For Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence, Research Meant Ride-alongs with Police in Florida

Ross Deuchar, Assistant Dean of Criminal Justice at the University of the West of Scotland, United Kingdom
2016-2017 Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence to Florida Atlantic University

After my semester as the very first Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) for the 2017 spring term, I returned to Scotland with many of the usual takeaways: new teaching approaches, personal and professional connections, and a wealth of new research. My experiences in the field, however, were anything but typical. As a scholar of criminology, I conduct research with law enforcement and offenders, in places that most people want to avoid.

I was based in FAU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and taught one combined undergraduate and graduate class on ‘Youth, Culture and Violence.’  I also conducted a full ethnographic research study on the impact of the ‘post-Ferguson effect’ on the policing of gang violence in South Florida. This research angle relates to an incident that took place on 9th August 2014, when an 18-year-old African-American man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri. Witness testimony suggested that Mr. Brown had been unarmed during the incident and that he was cooperating with Officer Wilson’s commands when the officer shot him. The media reporting of and political engagement with these events have continued to have a lasting impact on law enforcement across the United States. Accordingly, I was interested to explore the way in which the intense and ongoing media and political scrutiny of American policing had affected the work of officers assigned to gang units in Florida, the state where I was based.

To this end, I worked with local police units and wider agencies to conduct my research fieldwork, which was a hugely interesting experience. During my grant period, I engaged in six ride-alongs with police officers within both Palm Beach County's and St Lucie County's Gang Units, as well as with officers in West Palm Beach Police Department. I also conducted extensive interviews with officers across the two Counties; offenders in the Palm Beach County Jail; public defenders; social workers; and outreach workers. During law enforcement interviews, I detected that the officers felt strongly that the media reporting of the high-profile incident in Ferguson had had a profound impact on public perceptions of the police in communities of color within Florida. They described the way in which local people had developed an increased tendency to resist officers’ instructions and to film encounters with their cell phones; and how locals were even less inclined than before to report crimes or volunteer to be witnesses.  In spite of the reduced morale among many officers that this created, I did often detect that the ‘post-Ferguson effect’ had raised awareness of the need for creative, community-oriented approaches and a focus on procedural justice among frontline cops. For example, during my ride-alongs with officers I frequently observed the officers getting out of their cars to talk to and attempt to build rapport with young black men on street corners, making serious attempts to build their trust, break down institutional barriers and establish more positive relationships.

These insights will enable me to expand considerably my existing research on policing of youth and gangs. Indeed, I am already collaborating with faculty from FAU on a joint paper and we recently presented some insights from the research at the 2017 European Society of Criminology conference. In the future, I intend to share my research conclusions with senior officers in Police Scotland and with policy makers within the Scottish Government. In doing so, I believe, I will be contributing to the emergence of transatlantic knowledge exchange on issues relating to policing, procedural justice and community engagement.

In addition to the professional growth in my area of research that the Fulbright afforded me, I learned much about the American Higher Education system. Specifically, I learned how to adapt and modify my approach to teaching and assessment of U.S. students and within the U.S. system. In a class with 27 undergraduate and 8 graduate students, I had to ensure that the material presented was appropriate for both types of students. To do this, I assigned the graduate students leadership roles in class, in which they supported the undergraduate students, becoming group leaders and mentors for them. I found the experience of teaching this type of mixed class and the opportunity to work intensively with the students very rewarding.  I intend to adapt my approaches to the teaching of my undergraduate material in Scotland, as a result of the experience I gained in the United States. For example, when I next teach my undergraduate Criminal Justice class on ‘Youth and Gang Violence’ within my own institution, I will amend it to three-hour blocks, with a greater focus on interactive, seminar-style discussion.

Finally, I, along with my wife and 12-year-old son, who joined me for one month, made many personal connections in the U.S. My family visited the University and my class, meeting all my students. The Director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and his wife invited us to their home, and my wife made some great friendships among the Faculty, while my son became friends with their children. My family and I also enjoyed exploring the region and connecting with Floridians through several excursions, including an Everglades riverboat cruise within Broward County and a visit to Key West. We took an evening guided walking tour of Fort Lauderdale, where we met with locals, who taught us a great deal about the local history. The highlights for my son were when a senior FAU Campus police officer gave him a personal tour of the FAU football stadium and when he was given a full tour of the West Palm Beach Police station. During his police station visit, senior officers showed him the SWAT vehicle and Harley Davidson police motorcycles and allowed him to participate in a virtual police training simulation exercise. These are experiences that my son will remember for the rest of his life.

I, too, will always remember my many experiences and the professional and personal connections I made as a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence, and I intend to maintain and strengthen these connections throughout my career. One of my most memorable souvenirs is of the day when the Dean of the College of Design and Social Inquiry invited me to become an Affiliate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice within FAU. The appointment presents me with a wonderful opportunity to continue to develop the partnerships I built with FAU during my life-changing Fulbright award.