Currently I am conducting field research associated with the second year of my DPhil. My research project has brought me to three locations in the United States: the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in California, the Plano Police Department in Texas, and the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri. The project explores the extent to which police hiring and training practices can be aligned with community values. The overall aim is to reduce the tension and build trust between police officers and the communities they serve. As part of a process called character-based hiring, members of the community participate in focus groups to identify the character traits they most desire in their police officers.
On 1 December 2017, I received the following email:
Dear Sheriff Bostrom,
I hope this email finds you well. I am a documentary television producer on a brand new series for HBO about policing and policing reform. Over the course of the 10-part series, we are highlighting precincts, departments and programs that have demonstrated success in effective police work and building trust with the community. The series will use both humor as well as original reporting to highlight solutions that could potentially serve as models for other parts of the country. Here's a little more information about the show.
We came across the "character-based hiring" program that you initiated in Ramsey County and is being carried forward by current Sheriff Jack Serier. I was hoping to set up a call with you to learn more about the history of this program, the problems it tackled head on, as well as your current research at Oxford.
I very much appreciate you reviewing this request and I look forward to being in touch.
In response to this request I arranged a telephone meeting and learned that Home Box Office (HBO) was producing a new program titled Wyatt Cenac's Problem Areas. HBO described the series as follows:
A late night series, Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas follows comedian and writer Wyatt Cenac as he explores America’s most pressing issues. Cenac is no stranger to late night comedy. As a longtime writer and correspondent for The Daily Show, hosted by Jon Stewart, he examined a wide range of social and cultural problems facing Americans.
Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas will feature documentary-style field reports that serve as the focal point of each episode. These segments will take him around the country, from suburban Minneapolis to downtown Cincinnati to rural Texas, as he investigates systemic issues from his unique perspective. Cenac will also tackle more benign problems and everyday inconveniences facing Americans, offering comedic solutions each episode.
Initially, I had significant reservations. How would HBO use humor to cover an important topic like increasing trust between the community and the police and simultaneously demonstrate respect for both? After numerous telephone interviews and email conversations, I agreed to participate and provided HBO with documents and data. We discussed in depth that the objective of my research is to test a pathway to increased police legitimacy which includes avenues for intentional inclusion of community voice, fair treatment, transparent communication, respectful attitude, shared values, and consistent behavior (i.e. procedural justice). A key element of this pathway begins with community input to shape police recruitment and hiring. Early indications show an increase in normative alignment, trust, and legitimacy.
On 18 January 2018, HBO arranged to have a four-member production crew fly from New York, New York to Los Angeles, California where they filmed a 90-minute on-camera interview with me and a 2-hour focus group meeting. HBO premiered the program on 13 April 2018. While the entire episode is approximately 30 minutes in length, I have included the 5-minute segment that refers to the research:
Although Mr. Cenac’s staff had gathered numerous details, spent hours interviewing and filming various aspects of the initiative, the episode’s engagement with the research project was quite limited. For instance, they di not include the association with the University of Oxford and the comprehensive fieldwork that is being undertaken in Los Angeles, Plano, and Ferguson. As we sometimes say in the United States, “That's Hollywood!” Nevertheless, in all three locations community members are enthusiastically participating in the focus groups and the departments are already actively implementing their input.
Link to newspaper story about the program:
Link to HBO 5-minute excerpt: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Up3lOxA3UQS9js5gp7fOTbiaVtQJK1gX/view?ts=5af6606f
Matt is a DPhil student in the Centre for Criminology. His research focuses on increasing police trust and legitimacy through normative alignment. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
St Cross College