Currently I have four active lines of research, ranging from historical work to international fieldwork to partnerships with government agencies and community organizations. In this work, I am illuminating how police attempt to achieve and maintain legitimacy in a range of settings, from international conflict zones to American cities, as well as how communities respond and react to these attempts. To do so, I conduct research with police at all levels in a variety of locations and with community members and social movements. See the below timeline for a synopsis of where everything is at.
The first line of my current research agenda centers on examining both narrow questions of criminal justice reconstruction and police training, but also wider questions of state formation and imperialism. This work draws from on my on-going work in the in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq. My most recent field work trip there forms the basis of an ambitious project in collaboration with Gabrielle Ferrales of the University of Minnesota and Wenjie Liao of the Rochester Institute of Technology. The data collected consists of ethnographic observations of police and judges throughout the nation conducting their duties, interviews with police and judges (N=40, average length=43 minutes), and most centrally, the distribution and collection of an experimental factorial survey from a stratified random sample of judges and police currently serving in the region (N=110, 5,500 cases).
Survey respondents were asked to assess criminal sentences in hypothetical case vignettes of prison guards accused of torturing imprisoned suspects by assigning “just” sentences. The research design operationalizes the indeterminate effect of torture law and the presence of IS by experimentally manipulating a wide range of case characteristics in the vignettes. The random assignment also allows variables to be examined independently of one another. We are thus able to assess the independent effects of characteristics of the defendant (e.g. Kurdish prison guard) and the victim (e.g. IS suspect) upon the punishment of torture (e.g. sentence length).
This multi-method project not only builds upon my prior research, but broadens my research agenda into new areas, both theoretical and methodological. Such data is incredibly unique as I am, to my knowledge, the only researcher working directly with judicial actors and state security forces in the KRG. As such, the resulting publications from this study have the potential to make path-breaking contributions to scholarship on punishment, human rights, sentencing disparities, and legal decision-making as they relate to larger patterns of social stratification.
We have recently completed and submitted the first manuscript from this set of data and are now returning to data analysis to answer a number of other questions, such as how the complicated role of gender in this context impacts legal decision-making. The significant amount of data presents the potential for several further publications, and the large number of cases in factorial surveys provides the level of statistical power necessary for publication in flagship journals such as Criminology or The American Journal of Sociology. Finally, the significant amount of data collected and remaining to be analyzed provides opportunities for the ongoing involvement of multiple graduate students.
The second line centers on developing an understanding of why the same ineffective police reforms continue to be suggested as the solution to America’s policing crisis. While still in the data collection and analysis stage, early results reveal a significant trend of continuity in suggested police reforms across time and space – even reforms which have been empirically demonstrated to be ineffective remain quite popular – suggesting a kind of enduring mythos regarding how police remain situated as a primary solution to social problems. This further aids our understanding of why continuous police reforms have not produced meaningfully different outcomes.
In this project I am examining nearly a century’s worth of post-civil disturbance reports produced by government-appointed committees in the wake of major uprisings. The data set currently spans from the “The Negro in Harlem,” the 1935 report written to examine the social and economic conditions responsible for the outbreak of unrest often considered the first modern race riot, through the many reports written on the civil rights and student movements of the 1960s and 1970s, up through the after-incident reports generated in many cities following the 2020 uprisings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. The goal is to collect as nearly as possible every publicly-available report released in the wake of any civil disturbance large enough to have resulted in a review commission being appointed.
My primary focus in this project is looking at how these government committees, through their published reviews, seek to understand and frame the role of police and policing in social rebellions. I am principally examining this through two lenses; the first is how the committees view the role of the police in contributing to or directly causing the riot or uprising, both in the immediate sense of police actions that may have inflamed tensions as well as in the longer view of police community relations reaching a boiling point. The second focus is on the recommendations the committee makes for policing reforms they believe can improve relations and make further uprisings less likely.
The third line of research I am currently conducting examines how police culture is maintained or changed via training. While my work in the KRG has examined how police training is created in the first place, this line of research looks at how innovative new trainings methods impact established police forces. This projects draws upon my work with the training department of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (PBP), in collaboration with Norm Conti of Duquesne University. Supported by a grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services ($150,000) we are conducting a Police Training Inside-Out (PTI-O) program. The PTI-O program is modeled on the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, an innovative educational program that seeks to build dialogue across profound social differences with college courses held inside of prisons with students from higher education settings learning alongside incarcerated students. In PTI-O, a portion of the training for the Bureau has police recruits taking a course inside state correctional institutions alongside incarcerated citizens, with the goal of making new police recruits more understanding and empathetic toward the peoples and communities they will soon be tasked with policing through discussing the problems police respond to, the problems that they create, the problems police suffer from, and how their professional vision contributes to each of these problems.
The first manuscript to come out of this collaboration is titled “Criminal Justice Policy Inside-Out: An Initial Case Study in Education Among Police and Incarcerated Men” published at The Police Journal: Theory, Practice and Principles. In this piece we discuss the development, implementation, and participant appraisals of our first Inside-Out course, finding that recruits in the PTI-O program report significantly more empathy towards members of communities facing high crime rates than officers who did not attend the PTI-O program. Intensive conversations and person interactions between police recruits and incarcerated citizens proved to break down a number of stigmas held by new officers, which in turn has the potential to dramatically impact police culture and the militaristic “us vs. them” attitude toward the public and lessen the highly-racialized authority maintenance that currently dominates American policing. As we scale up the study from a pilot to an established program in which all new PBP recruits must participate in, we are examining if and how this program leads to meaningful changes in the behaviors and practices of the PBP, and we have recently secured a book contract to publish an edited volume on the development and implementation of PTI-O.
In addition to the more strictly scholarly work described above, the fourth line of my current research agenda centers on participant action research of an attempt to build a viable non-police emergency response system in the city of Pittsburgh, PA. Since 2015 I have served on the Leadership Team of the Alliance for Police Accountability (APA), a Black-led, Pittsburgh-based organization focused on criminal legal system reform. APA works to support change at all levels, ranging from directly supporting and advocating for those who have experienced police violence (we have helped victims collectively receive over $13 million in settlements since I joined the organization) to changing laws and policies on the local level (we have spearheaded campaigns which resulted in the decriminalization of cannabis possession, the end of using police dogs in making arrests, the end of no-knock warrants, and the end of solitary confinement in the Allegheny County Jail) to changing law and policy at the state level (we are currently leading a statewide campaign against prison gerrymandering and ending cash bail). In my responsibilities on the Leadership Team, I am tasked with leading the research and data analysis efforts for the organization, as well as liaising with elected officials and public administrators in policy development.
In 2021, I was the lead author of APA’s first major report Reimagining Public Safety in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County: A Community Vision for Lasting Health and Safety (bit.ly/CRPSreport). This vision is the outcome of the Committee to Reimagine Public Safety (CRPS), convened by APA and 1Hood Media, a fellow Black-led activist organization in Pittsburgh. The purpose of the roundtable was to bring together activists, front-line service providers, and those who have either experienced police abuse themselves or lost a loved one to police violence to create a community-led vision of how we could achieve better public health and safety outcomes through reducing the role of police in the community and instead directing resources to those individuals and groups doing the work that leads to more lasting and equitable health and safety. I detail the process of the CRPS and argue for it as a prime example of “theory from below,” part of a growing body of abolitionist theorizing being conducted outside of the academy, in a paper currently under a Revise and Resubmit at Social Justice.
This work that culminated in the report mentioned above but is far from over. Having produced and distributed the community vision, the CRPS is currently undertaking the much more difficult task of turning the vision into reality. To this end, we have begun a series of learning tours in municipalities which have developed alternative response models to learn best practices and to inform our own plans for depolicing the city and county. Thus far we have spent time in Newark (NJ) to meet with the Mayor’s Office for Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery, as well as Denver (CO) to spend time with the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response (DASHR), with future plans to meet with alternative responders in Oakland, Portland, and New Orleans. Through these visits we have meet with alternative responders, government officials, front-line activists and advocates, and community members to learn what has and has not worked in their efforts to implement and conduct non-police response to community violence and trauma. We are also currently in the midst of regular, on-going roundtable discussions with city and county officials in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County regarding what we have learned and how we can implement it in our area.
If you’ve read this far, you’re either considering giving me a major grant or are one of my parents. So to you I say: whichever project I have submitted for your consideration will produce important insights based on novel methodologies which will greatly enhance the literature on several important questions, or Hi Mom! Hi Dad!
Here’s what I’m working on these days