‘Watching the Detectives’: Tales of a Police Researcher in Cincinnati and Glasgow

Ross Deuchar – University of the West of Scotland

Research on violence and street gangs around the world provides convincing evidence of the strong correlation between gang membership and criminal offending, and over the years a wide range of anti-gang and violence reduction initiatives have been implemented with somewhat limited success. But, in recent years, focused deterrence approaches to reducing gang violence have proven successful in several cities within the USA. These strategies draw upon problem-oriented policing, where senior officers undertake intelligence analysis to identify the most prolific offenders and deal with the issue of gang violence through untraditional responses. The principles were operationalized within the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) in Ohio from 2006 onwards, where young gang members were routinely ‘called in’ to Hamilton County Sheriff Court and given a very powerful anti-violence message from senior officers. It was made clear to them that, if they continued to engage in violent street activity, there would be serious criminal justice implications. But then the message softened, with contributions from ‘untraditional’ partners such as ex-gang members and mothers of those who had lost their lives to crime, who appealed to the young male offenders to make alternative choices. Finally came the message of hope – if these young men left the violence behind, they could be fast-tracked to a range of social services, including opportunities for education and employment training (Deuchar and Engel, 2013).

In 2008, the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) began to look Stateside for answers to the prolific gang problems in Glasgow, where the east end of the city is home to 55 street gangs with over 600 members. Following a visit to Cincinnati, members of the VRU and Strathclyde Police brought CIRV (re-named the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence) to Glasgow. Young offenders from the east of Glasgow were brought to Glasgow Sheriff Court and given the same types of messages as those in Cincinnati, and a wide range of social agencies collaborated with the police in order to divert the young men’s violent activity onto more productive pursuits. Over the past two years, my research has focused on exploring the cultural shift that has taken place in both police departments in order to accommodate the CIRV strategy and also to look at the remaining challenges in terms of police culture. I have conducted semi-structured interviews with police officers and also engaged in participant observation, where I shadowed frontline officers during their patrols within the Gangs Task Force Units that have been set up in both cities.

My research has shown me that the emphasis on focused deterrence and preventive approaches to violence that was at the centre of CIRV has changed many of the structural conditions of police work at command level in both cities. A liberal democratic model of ‘soft’ policing has emerged, but with a corresponding emphasis on radical perspectives associated with ‘hard’ policing tactics such as the detection and disruption of those gang members who continue to offend (Hopkins, 2004). But, during interviews, some senior officers recognised that trying to convince frontline officers to embrace the welfare-oriented approaches has been a challenge. We’ve still got some cops that don’t see it,’ one senior officer in Glasgow told me. ‘They’ll say, “no, it’s no’ our job to do that, our job’s to do this”.’ One officer in Cincinnati admitted that ‘cracking the police culture’ further down the ranks is still a ‘work in progress’ and that some cops still view ‘real police work’ as being solely about enforcement (Van Maanen, 1978; Reiner, 2000).

In Cincinnati, I saw evidence of this during police patrols. While hugely committed to making communities safer, some officers still viewed themselves as the ‘hard chargers’: the aggressive, courageous street cops that charge at the tower at the least sign of perceived disorder (Chare, 2011). As one young cop told me, ‘I like the adventuresome side of it (policing) … I guess you could call it the risk-taking activity, the adrenalin … the fun, the chases … the game side.’ I saw the impact of this when some officers’ focus on authoritarian enforcement antagonised young men out on the streets and undermined the way in which the Cincinnati Police Department was trying to build positive community relationships through CIRV. In Glasgow, Task Force officers had more success. While focusing primarily on enforcement and sometimes targeting young men for ‘stop and search’ through stereotypical profiling, they also took time to build positive relationships with them through informal dialogue. As one young officer in Glasgow told me, ‘your mouth’s the best thing you can use, you know … it’s being able to “chew the fat” – just being able to talk to people.’ These cops saw themselves as enforcers, but they were also humanitarian peacekeepers (Hodgson, 2001).

In spite of some of the remaining challenges, the CIRV initiative has led to a 41 per cent reduction in group-related homicides in Cincinnati and a 50 per cent reduction in youth violence in Glasgow. But what have I learned from my experience of shadowing cops out on the streets? Fundamentally, I believe that there has been an over-emphasis on the ‘critical police research tradition’ where academics have often focused exclusively on the perceived inadequacies and injustices in police practice, and officers have subsequently viewed academics as doing more harm than good. To overcome these hurdles, we need intimate and continuous partnerships between police and universities. This takes time, energy, persistence and perseverance. By exploring, analysing and actively participating in police practice as a ‘marginal native’, I believe that I have managed to build more trust and really gained first-hand insight into the positive aspects of police practice as well as the challenges. In so doing, I hope that I am beginning to create research insights that can generate impact and that will support the police in positive ways as they continue with the challenging job of making our communities safer on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ross Deuchar is the Director of the Centre for Youth Crime, Justice and Deterrence Research at the University of the West of Scotland and co- author of the forthcoming book, ‘Policing Youth Violence – Atlantic Connections (2013, Trentham).

One thought on “‘Watching the Detectives’: Tales of a Police Researcher in Cincinnati and Glasgow

  1. Thanks for the great blog, Ross. Fascinating reseach – the tension in police culture between trying to work ‘with’ communities, in whatever form they exist, and not losing sight of what draws people to policing in the first place. Policing boundaries (in the non-geographical sense) continuously shift, which is clearlyly challenging and produces a variety of cultural responses. I completely agree that researchers need to work closely with the police, to gain trust and insight on both sides.

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