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Perspectives: Police-Citizen Relationships

This year, incidents and accusations of the overuse of force by police have been a major topic in our culture and media, from Freddie Gray in Baltimore, to Sandra Bland in Texas. We asked four Drexel professors to tell us, in 200 words or less, how their field can help address or shed light on the current state of police-citizen relationships.

DAVID DeMATTEO, JD, PhD, ABPP (Forensic)
Associate Professor of Psychology & Law

Dave DeMatteoThe vast majority of police officers perform their jobs with professionalism and integrity. However, given the nature of police work, it is inevitable that police and citizens will occasionally clash, which can lead to troubling outcomes. Fortunately, the field of psychology is making significant contributions to improving police-citizen relationships. Psychologists have documented that police encounters with certain populations of people — notably individuals with mental illness — are more likely to lead to negative outcomes. As such, psychologists have helped develop and evaluate a range of options to improve police interactions with people who are mentally ill. One option that is gaining traction in many jurisdictions is crisis intervention training (CIT), which involves training police officers on the nature of mental illness, the availability of community behavioral health services, and crisis intervention techniques. CIT training seeks to decrease response times to crisis situations, provide better care to individuals experiencing psychiatric crises, and enhance police safety CIT training is empirically supported, and research suggests that it improves the ability of police to handle calls involving individuals with mental illness, reduces the use of physical force, and diverts individuals with mental illness from traditional criminal justice processing into specialized treatment programs.

MARY EBELING, PhD
Director of Women’s & Gender Studies

Mary EbelingW.E.B. DuBois, one of the founders of American sociology, predicted at the beginning of the 20th century that slavery’s legacy of racialized expropriation and structural inequalities, reinforced by state-sanctioned violence, would define the United States’ subsequent 100 years. We are 15 years into the next century and it seems little has changed in regards to structural violence, especially the deadly force used by law enforcement, often against people of color.

Sociologists tend to be concerned with the structure of power in societies, and the current state of police-citizen relations directly results from the criminalization of behaviors that were once not illegal, as well as from the overly punitive policing of poor communities, mandatory sentencing, and mass incarceration since the “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s. Sociologists use tools to expose and delineate, as well as change, these structures. Participatory action research is a method that collects, documents and determines a plan of action for change in direct collaboration with communities most impacted by police brutality. It recognizes that communities traumatized by police violence are the experts of their own experiences, as well as powerful agents to advocate for change. A movement like Black Lives Matter crystallizes the strength of strategic, systematic social research and activism to change the structures of power.

ROBERT J. KANE, PhD
Department Head of Criminology & Justice Studies

Rob KaneThey say sunlight is the best disinfectant. In that spirit, criminology and criminal justice scholars employ myriad methodologies to shed light on the root causes of police-citizen conflict. Some work is qualitative, with researchers immersing themselves in communities to observe daily police-public interactions; other work is highly quantitative, requiring researchers to collect and analyze organizational, neighborhood-level, and transactional police data to test hypotheses about the nature and dynamics of the police-citizen relationship. Each finding represents a piece of the overall puzzle, adding clarity to an otherwise muddled phenomenon.

My discipline has shown that people — particularly those residing in the most socially and economically vulnerable communities — want to be treated fairly and with respect by authority figures. When the police are seen as being part of an institution that generally helps to level the playing field, there is no conflict. If, however, the behaviors of police officers appear to increase the inequalities that exist between groups (e.g., through overly aggressive arrest practices, excessive use of force, etc.), conflict will characterize the relationship between the police and its marginalized public.

Criminology and criminal justice have produced the sunlight. Will policymakers and the public at large provide the disinfectant?

ALDEN YOUNG, PhD
Director of Africana Studies

Alden YoungAs a historian of Africa and the Middle East, and the director of Africana Studies at Drexel, I have a very particular take on this question, a question which I am sure from the multidisciplinary nature of Africana has a number of answers. However, I would argue that the fundamental goal of Africana Studies is to study regimes of inequality throughout time and space. The starting point of Africana at Drexel is the peculiarity of the African American experience. As opposed to many disciplines that tend to code American society as universal, Africana Studies focuses on the United States as a historical anomaly, and it uses the particularity of the experience of African Americans and other minority communities here to understand systems of stratification and inequality elsewhere.

It is only by placing contemporary police-citizen relationships in the United States into their global and historical context that we can begin to see why African American communities in particular, and other minority communities in general, have such strained relationships with law enforcement. At the heart of understanding our society’s troubled relationship with policing is the question of how and why we have divided our society into different groups in order to achieve social stratification.

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