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January 22, 2024 Guest Column

Lawyers (in Training) in a Criminologist Court

Jessalyn Brogan Walker, Tacota LeMuel, Holly Ludvigsen, Kimberly Trotter, and Rebecca Zerbo

As conversations regarding policing reform and public safety have evolved, two things have become abundantly clear: The time for action is now and this work can’t be done alone. With the wealth of research being undertaken on law enforcement and community safety across academic disciplines, the need for information sharing across fields is more important than ever to ensure that lessons learned are not confined to the silos in which they are generated. Even more so, research findings from the academic space must also be translated and truncated to be more approachable and readied for implementation by their key audience, law enforcement themselves. Police departments must partner with criminologists who must work with legal scholars who must engage with economists who must inform policymakers who must then speak with community members directly impacted. It is only through this type of collaborative, whole-of-community approach that any reforms proposed and implemented will support the needs and desires of the citizenry, while being based on evidence to ensure safe, cost-effective, and sustainable implementation.

Since its inception, the ABA Legal Education Police Practices Consortium has benefited from this type of interdisciplinary methodology and explored research and collaborative relationships in communities represented by member law schools. About the Consortium, ABA Legal Educ. Police Prac. Consortium. Through work at the local level and oversight provided through the ABA, the Consortium hopes to ensure these lessons reach a national audience and aid in driving further state and national policy. The main channel through which this work has been explored has been through a twice-annual student fellowship program. Jessalyn Walker, ABA Legal Education Police Practices Consortium: Law Schools Collaborating to Support Policing and Public Safety Reforms, The Pub. Law. (July 28, 2023). Students from Consortium-member schools meet weekly via Zoom to hear from a variety of academic scholars and practitioners to further inform their understanding of key issues and promising research related to policing and public safety. In addition to engaging with the speakership series, students conduct research or outreach initiatives in their communities on issues of relevance to their localities.

This year fellows also participated in the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing (ASEBP) Conference. Am. Soc’y of Evidence-Based Policing (2023). ASEBP supports evidence-based policing and advocates for research findings to inform the decisions of policing in support of effective change. Through their involvement in this conference, student fellows applied key concepts learned over the semester as well as had an opportunity to network with one another and leading experts in the field. This year the event was hosted by the University of Nevada Las Vegas, May 15–17. The participation of nine students was sponsored either by the Consortium or their home institution. (All student fellows were invited to participate; however, many had scheduling conflicts that prevented them from doing so.)

Students took part in the entirety of the three-day conference, hearing from a variety of criminological and policing scholars as well as officers involved in research and practice from across the country. Student participants were then asked to reflect on the conference, including their general impressions, most impactful speaker(s) or panels, and applications for their anticipated legal practice. Their findings fall broadly into the below categories: (1) need for a more robust evidence base;(2) additional opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration; and (3) value of community engagement in determining priorities for public safety.

Need for a More Robust Evidence Base

A reoccurring theme from the conference was the need for continued research and application of existing research findings in new communities, particularly those with diverse populations. Fellows were keen to see some of the new technologies and innovative practices presented applied in their cities of residence. Throughout their time in the Consortium fellowship, students gained additional perspective about the necessary localized nature of policing reform initiatives. Proposed changes to existing policies or procedures need to be reflective of and responsive to the communities they are intended to serve. For this reason, prior to implementation, a wealth of research must be conducted to ensure a complete understanding of both the problems as well as how the proposed solution intends to address it. As well, when duplicating studies, it is imperative that there is a complete understanding and appreciation of both the pilot and proposed community of implementation to ensure a better accounting of possible discrepancies.

In one session, examining Virtual Reality Simulation: Research and Application, presenters discussed the use of virtual reality to train officers in different scenarios, and different geographical areas. Speakers highlighted how the use of virtual reality can be beneficial in limiting bias. Officers are virtually exposed to situations they probably would not know much about, providing them with first-hand exposure in a safe, confined setting to hone their instinct and skill. While the research base is small, the innovation that this research offered is encouraging. In many areas served by a Consortium-member law school, there is a higher crime rate than in neighboring cities. A simulation like the one discussed could greatly strengthen the training capabilities for officers before entering the workforce. Ensuring that simulations are designed to reflect the communities in which the officers will ultimately serve will support them in anticipating their new professional landscape. The community could then benefit from more confident police officers that have practiced decision-making in stressful situations around issues of real or perceived criminality.

Technologies used in police training and daily responsibilities are an ever-expanding portfolio. Continued examination of this field is necessary to ensure safe and effective implementation. Replication studies should be deployed for the majority of research relating to public safety, not just those focused on emerging technology. Utilizing the Consortium’s network of law schools and their surrounding cities could be an interesting and useful way of piloting and further testing research. Halting one-off studies was similarly flagged as a priority at the 2023 International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Research Advisory Committee conference meeting. The Consortium has schools across the country in a variety of environments representing a wealth of diverse communities. Partnering with law schools in conducting ongoing research related to policing and public safety could lend additional credence and possibly access to researchers. Consortium-member schools have committed themselves to ongoing work and collaboration in support of reform efforts and could make a strong thought/implementation partner for future experimentation, with the added benefit of affording additional access to legal scholarship and compliance.

Additional Opportunities for Cross-Disciplinary Conversation

The formal and informal conversations had as part of ASEBP emphasized the value of convening scholars from across multiple fields to discuss their work. To effectively implement true transformation, legal scholars, law enforcement, economists, criminologists, and community members need to work together on police reform studies so that meaningful and evidenced-based change may be made. Without clear and meaningful discussions among all the actors, there is a risk of implementing change that won’t work in practice.

In one session, panelists presented their research findings in connection with observing rapport-based information gathering (ORBIT). ORBIT focuses on motivational interviewing and striking a reasonable power dynamic between suspects and law enforcement that helps lead the conversation to elicit a legal confession. This technique includes asking open ended questions, allowing the suspect to lead the flow of the conversation, and strategically using evidence to help continue the conversation without having the suspect shut down. The goal of ORBIT is to provide an alternative to the interrogation approach of the Reid Technique, which has been found to elicit false confessions or no confession at all by using deception, manipulation, and “truth detection” techniques. The ORBIT technique has potential to break the cycle of silence, especially within gangs that tend to recruit impressionable youth who are willing to go to prison for the sake of reputation, a problem seen across communities represented by the Consortium. It would be valuable to see more research on ORBIT with juveniles, child soldiers, and criminal offenders along with the continued research with terrorist organizations.

Including legal expertise in studies such as this would better equip findings from this research to be incorporated into legal training and reality. Ensuring lawyers are aware of good and promising approaches related to interrogation will also ensure this information is better fed throughout the entirety of the criminal legal system and makes its way into the courtroom. Law student participants remarked upon the lack of legal scholarship participation in the conference, indicating a lack of broader coordination or information sharing. By involving the Consortium’s network of participating law schools in future iterations (possibly as host) would better position legal scholarship to further inform future work while simultaneously positioning the lawful implementation of research findings.

Value of Community Engagement in Determining Priorities for Public Safety

Another panel focused on encouraging open and respectful conversations among law enforcement and their communities. Research has demonstrated the importance and value of contact with people different from us and can produce dynamic solutions to specific issues shared by a group. When law enforcement and the general public are brought together in a format where parties are seen as equal, share a goal, cooperate to address issues, and are supported by leadership, they are more likely to advance a shared agenda in a sustainable, meaningful way. This will increase the understanding of both parties regarding the concerns and work of the other and lead to a reduction in prejudice and to enhanced trust. The ASEBP panel explored one such model, which advocates for regular convenings between harmed communities and law enforcement to discuss challenges, assisted by a neutral moderator.

These conversations begin with a researcher forming a relationship with a leader from the community they hope to speak with so that the leader can assist in gathering participants and perspectives. Law enforcement and the members of the community work together to form an agenda; the meetings are held in a place that the community members feel comfortable, at a time that is convenient to them; and various steps are taken to attempt to balance out the power dynamics between the parties. Early research has shown that these techniques are helpful in reducing complaints and physical conflict, but more research, specifically more long-term research, is needed. Students indicated an interest in following this research throughout their professional careers to be better positioned to implement community-based solutions to problems in policing.

Another growing area of research explored during the conference focused on the value of responding to the mental health needs of law enforcement officers, recognizing how those issues, if left unaddressed, might show up in their work. Undoubtedly, an officer’s unfavorable conduct diminishes the trust and sense of safety between law enforcement and the community, as well as law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office. Findings presented from a large-scale survey showed that the decline in officer wellness resulted in increased instances of anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and suicide. Those issues then manifest into officers engaging in inappropriate behavior or conduct inconsistent with the protocols of the department.

The survey findings suggest taking specific actions to address officer wellness, including holding sessions with members of the community regularly, which can help to reestablish community trust and is one of the most significant ways to enhance officer wellness. These community meetings emphasize the importance of law enforcement learning from and understanding the members of the community, as well as the members of the community learning from law enforcement in a space that is not threatening or combative. In essence, the community meetings will provide all involved parties the chance to “seek to understand, then to be understood” relative to their individual issues and concerns, community concerns, and honest thoughts toward policing in their community.

Continued research and efforts made in this area, especially in areas where significant police misconduct has occurred, could help to identify other measures that can be taken to improve officer wellness, while regaining community trust. Researchers and legal scholars can continue to build on the existing body of research to allow for greater progress relative to officer wellness and fewer instances of police misconduct. Lessons regarding mental health and wellness can be applied to the work of actors across the criminal legal system, with many experiencing an increased risk of burnout. Establishing space for acceptance and accountability is vital for this to happen. By promoting information sharing and the value of community collaboration, there is an increased likelihood of supporting the long-term health and well-being of professionals in a variety of legal fields.

Next Steps

As of October 2023, 945 people have been shot and killed by police in the US in the past 12 months. Fatal Force: 890 People Have Been Shot and Killed by Police in the Past 12 Months, Wah. Post (updated Oct. 27, 2023). While the national George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has stalled, many jurisdictions have explored localized reforms to ensure momentum from the protests of the summer of 2020 were not in vain and quell further violence against marginalized communities. The Consortium fellows, including those unable to participate in the ASEBP conference, remain committed to this cause.

This conference was extremely informative, and to be in an environment where the goal is to improve police relations and practices was very refreshing. How can we heal community and police relationships? This is where evidence-based research and practices come in … I know that I learned so much in such a short amount of time and it has truly changed my outlook on how I look at police forces and what can come from them. The fellowship as well as this experience has helped me overcome a lot of personal challenges and biases that I had towards police officers. I know that all officers, individually, are not the same, but I have felt for a very long time that the practice of policing needed to change drastically. I didn’t know something like ASEBP existed, and I am very interested in the work that they are doing to continue elevating the area of policing. I also appreciate the Consortium for allowing exposure and conversations around these topics. It allows individuals like me to recognize my biases and continue to educate myself on ways to help. (Jasmine St. Clor, St Thomas University)

In my personal research, life, and career, I want to know how I can help. I want to be able to foster conversations and research because I believe the vast majority of all involved have the best of intentions in mind. This involves a level of vulnerability law enforcement is historically uncomfortable with. In the advancement of my legal career, I would like to use my rapport with my co-workers and my law school community to create a space for these conversations about reform that are evidenced-based. Most of my research up to this point has been holding law enforcement accountable through duty to intervene and effectively retaining officers within a department. I believe both of these issues and goals may be achieved thorough evidence-based police reform. (Kim Trotter, Lincoln Memorial University, Duncan School of Law)

The Consortium fellowship resumed in September 2023 with a new cohort of students from across the membership of 58 law schools. Participation in another conference will be sought so that the next group are afforded similar opportunities to learn and connect with one another as well as additional experts in the field. The idea of a Consortium-specific conference is being explored to provide students with an opportunity to present their research from the semester, engage with academics in this space, and determine how their time within the fellowship might inform future legal work, whether it be personal or professional.

Regardless of what comes next, the Consortium continues to sit in a unique space. Through the power of our law school members, we can bring together academics and practitioners from across disciplines to share information, listen, and learn from the experiences of one another in the hopes of identifying clear and tailored road maps for communities in creating a shared vision of public safety. As evidenced by this conference, opportunities for information sharing and cross-disciplinary collaboration are integral to the success of long-term and ongoing policing and public safety reform efforts.

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Jessalyn Brogan Walker

ABA Legal Education Police Practices Consortium

Jessalyn Brogan Walker is the acting director of the ABA Legal Education Police Practices Consortium. She specializes in community engagement and outreach on policing and public safety issues.

Tacota LeMuel

Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Tacota LeMuel is a law student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, MN.

Holly Ludvigsen

Georgetown University Law Center

Holly Ludvigsen is a law student at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC.

Kimberly Trotter

Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law

Kimberly Trotter is a student at Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law.

Rebecca Zerbo

Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University

Rebecca Zerbo is a student at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University.