By: Nicky Andrews
Since the death of George Floyd earlier this year, Black Lives Matter protests have overtaken the nation. The powerful protests have led to the birth of smaller movements such as the Our Streets protests currently occurring on Loyola Chicago’s campus.
These protests that are specifically pushing back at Loyola’s administration and campus security welcome a shift in focus for many students and faculty on campus, especially those involved in the criminal justice department.
To get some insight, I interviewed Dr. Christopher Donner, a Criminal Justice Professor and Researcher at Loyola University.
Over a Zoom interview, Donner spoke about how he tries to cultivate a classroom that allows room for discussion and consideration of different ideas when teaching his Policing 203 and Contemporary Police Issues 310 classes.
In the following interview, he breaks down how polarization, police misconduct, and implicit biases have all contributed to how he performs research and teaches in today’s social and political climate.
Andrews: I was thinking back to when you were my professor last semester, and you mentioned at some point that you were considering going into law enforcement, but then you actually decided to become a researcher. Why did you turn to teaching and research rather than policing?
Donner: Upon graduating (graduate school), I got a job at the county jail. I was very excited at first..and then I started to see the abuses. Not just from the way corrections officers treated inmates but also some of the miscarriages of justice that exist. It got to the point where working in the system and basically seeing the same things happen every day made me realize I enjoyed studying the criminal justice system more so than I did working in it.
Andrews: Wow, yeah. I’m sure that allows you to study what you witnessed on a larger scale. Obviously this is a difficult topic for a lot of people to talk about, what inspires you to teach policing during these difficult times?
Donner: One of my motivations is to present some of the research I do to better educate my students about what’s really going on in policing. It is a very scary and uncertain time right now in society but it is a fabulous time to be someone who studies the police because there are just so many different avenues for research out there right now.
Andrews: Absolutely. I feel like more of the public are reading research, whether it be with COVID-19 or policing, so if researchers are needed at any point it’s specifically now because people are really interacting with it.
Donner: With the research I do, I’m trying to figure out why police officers do things they shouldn’t be doing and then suggesting recommendations on how we can reduce those things. Whether it be a more stringent hiring process or better policy, accountability and transparency, which will lead to better policing and better outcomes for everyone.
Andrews: Yeah. Specific to policing there are a lot of different views depending on race. I specifically grew up not understanding the Black Lives Matter movement at first because I had only had positive experiences with the police. Do you believe your race or background has an effect on your teaching or research?
Donner: In my courses, particularly the policing course where there is so much polarization, I try to not present my own views and rather try to present the issue from both sides.
Specifically with my policing students, I try to remove the words all, never, always, things like that, because they’re just not true. Not all police are good, and not all police are bad. As human beings we are amazing at overgeneralizing. We have to look at it incident by incident. If we learn to understand we have those biases and learn how to mitigate those biases I think we can start to talk about things in more neutral terms.
Andrews: I have definitely found that over the past few years, I have made a lot of growth in understanding the privilege I have and why I have grown up with certain views on things. I do agree with you that things are very polarized right now and I believe that there needs to be a bit more communication or it will always be fire against fire.
Donner: It’s trying to also to get them to recognize that when they see a story in the news or from a friend and they say “the officer shouldn’t have done that”…well, were you actually there? I think sometimes it’s important for us as a society who are not police officers, to take a step back, take a breath and let some more facts come out before we rush to a judgement. I think all of us need to do a better job of that.
Andrews: This made me think about how I feel like with law enforcement there can be a level of disconnect with the general public. In a lot of ways it can feel like they’re not included in the public and that level of dissociation can lead to a lot of friction and difficulty because there is a lack of connection I believe. I don’t want to say it’s ironic, but it’s difficult to have a protest focused on defunding the police when the police are patrolling the protest.
Donner: Yeah a couple months ago I was a part of a Black Lives Matter protest and we “legally” blocked traffic. It was very odd to be chanting, “No justice, no peace, no racist police” and literally having officers right next to you. But I will give them 100% credit. They took it in stride, understood and they made sure we had the opportunity to do that.
Andrews: So you mention that you participated in a protest yourself, and just generally have been viewing these protests that have been going on for months in real life and on social media. In what way, if any, do they make you proud to be a professor or researcher of criminal justice?
Donner: There are numerous incidents in the history of our country where the police have been on the wrong side of justice. We have seen protests and movements to eradicate systemic racism, police misconduct, and criminal justice misconduct for the last 150-200 years and over that time little by little progress has been made but not enough. So I feel like this is the most recent reiteration of people standing up and demanding justice, transparency, and accountability. As someone who wants to make the criminal justice system better, I think it’s a wonderful thing to see.
Andrews: So as you talk about these changes based on what you’ve experienced with these protests, how are you planning to change the way you teach and conduct your research into the future to accommodate for the current events or views?
Donner: I always try the best I can to try to incorporate current events into my classroom. Any time I have a class where I can talk about it, I do. My research is very much full steam ahead. We know that when police treat civilians with fairness, respect, transparency and when the police allow citizens to share their side of the story, even if it doesn’t change the outcome, that person has a better perception of that interaction. And when people perceive the police in a better way they are more likely to cooperate with the police, be satisfied and more likely to comply out of respect and not out of fear.