My research focuses on legitimacy and government’s relationship with the public. I have had research accepted in scholarly journals such as Administration & Society and The American Review of Public Administration. I especially focus on African Americans’ interactions with government from a street-level perspective to understand how to improve their interactions with and perceptions of government.
My dissertation examines the processes through which public managers can use communications to improve government’s legitimacy. In particular, I consider apologetic communications’ effects on police legitimacy among African Americans. Although government has considered apologizing for numerous other historical wrongdoings and some research identifies apologizing as a potentially legitimizing response to policing’s history, no research examines the causal effect of an apology on police legitimacy among African Americans. In an experiment, I inform participants of a hypothetical police controversy in a community then randomly assign participants to either read a story where the city’s police chief promises community policing policy or promises community policing policy and then apologizes for policing’s racist history. I find only suggestive evidence to support the hypothesis that apologizing improves attitudes above and beyond community policing alone. Many participants expressed a desire for policy implementation. An apology may work as a weak supplement, but policy implementation sustained over time will likely be necessary to improve police legitimacy among African Americans.
My dissertation first considers policing’s history and its influence on policing’s legitimacy today. Historically, police departments have disproportionately enforced against African Americans in a pattern that continues into the current day. Literature review, interviews, and an empirical case study support the proposition that policing’s history is crucial for police legitimacy today. Improving policing’s legitimacy is important, as legitimacy is crucial for the co-production of lawfulness, for institutional accountability, and for police operations. A population that sees government as legitimate is easier to govern; and it is normatively better to govern. If apologizing for policing’s history could secure legitimacy among African Americans, it would be a boon for policing and society.
Research suggests that apologizing may improve police legitimacy among African Americans because it taps into relational components of police-African American relationships. An apology is the only identified policing strategy that directly addresses policing’s history. There are examples of police apologizing for historical wrongdoing but no systematic testing of apology’s effects. However, some research into apology’s effects highlights that apologies might be interpreted as mere words that are not enough to address policing’s history. Furthermore, if racial inequity were to continue in a department that had apologized, its effects would likely dissipate.
My novel survey experiment samples African Americans using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and was administered in July 2020. The findings from this experiment have been accepted and are in press at The American Review of Public Administration. I compared police legitimacy attitudes among African Americans who read a promise of community policing to those who read the same promise and additionally read an apology for policing’s history. I measured attitudes using validated legitimacy measurements including a trust in police scale, a police support scale, and a police feeling thermometer. I found only weak evidence to support apology’s legitimizing effect. Qualitative responses gathered during the survey indicated that policy implementation is crucial for police legitimacy among African Americans.
My experiment and dissertation were inspired by field work from 2017 to 2021, spanning multiple social discourses around policing. I interacted with police officers and activists, interviewed African Americans, directly observed local police reform, and participated in local policy research. I have completed all planned dissertation research and am working to further extend my findings at this time. I plan to defend my dissertation in February, and conversations with my chair communicated that my defense will be successful.
Ongoing and future research
I have several ongoing research projects. One of my dissertation chapters has been accepted at The American Review of Public Administration. My dissertation experiment provides opportunities for extension, and I plan to perform additional experiments to develop my dissertation’s theories. I have one paper in works examining lessons for middle-level managers from challenges in large event management. I have another paper with a coauthor in works examining how contact with the police leads to different levels of trust in the police based on the quality of that contact.
For one potential future research project, I am interested in understanding how popular culture portrayals of street-level bureaucrats procedurally change over time in response to real world events. While pop culture embeds overt messages into media, the public may not internalize those messages or may interpret them through unintended frames. Much research considers public administration themes in popular culture and how popular themes can be used to demonstrate public concepts to others, but no research considers how portrayals procedurally evolve over time nor how the public responds to those changes.
I am generally interested in government’s legitimacy and accountability and how they relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Like policing, much of government has been structured in a way to exclude the concerns of people of color and especially African Americans. Bureaucracy in a democracy must be accountable to all people. My future research will broadly provide guidance for fully including the polity in governance by considering the perspectives and experiences of those traditionally excluded from government influence.
To conclude, my main research interests focus on preventing and correcting racial inequity in public institutions. I plan to publish in top journals and extend my dissertation research into a book.