Looking and watching

Professor Jeannine Bell is an expert on policing and hate crimes

Professor Jeannine Bell, a nationally recognized scholar in the areas of policing and hate crimes, joined the Loyola University Chicago School of Law this summer as a Curt and Linda Rodin Professor of Law and Social Justice. She most previously served as the Richard S. Melvin Professor of Law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, where she won the law school’s highest teaching award. Bell is the author of Hate Thy Neighbor: Move-in Violence and the Persistence of Racial Segregation in American Housing (New York University Press, 2013) and Policing Hatred: Law Enforcement, Civil Rights, and Hate Crime (2002) among other books, and her scholarship has appeared in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law ReviewLaw & Society ReviewLaw & Social Inquiry, the Boston University Law Review, the Journal of Legal Education, and many other publications. She is an elected member of the American Law Institute and past co-editor of the Law & Society Review. Bell is on research sabbatical during the fall semester and will teach a course on law, politics, and society in spring 2023. We asked Professor Bell to share her insights on her research, current projects, and plans for the future.

How did you become interested in studying hate crimes and policing?

It was entirely organic. I was a political science grad student when I read a story about a Black tourist who’d been set on fire in Florida. They described it as a hate crime and I thought, ‘How do we tell when something is a hate crime?’ This was 1992, the very early days of understanding hate crimes. I ended up writing my PhD dissertation on how police departments identify and investigate hate crimes. I spent five-and-a-half months in a police unit watching detectives who were doing it very well and created a model for showing how you can tell something is a hate crime.

So how do you identify a hate crime?

It’s not just language. When individuals are engaged in violence, there’s lots of impolite language used. What you’re looking for is whether the person was motivated by bias. Is the language accompanied by a difference in personal characteristics between victim and perpetrators? Does it look like those differences are why the perpetrator was doing it—the essence of motivation? Sometimes there are cases—for example, traffic accidents—that look like hate crimes, but based on the evidence, are not.

What best practices in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes has your research uncovered?

You absolutely need a unit: dedicated professionals who handle all the hate crimes in the jurisdiction. I haven’t seen any circumstances where it’s handled well if it’s spread out among detectives or officers across the geographic area. You need trained specialists to do this because they’re dealing with someone who’s been traumatized. They’ve been attacked because of a fundamental aspect of their identity, and they’ll be afraid for the rest of their existence of being attacked again in this way. So, they need to be interviewed by someone who doesn’t just ask the right questions—and that itself is hard—but also is appropriately sensitive to the space in which the victim is operating.

Something I made clear in my book on hate crime policing is that in doing the work, you develop a commitment to it that comes through for victims. You want to help people in the most vulnerable space they’ve ever been in, and they respond to that.

Police organizations across the country are not much interested in dealing with hate crimes. I could give you lots of data on this. But if they actually did it, people’s feelings about the police would change. If they actually investigated hate crimes, it would help the rest of their job. It really would.

“I believe race is a fundamental organizing principle in society, and it’s there always. So, I talk about it.”

You’re using your Rodin Scholar funding to support the book you’re working on while on sabbatical this fall. Tell us about it.

This book looks at a different aspect of policing. My research assistants, collaborators, and I have done about 80 interviews with ordinary individuals of all ages and from lots of different backgrounds, asking whether they trust the police and what their experiences with police have been. One of the big takeaways is that support for the police is much lower than police think, even among people who are white.

The police have really gotten away with the characterization that it’s only minorities who have something to fear from police, but when you talk to white people, including white grandmothers who haven’t themselves had any untoward experiences with the police, you get a very different characterization. The biggest us-them line in policing is between police and non-police. It’s not a race line.

What are some of your conclusions so far about this widespread distrust of police?

There are lots of mistakes we’re making. We’re training the police to be afraid, to see the public as the enemy and to respond to situations as potentially lethal even when there’s empirically little chance that they’re in danger. Some organizations make a lot of money doing police trainings that use a few anecdotal dangerous situations and suggest that officers are going to encounter this all the time. So, officers are frightened, approach every traffic stop with the idea that they can die, and are aggressive. This hits all of us. It affects every citizen. And some of us die. 

I’m not anti-cop, I’m all about helping them do their jobs better. They mostly can’t hear that. Even though squeaky-clean people with no criminal past are troubled by police behavior, the police attitude is usually deep resistance to the fact that they’re doing anything wrong.

You’re highly sought after as a media source and you often speak to nonacademic audiences, nationally and internationally. Why is it important for lay audiences to have access to your work?

I’m an empirical scholar: I’m always looking around and watching. I think not only do you study the law and the lived experience of the law, you share it with society—you must. So, I’ve always done a lot of press work and public speaking. I think it’s a fundamental duty of individuals who take from the public in the way that I do to share it with the public as well.

What made you choose Loyola University Chicago? Why do you think this law school will be a good fit for you?

I sought out Loyola. I’ve always had race as a part of my courses, whether I’m teaching undergraduates, law, or public policy students. I believe race is a fundamental organizing principle in society, and it’s there always. So, I talk about it.

In the wake of the George Floyd murder, many schools around the country thought they needed to diversify their faculties. But I had no interest in being the token on a faculty. I was the first Black woman tenured at my previous law school; I’ve been the only one, or one of a very few, for many years. For my next position, I was looking for a community, a community of color and moreover, a community that cared about race. I saw that at Loyola: colleagues across the faculty who cared about race.

When I interviewed, I pressed hard on the racial justice examen process the law school has just gone through. It sounded good, but I wanted to see if it was real. And it was. –Gail Mansfield (August 2022)

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