood. The police department is a hierarchy where you can administer policy and potentially change behavior. We could today, if we wanted, say, “These are the officers that are at heightened risk of shooting a civilian.” But what would you do with that information? You can’t fire them just because they’re at risk. Having information and figuring out what to do about it are often very different things.

You did a piece of work looking at the impact of procedural justice training on police use of force. What did you find?

I was not the lead author on that one, so I’m just going to speak at the broadest level. But what we found was that the procedural justice training as it was first implemented in Chicago was associated with reductions in levels of complaints and use-of-force complaints against those officers that were part of the program. It was not a massive impact, but it was not zero, either. Which does suggest that these trainings can potentially have a small-to-modest impact on outcomes like use of force.

I think one of the things that’s always hard with these kinds of programs is that you start with a small experiment to see if it works, but then when it is applied to the entire force, it’s not clear that it has the same “oomph” like it once did. Scaling up is always a big problem. 

I recently had a conversation with David Weisburd, who talked about the importance of criminologists “making the scene,” by which he meant getting out of the ivory tower and attempting to have some impact on the world of policy. You certainly have embodied this idea in your work in Chicago. I’m curious about what lessons you’ve learned from that experience.

I could not agree with Weisburd more. I think that an engaged approach to research is crucial. We have to, in my opinion, shake up how we rank or value data. The gold standard is not a randomized control trial [RCT]. You can have an RCT and not make a causal claim. And you can make causal claims without having an RCT.

Let me give you an example of something we’ve learned, which you don’t get from just looking at administrative data. We are currently working with about a dozen or so street outreach organizations in Chicago. Frontline workers are the ones doing the work, trying to mediate conflicts and engage people that are disengaged and disenfranchised. 

 How do I explain statistical power to a city council member? Do they even care? The answer is that they don't care. What they care about is, “Does it work and can you prove it?” Do I need to be fighting with city council members about propensity score matching versus synthetic control groups? No, that's stupid. Don't do that. Let's have the nerd fight at the academic conferences, let's do it in journal spaces.

What we’re working on is the idea that it’s not so much people that are risky, but situations that are risky. So risk is dynamic. Risk can change on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour basis. If all you’re doing is looking at static data to assess risk, you’re going to miss something. 

So we’re working with the frontline workers to learn from them about what kind of information they think is important. It’s not something you could get by saying, “Well, can I add one more variable to the social learning theory in my statistical model?” I mean, I suppose that’s interesting, but it’s way less interesting than really trying to understand how to keep people alive.

I’ve found that every single time I’ve engaged with practitioners in this way that there’s always a gazillion interesting theoretical things and theory-relevant things that can come out of it. But the more interesting questions are coming from the outreach workers in this case. And the only way you get at it is by engaging with them.

So we’ve codesigned interviews and we’ve built an entire survey instrument with our outreach partners. We sit down and analyze data side by side. They are able to provide insight into what our findings mean. And when they get interested in something, we go deeper. 

I think it’s important to recognize the power dynamic though. I mean, I’m a researcher at an elite institution and I’m working with nonprofit organizations that are struggling to keep the lights on. And so it’s important to also understand the footprint of the criminologist in the field, especially as you’re trying to answer questions that may impact funding.

Have you paid any professional price for your engagement in the “real world”?

I’m fortunate enough where I’m at a stage in my career that it doesn’t impact me in the same way [it would] if I were a more junior scholar. I’m able to take risks.

I do get dragged into a lot of academic debates around the value of “observational data” and whether it is somehow lesser. I think there is an idea in our field that somehow observational data are bad. I think that’s harmful to science actually. It’s also harmful for the communities that are affected by gun violence. 

Gun violence is not random, so why do we pretend like it is? Once you start to see these networks, you can’t unsee them. I can pretend like they don’t exist in a regression analysis, but I know they’re there. The people who are involved with gun violence, they know each other. They went to school together, they’ve got family relationships. So why are we pretending like they’re not? Can’t we amplify and boost that understanding? We think somehow our findings are lesser because there’s not a statistically significant star at the end of the equation. This bias towards certain types of causal logic stifles innovation. 

And as far as public policy is concerned, the bar is set in such a way that most of the programs we evaluate will always fail. In Chicago, some of the programs we’re evaluating now are reaching a population that’s hard to serve, so they’re working with a few hundred people. Well, you are never going to get a statistically significant finding with those kinds of numbers. It’s not going to work because you don’t have fifteen hundred people in your sample. But how are you going to find a program that can service fifteen hundred people with the types of budgets they have? You’re not going to. I think those tensions really are stifling creativity and knowledge in this space. I think if more researchers got out there we could probably advance the field.

Two of the things that I’ve heard from talking to other researchers about their engagement with the world outside of academia are a fear that their work might be misused and a concern that, when dealing with the media or with politicians, that they will have to sacrifice the nuance of their work.  Have you had to confront either of those things?

When it comes to the idea of your research being misused, I’m somebody who that’s happened to on multiple occasions. If you believe in open science, if you believe in sharing your ideas and your data, you’re always going to be open to being misused. The path I’ve taken is to push back when this happens. I’ve written op-eds about the Chicago Police Department taking ideas of mine and incorporating them into projects in ways that I thought were horrific. I have also critiqued the Cure Violence model for doing the same thing. I’m not going to just shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh, there’s nothing you can do about it.” But at the same time, I think it’s really vital that science get out there. 

I think one has to be clear on what you think should be done, which is what I’ve tried to do. I think we should use network science stuff for on-the-ground violence prevention efforts, not for arrest-driven police behavior. That’s an important distinction I’m consistent on. 

The nuance question is really tough. I do not think we should abandon nuance. I think we need to train criminologists how to write better. I do believe it’s crucial to produce a document that has all the nuance in it. But when you get in front of City Hall, when you get called to testify before such-and-such committee, when you’re talking with a local nonprofit that wants to understand how this research will help them, you have to be able to say it in a couple of bullet points, and those bullet points have to be translatable to action. 

I’ll give an example. When we’re talking about street outreach efforts in Chicago, there are some very clear findings: One, you can find the right people [who are engaged in violence]. Two, you can connect those people with services. And three, those individuals basically do better in terms of outcomes like reduced victimization and violent arrests. Everything I just said is true. Here’s the nuance: it is not always statistically significant. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s not. How do I explain statistical power to a city council member? Do they even care? The answer is that they don’t care. What they care about is, “Does it work and can you prove it?” Do I need to be fighting with city council members about propensity score matching versus synthetic control groups? No, that’s stupid. Don’t do that. Let’s have the nerd fight at the academic conferences, let’s do it in journal spaces. 

Some academics don’t seem willing to even entertain the idea that police could ever reduce crime. To me, it feels like they are starting from an ideological place and not looking at the evidence. Do you think that this is happening or am I misrepresenting what’s going on in your field?

The first thing I tell graduate students is, “You can’t ask questions you don’t want answers to.” The questions you ask are going to put you on one side of something or other, and you better be prepared for the answers. Most often than not, to go back to your nuance question, the answers are super complicated. 

We are just wrapping up a project on neighborhood policing in Chicago, where we interviewed police officers, community residents, and community residents that were less engaged, ones who didn’t show up to the meetings or weren’t part of any particular organization. So we interviewed these groups of individuals every three to six months for two years before George Floyd was murdered and we’re still interviewing them now. Even before 2020, what we were seeing was the variation and complexity of people’s opinions about public safety and policing. And it gets even more complicated in 2020. What we found is that both police and residents can differentiate between individual people and institutions. So I can like officer Greg, and still say the Chicago Police Department is a racist institution. I can say that I want to change the CPD, but don’t take officer Greg away because he’s the only one who gets me. In people’s minds, that’s not a conflict. They can hold those two thoughts in their mind at the same time. So, the on-the-ground view is really complex. 

I think there’s variation among academics. I think some academics are picking and choosing the questions they are asking based on where we are in terms of the current political moment. I don’t think that’s entirely bad. I do think that this is a long game, right? Crime and violence, policing and public safety, these are not new problems. So I think it’s good to take up new perspectives and ask new questions from an academic perspective, but you have to be willing to understand the answers, even if it doesn’t go the way you hoped it would go.

As an example, I would love to get up and say that street outreach is the most impactful thing we can do to reduce gun violence today, but I can’t say that. I can say it’s super promising. I can say that sometimes we see evidence that it works, but I can’t say that this is the solution to gun violence. I can’t say that, even though I personally really want to. But as a scientist, I can’t say that. As a scientist, I have to say, “Here’s what we know and here’s what we don’t know.”


Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


Previous At the Crossroads interviews:

“The Long History of Anti-Asian Violence in the US”: Dr. Beth Lew-Williams

Dr. Beth Lew-Williams

Beth Lew-Williams is a historian of race and migration in the United States, specializing in Asian American history. Her book, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), maps the tangled relationships between local racial violence, federal immigration policy, and US imperial ambitions in Asia.

As we confront a new surge of anti-Asian hate crimes amid the pandemic, how should history help to inform our response? Beth Lew-Williams will discuss her research on anti-Chinese violence in the US West, consider the broader history of anti-Asian violence, and reflect on the implications for present-day efforts at reconciliation.

In 2015, Dr. Lew-Williams received an HFG Research Grant (now the HFG Distinguished Scholar Award) for her project “The Chinese Must Go: The Violent Birth of American Border Control.”

About The Chinese Must Go from Harvard University Press: 

“The American West erupted in anti-Chinese violence in 1885. Following the massacre of Chinese miners in Wyoming Territory, communities throughout California and the Pacific Northwest harassed, assaulted, and expelled thousands of Chinese immigrants. Beth Lew-Williams shows how American immigration policies incited this violence and how the violence, in turn, provoked new exclusionary policies. Ultimately, Lew-Williams argues, Chinese expulsion and exclusion produced the concept of the ‘alien’ in modern America.

The Chinese Must Go begins in the 1850s, before federal border control established strict divisions between citizens and aliens. Across decades of felling trees and laying tracks in the American West, Chinese workers faced escalating racial conflict and unrest. In response, Congress passed the Chinese Restriction Act of 1882 and made its first attempt to bar immigrants based on race and class. When this unprecedented experiment in federal border control failed to slow Chinese migration, vigilantes attempted to take the matter into their own hands. Fearing the spread of mob violence, U.S. policymakers redoubled their efforts to keep the Chinese out, overhauling U.S. immigration law and transforming diplomatic relations with China.

By locating the origins of the modern American alien in this violent era, Lew-Williams recasts the significance of Chinese exclusion in U.S. history. As The Chinese Must Go makes clear, anti-Chinese law and violence continues to have consequences for today’s immigrants. The present resurgence of xenophobia builds mightily upon past fears of the ‘heathen Chinaman.’”


“Violence and the Law at War”: Dr. Craig Jones

Dr. Craig Jones

Dr. Craig Jones is the author of The War Lawyers and a lecturer in political geography in the School of Geography, Sociology, and Politics at Newcastle University. 

“Violence and the Law at War” examines the legality of violence and the weaponization of international law. With a focus on the U.S. and Israel and wars in Iraq and Palestine as well as the recent withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, Dr. Jones seeks to answer: “What is the relationship between violence and law?”

In 2016, Dr. Jones received an HFG Dissertation Fellowship (now the HFG Emerging Scholar Award) for his project “The War Lawyers: US, Israel, and the Spaces of Targeting.”

About The War Lawyers from Oxford University Press: 

Over the last 20 years the world’s most advanced militaries have invited a small number of military legal professionals into the heart of their targeting operations, spaces which had previously been exclusively for generals and other commanders. These professionals, trained and hired to give legal advice on an array of military operations, have become known as war lawyers.

The War Lawyers examines the laws of war interpreted and applied by military lawyers to aerial targeting operations carried out by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Israeli military in Gaza. Drawing on interviews with military lawyers and others, this book explains why some lawyers became integrated in the chain of command whereby military targets are identified and attacked, whether by manned aircraft, drones or ground forces, and with what results.

This book shows just how important law and war lawyers have become in the conduct of contemporary warfare and how it is understood. Jones argues that circulations of law and policy between the U.S. and Israel have expanded the scope of what constitutes a legitimate military target, contending that the involvement of war lawyers in targeting operations not only constrains military violence, but also enables, legitimises, and sometimes even extends it.

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