Research News

Faculty Spotlight: Wesley Skogan

IPR political scientist studies interface between police and communities


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IPR political scientist Wesley Skogan studies police-community interactions, with a particular focus on Chicago.

As a pioneering expert in policing, IPR political scientist Wesley G. Skogan has been on the cutting edge of studies of crime and policing for more than four decades. This affords him a longer-term perspective on what he sees as the most pressing issue facing American policing today, its “legitimacy crisis.”

This current crisis, he pointed out, did not just spring up with the 2014 Laquan McDonald shooting by police in Chicago. Rather, many of these same issues can be traced back to past events, such as the 1991 shooting of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles that led to riots in two dozen cities.

“It was bad [then],” Skogan said. But now, the nation faces a situation where “the decline in crime has been astronomical,” he said. The problem is that the decline was also uneven so what does remain becomes concentrated in areas that have been plagued by “huge increases in inequality,” as well as guns and gangs, he said.

“It is circumstances in these fewer but even more marginalized communities that are driving the horrific events precipitating this crisis,” Skogan said—and that are making his work “more relevant now than ever before.”

Taking a Community Focus

Skogan’s research has always reflected IPR’s focus on policy and its impact on the public, with his initial survey work leading to subsequent studies on police-community interactions.

His earlier research agenda focused heavily on community surveys, fieldwork among community organizations, and interviews with political and police leaders, to better understand how people viewed things like crime and community crime prevention.

In the 1980s, Skogan co-led a large-scale project that included surveying residents of Houston and Newark, New Jersey, about their relationships with the police and their experiences with crime, as well as their fear of crime and victimization. He was brought onto the project because of his methodological expertise.

“The project came out of my survey interest, and that sort of brought me to police and communities,” Skogan explained. 

Over the years, Skogan extended these community-level surveys to many other cities and produced numerous journal articles and multiple books, including Coping with Crime: Individual and Neighborhood Reactions (Sage Publications, 1981).

Facing a Legitimacy Crisis

For police departments across the country, procedural justice, or the perceived fairness of interactions with police, is what underpins legitimacy. But knowing how to obtain procedural justice—both in interactions with the public and internally within police departments—is no easy feat, Skogan said.

He started diving deep into the “how” of procedural justice in 2011, when then-Chicago Police Department (CPD) Chief Garry McCarthy announced that he was bringing it to the city. One project that came of this was a randomized experiment he conducted at Chicago’s training academy, looking at the impact of a new training program on how officers view their jobs and their relationship with the public. 

Now, Skogan is writing a book that takes a multifaceted approach to examining procedural justice in Chicago, encompassing surveys of police and community members and a randomized experiment of new CPD training programs.

So far, one of his major findings is that external procedural justice—that is, the police’s relationship with the public—cannot come without internal justice—or organizational justice within the department. 

You cannot improve external police-community relations by “bullying” and “disciplining” police officers, according to Skogan. He recalled one police executive telling him, “We can’t kick their [butts] until they are nice to people.” Internal and external procedural justice are closely intertwined and must be addressed together, he said. 

During 2015–16 Skogan brought these perspectives as a member of Chicago’s Police Accountability Task Force, formed in the wake of the McDonald shooting. Many of the task force’s recommendations have already been adopted, Skogan said, while political fights over the remainder are still underway.

‘Breathing New Life’ into Community Policing

While a police department can address an internal legitimacy crisis through staff training and reforms in discipline and fairness, and in promotions and job assignments, repairing community relations requires a different approach.

Skogan began digging into community policing—a policing method that emphasizes citizen involvement and improved relationships between officers and community members—in 1993 when Chicago first implemented it.

From 1993 until the early 2000s, “Chicago had a [community policing] program that people came from all over the world to look at,” Skogan said. But due to budget constraints—especially when the Great Recession hit local municipalities—and a lack of political will, community policing has fallen by the wayside.

At a 2015 meeting of a policing task force convened by President Barack Obama, Skogan presented his research on the decline of community policing and what needs to be done to restore it. This research is central to his ongoing book project that will also cover procedural justice. In addition, his research will inform Mayor Rahn Emanuel’s new Community Policing Advisory Panel, to which Skogan was recently appointed.

In the end, Skogan believes that the existing police legitimacy crisis will create the political will necessary to “breathe new life” into community policing.

“You don’t solve a legitimacy crisis by solving more homicides,” Skogan said. “You solve a legitimacy crisis by restoring the relationship between the police and the public …. Community policing and procedural justice are the only things we have that can actually do that.”

Wesley G. Skogan is professor of political science and an IPR fellow.