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ISU Professor On What Could Unlock Better Police-Community Relations

Miltonette Craig
Illinois State University
Miltonette Craig is an assistant professor in Illinois State University's Department of Criminal Justice Sciences. Craig’s primary areas of research include police-community relations, race/ethnicity and crime, courts and sentencing, and prisoner reentry.";

The Jacob Blake shooting has sparked an outcry across the country. When Illinois State University professor Miltonette Craig heard the news, she felt a sense of hopelessness.

“It’s hopelessness, anxiety, and dealing with the thought of, ‘Who’s next?’” she said. “I don't know how much louder we can speak, how much kneeling we have to do, or how much marching to show that this is a problem. We had our focus on George Floyd and then found out about Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, and this is just 2020. It’s like here we go again.”

Craig, an assistant professor in criminal justice sciences, said the only thing that makes Blake’s story different is that he’s still alive.

“He can speak about the incident when he gets more strength. We can't hear from George Floyd, we can't hear from Philando Castille, we can't hear from Sandra Bland, but we'll be able to hear from Jacob Blake. I'm hoping that will spark the change that is necessary.”

Since the shooting, there has been a wide range of conversation. Craig said from her observations, discourse surrounding the shooting has been divisive.

“Race and law enforcement is one of those areas where we see people disagreeing and you see a lot of blame. I read the comments on news stories and see a lot of, ‘Well he was reaching for a knife,’ but it’s like, are we gonna excuse the fact that there were seven shots fired while someone was not facing you?” she said.

As counter protesters quarreled with demonstrators in Kenosha, Wisconsin days after the shooting, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse carried an assault rifle alongside others who claimed to be protecting the area from destruction. Later that night, two people were shot and another was injured. Some claim Rittenhouse acted in self-defense. 

Craig said based on the history of events, if Rittenhouse was Black, he would not be alive. 

“He would not still be standing, and he would not have had the opportunity to be arrested because he would have been seen as more of a threat,” she said. “In addition to that, with public discourse you expect to see ignorant things, but the extent of them are just mind boggling. I saw a headline about Tucker Carlson where he said Rittenhouse only went out there because he had to take it upon himself to restore law and order in Kenosha, because the police weren't doing their job and the protesters were creating disorder and disruption. So he felt as if that was his civic heroic duty to go and institute law and order. That rationalization is very disheartening because we know that if roles were reversed, it wouldn't be the same narrative.”

Improving police-community relations

For police-community relations to improve, Craig said there has to be a concept of legitimacy in the eyes of the community that is being policed. One proven tactic to obtain this is through outreach.

“There has to be the idea that the law enforcement agency is here to protect us, as opposed to this law enforcement agency is here to make problems for us, harass us, or lock us up for no reason. If historic patterns have looked that way, it’s up to the agency to begin the outreach,” she said. “I do believe the burden is on law enforcement. They’re the authority figures in these situations and they are aware that their perceptions are not positive from a lot of community members, so I believe that there should be outreach teams in these departments that make it a point to connect to community members.”

Craig said once the community sees the police as legitimate, then they are more likely to assist with law enforcement. 

“For instance, with watching over their own communities. They're more likely to work with police in solving investigations if they feel that they will be safe, that the police aren’t going to use things against them, and trust that they are going to have their best interests in mind,” she said.

“So they have to get away from the militaristic view of policing. They have to get away from this concept known as broken windows policing where it appears that they are being harassed for minor crimes like loitering, panhandling, and things like that. If we feel we cannot exist without being stopped and frisked and then pulled over, then you can't show us that we're on the same team.”

To scale up these tactics, Craig said cultural competence and sensitivity training could be the first step to improving police-community relations.

“Police agencies are fairly independent. So for instance in our area here, we have four different main agencies. We have Normal PD, Bloomington PD, ISU PD, and the McLean County sheriff's office. So you have these four different agencies that could each have a different perspective on how to deal with the community, how to police crime and address violence or drugs and how to decide how to engage,” she said. 

“If they can't on their own agree to do similar tactics, then we're gonna have disjointed responses like we do now. There would have to be some kind of national policy that would prompt these agencies to work together so that things are more uniform. Unless we see the motivation for uniformity and equal treatment across the board, we're gonna keep having those mismatched ideals that one agency has a good rapport with its community but the agency on the other side of the tracks doesn’t get along with its community because they're doing completely different things and not addressing the specific needs of their areas.”

In 2009, Craig earned her law degree at Georgia State University. She completed her Ph.D. at Florida State in 2018 and has taught courses in criminal law since settling in at ISU. During her two years here, she said she’s never had any direct issues with police as it relates to discrimination, but has dealt with its effects on her students.

“It's most disheartening when I hear about negative interactions involving my students and it’s a constant thing for them to have to go through. Having to get pulled over multiple times a week when this is where you live, your car is registered in your name, you're not driving over the speed limit, and your music isn't too loud. So why are you being pulled over again and again? People may see it as, ‘Oh, well, it's just an inconvenience.’ It's not. It’s actually something that can terrorize individuals experiencing these interactions because with the news that we see now, how do you know this is just going to be a pullover where you give me a ticket and I can go on my way? This could be the last time you take a breath.” she said. 

Hearing her students' experiences keeps her drive to pursue the field going. With today’s events, Craig said she’s even more motivated to extend her research and be a part of the solution.

“The fact that I have to stay after class to sooth a student who was talking about a negative interaction and how they felt villainized and devalued when all they did was move to this place to get an education. Their experiences are what keeps me motivated. Carrying experiences are important to our behaviors and decision-making. We don't have to have that experience ourselves to know that it's something we don't want to see, so I think now more than ever I am committed to this area of research and doing my part to improve the situation and make it so that this era has to end. We can't continue going like this.”

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Tiffani Jackson is a reporting intern at WGLT and a student at Illinois State University's School of Communication. She started working at WGLT in summer 2019.