Keywords: Race, Law and Policy, Jury Decision Making, Police Brutality, Racism
Title: The problem is multifaceted: police brutality and juror decision making. An interview with Professor Jennifer Hunt (University of Kentucky).
Article By: Laura A. Wirth
Baldy Center research fellows are scholars with law and policy related interests who are linked to the Baldy Center community and UB faculty by their participation in workshops, lectures, conferences, and research collaborations. Jennifer Hunt was a Baldy Center Research Fellow from 2015 to 2018, and she contributed to dynamic interdisciplinary conversations among Baldy Center affiliates and UB faculty. Professor Hunt now is a faculty member at the University of Kentucky, where she continues her research on juror decision-making about police killings of community members of color.
Jennifer Hunt’s current research on juror decision making about police killings of community members of color was shaped during her participation in the Baldy Center’s Buffaronto Sociolegal Conversations in 2017. The Buffaronto event brought together scholars from Buffalo and Toronto to discuss pressing topics related to current sociolegal research questions. UB School of Law’s Anya Bernstein organized the event around a “call for problems,” reviving the Regional Sociolegal Studies Conversations tradition, in which the Baldy Center participated in from 1993 to 2008.
Laura Wirth of the Baldy Center spoke with Professor Hunt about the conversation on police brutality she led at the Buffaronto event and how Hunt’s research has taken shape since then. At the event, Hunt talked with colleagues about the lack of convictions following police killings and the many factors that contribute to this problem. “If you look at the data, there are not charges for the vast majority of police killings. A small percentage get to a grand jury, but grand juries frequently fail to indict them. And then for the very small percentage of cases in which there’s an indictment, often juries end up acquitting,” Hunt said. “There are lots of factors involved in this problem. Many prosecutors and police work closely together, so prosecutors are reluctant to file charges. Also, legally, there’s a lot of protection of police officers in the field.” Hunt explained that in the courtroom prosecutors and jury members are often supportive of officers’ subjective accounts of feeling threatened.
The problem is clearly multifaceted. Hunt recalls, “I was presenting that as a conversation on how we can approach this as scholars and the different pieces that we might be able to study.” Now, nearly three years later, in the charged landscape of research in the areas of racism and police brutality, Hunt’s research on juror decision-making continues. “I collected data from a study in which we had mock jurors, citizen participants, read and responded to summaries of cases that actually did go to trial.” Her team found a spread in responses from the mock jurors, concerning whether police should be held legally accountable for their actions. Hunt explained that some factors that predicted juror responses were “participant race and confidence in the justice system, obviously racism, also things like whether people engage in system justification, which is believing that systems work the way they’re supposed to, and social dominance orientation, which is support for social hierarchy.”
When asked whether and how her research has changed due to the pandemic, Hunt noted that much of her research has gone online. Online research has the advantage of allowing for a more representative sample, but Hunt she admits that it provides some unique challenges as well. She believes that in the online context, it’s taken extra effort to work out “how to tap into peoples’ honest responses given the heightened salience of the Black Lives Matter movement.” Professor Hunt’s continually evolving methodological approach fits well with the notion that research must inevitably transform and take new shape in our rapidly changing world.
Laura Wirth is the Assistant Director of the Baldy Center. She holds a Master of Science degree in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences from the University at Buffalo. She collaborates with Baldy Center staff to develop and support Baldy Center projects, fellows, research, and conferences.
Jennifer Hunt, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Psychology and an Interdisciplinary Fellow of the College of Law at the University of Kentucky. Her research addresses two overarching issues: lay people’s judgments and behaviors in legal contexts, and the ways in which people’s judgments and behaviors are influenced by gender, race, and ethnicity.