Workshop gives students a new perspective on police conduct

BY MIKE WISER

For a small group of HLS graduate students, a three-month workshop on police corruption has been an opportunity to explore the causes of and solutions to police misconduct. Yet, for the organizer of the workshop, the topic is part of a life’s work.

Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovich S.J.D. designed the “Police Misconduct Workshop” as part of her ongoing examination of police corruption. The workshop is a chance to bring together students from around the world to examine multidisciplinary approaches to dealing with police who step over the line.

The first half of the workshop, which began in February, focused on the police, their culture and police misconduct. In the second half, participants will begin to examine how police misconduct can be subjected to both internal and external controls.

In the first workshop, the group examined the problem of defining a police agency. For Kutnjak Ivkovich and the participants, if police agencies are defined by the role they play, then important police agencies, which should be included, may be left out. In her proposal for the workshop, she pointed to the difficulty of finding a definition that includes “slave patrols in the South in the 1800s, the police of the East India Trading Company in the 18th century, Sir Robert Peel’s ‘Bobbies’ in the United Kingdom and militia in the communist regimes in the 20th century.” For Kutnjak Ivkovich, the best way to understand police is by looking at what they are allowed to do, namely the legitimate use of force.

This broader, non-legal definition of a police agency reflects the interdisciplinary orientation of the workshop. “I hope that [the participants] think about police misconduct from an interdisciplinary perspective, not just as lawyers,” Kutnjak Ivkovich told the RECORD.

Carl Klockars, a guest speaker at the workshop and a professor at the University of Delaware, agreed that part of the value of the workshop is to expose lawyers to other ways of understanding police misconduct. “Typically, law students are interested in the problem of excessive force and its definition, [or] corruption and its definition. Each of those problems can be approached from a different angle,” he said. In his lecture, Klockars offered an organizational perspective on misconduct that lawyers might not necessarily consider in their lives as prosecutors or defense attorneys.

In the second workshop, the class examined how the quasi-military structure of most police agencies puts officers into an “us/them” mentality. Furthermore, a complex set of rules puts every officer into the position of having broken some rule at some time.

For the LL.M. and S.J.D students involved, the workshop also offers a chance to exchange different perspectives on police misconduct. “I would like to learn about others’ cultures and police forces and what they do to control police misconduct,” Kutnjak Ivkovich said.

One of the participants, who is taking the workshop for credit, is a Pakistani police supervisor. Another is a former journalist from Argentina who offers thoughts on South American policing traditions. And some of the participants, like an Indian LL.M. who will also return to a position as a police supervisor, see the workshop as an opportunity to learn techniques that they can apply when they return home.

Kutnjak Ivkovich, who holds a Ph.D. in Criminology from the University of Delaware, first became interested in police misconduct when she was teaching a course at Delaware on the subject. After visiting the library, she found that there was a dearth of empirical articles on police misconduct. Along with Klockars, Kutnjak Ivkovich put together a study that surveyed the attitudes of 3,235 police officers in 30 agencies towards police misconduct. The key innovation of the study, Kutnjak Ivkovich said, was that instead of surveying actual misconduct (something officers often won’t talk about) they asked them about their attitudes towards certain types of police corruption.

While the study focused on the narrower problem of police corruption, Kutnjak Ivkovich has integrated some of the study’s findings and methods into the class. In particular, she said that the method adopted in the study could be used by agency supervisors to gauge their department’s attitude towards corruption and misconduct.

The survey found that perspectives on corruption varied dramatically between some agencies. When confronted with eleven examples of varying police misconduct (for example, an officer who accepts a bribe from a motorist), officers in one agency reported that they and their colleagues would report the described behavior in seven of the cases, while officers in another agency said that they would not report the misbehavior of a colleague in any of the situations.

As part of the $880,000 study, which was funded by the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, Kutnjak Ivkovich examined what distinguished the three agencies with the highest levels of integrity. For her dissertation, she is focusing on the opposite end of the spectrum – examining reports that were issued about three police departments that witnessed corruption scandals.

The workshop is open to all students and will be meeting through the end of April. The next meeting is on March 22, when Philadelphia’s Deputy Police Commissioner John Norris will be speaking about internal control of police agencies.

The workshop was part of Kutnjak Ivkovich’s Byse Fellowship, which is designed to give fellows the opportunity to gain teaching experience. While the workshop was organized by Kutnjak Ivkovich, Prof. Philip Heymann ’60 has been advising and overseeing work done by students who wish to receive credit for the course.

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