Racial Democracy, Crime and Justice Network - July 2015

Racial Democracy, Crime and Justice Network Workshop

By Moriah Lieberman

Scholars from across the country gathered at the 13th annual Racial Democracy, Crime and Justice Network (RDCJN) Workshop hosted by CJRC and The Ohio State University. The two days were filled with presentations and thematic panels on topics ranging from policing and racism to genocide.  There were several sessions focused on the RDCJN itself since the network is leaving Ohio State and moving to Rutgers University.

One session, “The RDCJN and Comparative Research on Race/Ethnicity, Crime and Justice,” featured researchers who study international problems through a criminological lens.  Dr. Wenona Rymond-Richmond, a researcher from University of Massachusetts-Amherst, found that race was central to the genocide in Darfur.  She discovered that fatal violence and sexual victimization were higher in areas where racial epithets were used.  Another session, “Whiter Ferguson: on-the-Ground Research and Social Justice Issues,” was very timely. During this session, a group of RDCJN members spoke about how they went to Ferguson to interview the protesters after the killing of Michael Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson.  One of the speakers, Dr. Kishonna Leah Gray, discussed the growing importance of social media in protests.  She made a powerful call for researchers to be activists and participate in the fight for equality.

One session dedicated to the RDCJN examined the history of the network.  The RDCJN began as a small working group of 20 people and grew into a thriving network of people dedicated to research on race, crime, and justice within a democratic country.  The RDCJN also created the Summer Research Institute (SRI), a three-week workshop for junior faculty from underrepresented groups.  These young scholars are often structurally isolated from resources, collaboration and networks. The SRI was created to combat this isolation and to provide support, mentorship, and guidance to help the scholars succeed in academia. 

The first session of the RDCJN conference featured the eight Summer Research Institute participants (SRI) from 2015.  I had the chance to speak with two of the participants and learn about their experience.  Dr. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an Assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Indiana University, described the SRI as an “academic boot camp.”  The experience was both challenging and rewarding because his mentor encouraged him to expand his vision for his research.  The gratitude and excitement for the institute expressed by another participant, Dr. Stacia Gilliard Matthews, an assistant professor of Sociology Anthropology and Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Camden, was infectious.  She noted the valuable connections she made with the other SRI participants as well as the helpfulness of the workshops on topics about the ins and outs of academia, getting tenure, and maintaining a work-life balance.

The SRI participants’ research focused on the “Perceptions and Reactions to Crime and Justice” and the “Prison Context, Recidivism and Reentry.”  In addition to sharing their thoughts on the SRI, Dr. Owusu-Bempah and Dr. Gilliard-Matthews both elaborated on their research projects.  Dr. Owusu-Bempah’s research project focused on black police officers’ perspectives on the fairness of policing within black communities.  Past studies have found that black people are more likely to have negative feelings about the police and to believe they are unjust and biased.  He interviewed 51 black police officers in Toronto, Canada about police legitimacy, procedural justice and their unique experience of being both police officers and black civilians.  He found that the majority of participants believed that police do treat black people worse than white people.  Furthermore, the majority of participants believed that blacks’ perceptions of police are valid.  The participants attributed the differential treatment of black and white people to criminal stereotypes, racial discrimination and reciprocal treatment, which is when both a police officer and a person expect hostility from the other and thus act hostile toward the other.  In order to improve the relationships between police officers and black citizens, Dr. Owusu-Bempah believes that there should be democratic policing instead of maintenance policing and there needs to be efforts for reconciliation.  Police officers need to acknowledge the historical and devastating impact that racist policing has had on black communities.  Additionally, unlawful acts by the police need to be met with meaningful penalties against the police officers, their supervisors, and their administration.  On the other side, communities need to recognize that there is real violence within the communities, which cause the police to be on edge. In order to improve the situation, community members need to act less hostile toward police officers.

Dr. Gilliard-Matthews is interested in why some youth avoid risky behaviors while others do not and which factors can be capitalized on to eliminate risky behaviors.  Dr. Gilliard-Matthews’s research utilizes resiliency theory. This theory examines protective factors in an individual’s life that can assist him or her in overcoming adverse situations.  The participants in her study were African American and Latino youth from Camden, New Jersey – an area with high poverty rates, high unemployment, and where a third of the population is under eighteen.  Utilizing both interviews and surveys, Dr. Gilliard-Matthew examined the relationships between individual, peer and parental attributes, and non- marijuana use.  It is important to note that the participants often talked about marijuana and drugs interchangeably. Her most remarkable finding was the importance of peer communication.   She found that nonusers communicated about drugs to their friends differently than users. Nonusers often described how their friends thought they were a good person and how their friends saw them as a role model. Another difference between users and nonusers was either hearing negative stories about drug users from friends or witnessing something bad happen to a drug user themselves.  Dr. Gilliard-Matthews wants to further study the impact of peer communication on risky behaviors.  Her hope is to create an intervention program, which will capitalize on her findings.

The RDCJN wrapped up with celebration of the accomplishments of the network and its members.  Scholar after scholar expressed gratitude toward the RDCJN and the positive impact it had on their lives.  In addition, they praised the founders and leaders, Dr. Ruth Peterson and Dr. Laurie Krivo for their dedication, warmth and hard work to bring this endeavor to fruition.  The workshop ended with a discussion about the future direction and responsibilities of the RDCJN and the SRI as it moves to Rutgers University under new leadership.

Up Close: An Interview with Dr. Akwansi Owusu-Bempah

by Moriah Lieberman

Are police biased?  Do police treat all people equally?  Dr. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an Assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Indiana University set out to answer these questions.  Dr. Owusu-Bempah wanted to be a police officer when he was a child.  Although this dream faded, his interest in policing and race remained.  In college, an article series focused on racial profiling captured his attention and helped set him on his current research path.  For his SRI project, Dr. Owusu-Bempah’s examined, “black police officers’ perspectives on police legitimacy, procedural justice and policing black communities.”

Dr. Owusu-Bempah conducted in-depth interviews with 51 black male police officers in Toronto, Canada.   Black policemen can provide a critical insight into the relationship between policemen and black communities since they have the experience of being both law enforcers as well as a black civilians. He recruited the officers for his study through snowball and opportunity sampling techniques.  The officers came from five different police services, held different positions and ranged in years of experience.

Dr. Owusu-Bempah first examined the policemen’s view on procedural justice by assessing whether the participants thought policemen were fair when dealing with black people.  He asked the participants whether police officers treat black people the same as white people.  Out of the 51 police officers, only 22% of the respondents agreed with this statement, while 60% of the respondents disagreed, and 18% of the respondents said “sometimes.”  He then asked the respondents who disagreed or answered “sometimes,” how the treatment differs between black and white people.  Out of the 42 respondents, 64% said police officers treat black people worse than white people, 15% said the officers treat black people much worse and 21% said that it depends.  However when Dr. Owusu-Bempah asked whether black people were more likely to be unfairly or wrongly shot by the police than white people the responses were not as one sided.  The participants were split with 41% agreeing, 39% disagreeing and 20% answered that it “depends.”   Dr. Owusu-Bempah was also interested in the participants’ perspective on police legitimacy.  Past studies have found that people have more negative views of policemen and are more likely to have a negative interaction with a police officer.  Dr. Owusu-Bempah asked his participants whether these negative views are justified and 90% of the respondents answered affirmatively.

Through these interview questions, Dr. Owusu- Bempah concluded that the participants believe that police officers are biased against black people and do not always treat black people in a procedurally just manner.   To determine why the officers held these views, Dr. Owusu- Bempah asked a variety of questions.  The officers assigned the reason for differential treatment to the criminal stereotype of black men, the physical threat black men seem to pose, the presence of racial discrimination and reciprocal treatment which is when both parties act hostile to one another.  Dr. Owusu-Bempah elaborated that reciprocal treatment occurs when black people see policemen, they think they are being targeted for being a minority and expect hostility from the policemen and the policemen expects the black person to be hostile toward them.  These expectations often lead to negative interactions between the police and black citizens. 

In order to improve the relationships between police officers and black citizens, Dr. Owusu-Bempah believes there should be more democratic policing instead of maintenance policing and there needs to be efforts for reconciliation. Policemen need to acknowledge the historical and devastating impact that racist policing has had on black communities.  Additionally, unlawful acts by a policeman need to be met with meaningful penalties against the policemen, his supervisors, and his administration.  On the other side, communities need to recognize that there is real violence within the communities, which causes the policemen to be on edge. In order to improve the situation, community members need to act less hostile toward policemen.   Through his research, Dr. Owusu-Bempah has added a critical perspective on the discussion on police.  He hopes to conduct comparative research between policing in the United States and in Canada in the future. 

Up Close: An Interview with Dr. Stacia Gilliard-Matthews

by Moriah Lieberman

Dr. Stacia Gilliard-Matthews, an assistant professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Camden studied resiliency among non-marijuana using adolescents.  Her SRI research project was part of a larger study she and a colleague worked on, which set out to identify structural determinants of African American and Latino/a adolescent health.  Their project looked at the relationship between adolescent risk and resilience and sexual behavior, alcohol and drug use.

They conducted their study in Camden, New Jersey – an area with high poverty rates, high unemployment rates, and high levels of violence.  Utilizing a mixed method, they interviewed 60 adolescents who lived in Camden. Based on common themes found in the interviews, they created a survey, which was given to 249 participants. 

Dr. Gilliard-Matthews’ SRI research project examined the relationship between African American and Latino adolescents’ individual, peer, and parent attributes for adolescents who did not use marijuana.  She focused on non-marijuana use, instead of marijuana use, because she wanted to study the situation from an asset-based perspective, which looks at the strengths of the studied object instead of the deficits.  Through this perspective, Dr. Gilliard-Matthews utilized resiliency theory, which looks at protective factors in an individual’s life that can assist him or her in overcoming adverse situations. Specifically, Dr. Gilliard-Matthew’s wanted to understand how adolescents in Camden avoided risk-taking behavior including marijuana use.

Out of the 60 interview participants, 37 did not use marijuana.  The most frequent reason given, which thirty-two participants expressed, was perception of self. Eight participants also noted parental monitoring as a factor.  Dr. Gilliard-Matthews’ most interesting finding, was the central role peer communication played in non-marijuana use.  Past studies often focus on the importance of peer attributes, such as peer network, peer delinquency and peer substance use.  However, Dr. Gilliard-Matthews found an important relationship between non-marijuana use and how adolescents communicated to peers about their identity. For instance, nonusers often described how their friends saw them as a good person and that they were a role model to their friends.  Similarly, Dr. Gilliard-Matthews found a relationship between non-marijuana use and how adolescents communicated to peers about drug users.  The participants would often describe a negative experience they had with a drug user or an experience that one of their friends had with a drug user as a reason for their own non-use. 

To further examine the importance of peer communication, Dr. Gilliard-Matthews included two questions in her survey on this topic.  She asked if adolescents would lose their friends’ respect if they used marijuana and if they had heard anti-marijuana stories from their peers.  Out of the 249 survey participants, 109 did not use marijuana.  There was a positive relationship between non-marijuana use and fear of losing friends respect and hearing anti-marijuana stories from peers.  Additionally two factors linked with higher rates of non-marijuana use was being female and higher perception of neighborhood quality.

Dr. Gilliard-Matthews’ findings are important because they go beyond the effects of peer attributes and found an important connection between peer communication and non-marijuana use.  In the future, Dr. Gilliard-Matthews plans to further study the impact of peer communication on risky behaviors and hopes to to create an intervention, which will capitalize on her findings about peer communication.

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