Applying My Research: From Ferguson Forward
Dr. Roy Alston wants to save America’s police departments
America’s attention returned to Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2015, 1 year after the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer. Dr. Roy Alston ’10, a Dallas police lieutenant, watched the events a bit more closely than most. Several months earlier, he had served on a seven-person U.S. Department of Justice team investigating the police response to the protests and unrest that followed Brown’s death.
Why Alston? His Walden dissertation—which led him to write a book and contribute to research at the Caruth Police Institute—had a lot to do with the department drafting him for the task force. A PhD in Management graduate, Alston focused his research on police occupational deviance—those behaviors that run contrary to the norms, ethics, and policies of the profession.
“Any profession is prone to occupational deviance,” explains Alston, who joined Dallas’s police force in 2003. “For a doctor, occupational deviance might be stealing medication. For a police officer, it might be stealing property from a crime scene.”
Alston’s dissertation was based on a survey of a large police organization. The results showed that nearly all respondents had witnessed examples of police occupational deviance. Those same officers said they were reluctant to turn the offenders in for discipline. The traditional department response of quickly and quietly singling out “bad apples” exacerbated the deviant behaviors of rogue officers without addressing why they occurred in the first place, Alston concluded.
“The adage is that one bad apple can rot the barrel,” he says, “but for the past 4 decades, the entire barrel of policing has been more rotten than anyone in the profession has wanted to admit.”
Until now. The social media-driven coverage of Ferguson, the shooting death of Walter Scott in South Carolina, and the traffic stop of Sandra Bland in Texas have placed hot spotlights on excessive use of force by police. As Alston and his fellow Justice Department researchers delved into hundreds of interviews, reams of policy documents, and firsthand video accounts, Alston saw the same problems he had studied in his dissertation.
“The behaviors we talk about in police occupational deviance have been happening for generations, and we’ve eroded the public’s trust,” he says.
Photo credit: Getty Images/Michael B. Thomas
“In Ferguson, the legitimacy of all of these agencies”—the Justice Department focused on Ferguson, St. Louis County, and St. Louis Metropolitan police departments in addition to the Missouri State Highway Patrol—“was gone in the public’s opinion. Ferguson was a powder keg, and it shows the devastating effects of police occupational deviance over time.”
Alston hopes the recommendations in the Justice Department report, released in late August 2015, represent a significant step toward eradicating the policing norms that have allowed occupational deviance to thrive. Because the report’s authors have experience working as law enforcement officers, he adds, its recommendations may be particularly effective.
“Most knowledge about policing and police science has been produced by people who have never been police officers, so scholarly recommendations aren’t typically embraced,” he explains. “Theory informs practice and vice versa—and that link has been broken in the past for public policing.
“I want agencies around the country to take this document, think about what happened in Ferguson, and say, 'Not in our community.’”
To read the complete report from the U.S. Department of Justice, visit ric-zai-inc.com/Publications/cops-p317-pub.pdf.