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Husband and wife professors come to the middle on crime

Two people loving life.
February 04, 2016

The dinner conversation at the Terrill-Pizarro household is often lively and robust, sometimes taking on the dynamic of good cop/bad cop. Sometimes literally.

William Terrill, who grew up in a working-class white suburban town in eastern Pennsylvania and was a member of the Military Police in the Air Force, saw the good side of police. Meanwhile, his wife Jesenia Pizarro, a self-proclaimed ‘Jersey girl’ who grew up in an inner city housing project, can share scenes of police brutality.

Together, they make an interesting couple.

The two ASU professors arrived from Michigan State University in January and study the flip side of criminal justice, often using their research to educate each other.

And sometimes not.

“When we first met in 2000 she told me that my dissertation on police restraint was essentially crap,” Terrill, a new professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said with a laugh.

“I grew up where police were viewed mostly as positive and it took some time for us to see eye-to-eye. But often Jesenia demonstrates to me the other side based on her past experiences.”

That other side was an inner-city housing project in Newark, New Jersey, where Pizarro grew up. It was where she saw up close how crime, drugs and undue force — which was also displayed by police — ruled the neighborhood.

“I knew drug dealers. I knew people who got shot. I knew people who were homicide victims,” said Pizarro, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “And interestingly enough, you always knew someone who were beat by the cops or allegedly mistreated by police.

“I wanted to do something and had this vision of getting the bad guys because I was surrounded by it all the time. As a kid I often wondered why people do what they do and what can we do to make it better?”

The two professors, who married in 2005, have made life better for their students, police departments and the public through their research.

"I don’t do research just to get my work published in a nice journal. I want my findings to have real meaning and do something for that community.” — Jesenia Pizarro, associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice 

Terrill’s research on police restraint and use of force is complex, insightful and timely in light of the crisis of confidence about the integrity of law enforcement over a string of shootings across the U.S. — some of which were captured by citizen video and viewed nationwide.

“A lot of my research, even dating back to the mid-1990s, shows that three out of every four police encounters with the public shows that they were using less force, not more. Police were often de-escalating as a citizen was trying to escalate at the verbal level,” Terrill said. “They were using persuasion, their voice commands and the very thing we ask officers to do. Police are very good at their jobs and use great restraint but it still leaves us with a percentage who aren’t doing those things and stepping over the boundaries, the legal lines, the policy side.”

Terrill said police work is ugly by nature and when it gets caught on camera in urban distressed areas, it raises uncertainty nationwide.

“People start to think, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Maybe my perception has been wrong all this time,' ” Terrill said. “There will be short term growing pains and with that I think the long term gains will be much more positive than we’re seeing now. Body cameras and dashboard cams will provide more transparency and then there will be a level playing field for citizens and police officers. Police who may have a tendency to go over the line now may say, ‘I may get caught now, so I won’t do that.’ ”

Pizarro mainly studies homicide and why people kill. She says most of homicide research focuses on the socioeconomic issues, but she is looking in a different direction.

“I’m much more practical and focus on the proximal causes; what will increase the likelihood of being killed,” Pizarro said. “What are the immediate odds that will increase the likelihood of homicide? Lifestyle, location, situational events, demographics, owning a gun — issues that help me get at the real problem. I don’t do research just to get my work published in a nice journal. I want my findings to have real meaning and do something for that community.”

Homicides are down and so is violent crime as a whole, Pizarro said, adding that crime is like an accordion and comes and goes in waves.

“If you look at the history of mankind as we’ve become more civilized, we’ve become less violent. If you look strictly at homicide rates, this is the safest the country has been compared to 10-15 years ago,” Pizarro said. “Having said that, certain areas, mostly in the inner cities, have not felt that decrease.”

These days Terrill and Pizarro say they have also become more civilized when it comes to their points of view, each one coming around to the other’s way of thinking.

“As I have grown older and gained more experience, I don’t discount the fact that there are still bad cops out there,” Pizarro said. “But I’ve also had the opportunity to learn there are far more good police officers than bad. I have seen homicide detectives put in many extra hours trying to crack a case and officers patrolling communities who have good interaction with the people in the neighborhoods.”

For his part, Terrill says he has seen police departments resist change and not so keen on taking advice from outsiders. However, he says the last two years have forced departments to change, or else.

“There’s plenty of progressive police departments prior to this current problem but the ones who are holding onto the old ways — paying lip service to trust and community policing — are now saying they can no longer avoid it anymore,” Terrill said. “A great local example is Sheriff Joe (Arpaio, Maricopa County Sheriff). He was dead set against body cameras and then all of a sudden he made a comment recently, pretending he wasn’t against it at all and that his department has been at the forefront of the issue. Even he’s saying without saying it, ‘I can’t resist this movement of accountability.’ ”

One thing Terrill and Pizarro can agree, ASU is a place where they can make a difference.

“I love the urban feel of the Downtown Phoenix campus and it’s a great place to be a criminal justice professor,” Terrill said. “It brings a lot of research opportunities because you have many mid-to-large sized law enforcement agencies here and I know it will yield a lot of great work.”

Pizarro echoed the sentiment.

“The name of the college alone makes me want to go out into the community and translate research into real life,” Pizarro said. “I’ve always wanted to make a difference and let’s face it, inner city girls like me who grow up in the hood rarely get to a professor at a top research university. It just doesn’t happen.”

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