Charting the contours of hate

December 15, 2018

Professor Jack McDevitt’s research on bigotry and violence helps officials investigate and prevent bias crimes.

Among the many highlights of his career, Jack McDevitt says, one that stands out was being invited to the White House and hearing President Bill Clinton order the Justice Department to follow the recommendations included in a 1998 report McDevitt had authored on how to improve the reporting and investigating of hate crimes.

“It’s about as good as you can get as a social scientist,” McDevitt says. “I’ve been very, very fortunate in that in Massachusetts and nationally, policy makers have taken the research that my colleagues and I have done and used it to change policy.”

McDevitt, who is director of Northeastern’s Institute on Race and Justice, a professor of the practice in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and who in July became faculty director of the college’s degree programs in the security and enterprise continuity domain, has been using empirical evidence to change laws and approaches to policing for more than 40 years. He has spoken internationally on hate crime, racial profiling, human trafficking, and security and as an expert witness before the Judiciary Committees of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, in addition to his advisory work as an invited expert at the White House.

Throughout, he says, collaboration has been essential.

“All of the research that I’ve done has been in cooperation with others,” McDevitt says. “Community members are involved. Other academics who have different skillsets than I do are involved. My colleague, Amy Farrell, for example, who is co-director of the Institute of Race and Justice, has incredible skills in terms of doing qualitative research interviewing people and that sort of thing, and I’ve learned a lot from her. She does that really well. We have members of our community advisory board who have the pulse of what the African American, Latino, and Asian communities are feeling, and they are wonderful. I had a graduate student who is now a faculty member at American University, Janice Iwama, who has really strong quantitative skills and was able to do some more sophisticated analyses of some of the data that we had. Everything we do is as a team.”

First-generation college student

The first in his family to attend college, McDevitt graduated from Stonehill College in 1975 and, after a brief stint managing a Marshall’s department store in Natick, Massachussets, he decided to continue his education. He landed at Northeastern, where, while pursuing a master’s degree in Public Administration, he took a work-study position at the Center for Applied Social Research, assisting the research of the late Dr. William J. Bowers, who for years was Principal Research Scientist at the university’s College of Criminal Justice.

At the time, Bowers and his colleague Glenn Pierce, a principal research scientist in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, were examining data surrounding the recent reinstatement of capital punishment in Georgia, and McDevitt’s job required him to read the narratives of 300 murders that had subsequently been adjudicated in that state.

“I was incredibly shocked by how evil one person can be to another,” McDevitt says, “and I was trying to understand — because people aren’t evil — how that came about and what causes this behavior.”

Figuring out why people commit acts of cruelty and violence — and how best to prevent them from doing so — would become the animating questions of McDevitt’s career. In 1983, he was approached by a Boston police officer charged with leading the Boston Police Department’s (BPD) response to hate crimes. The officer asked McDevitt for his advice on the investigative process, and gave him access to the BPD’s records. Drawing on the trove of data, McDevitt led a study aimed at ascertaining what characterizes hate crimes and how best to investigate them. Soon, police departments in other cities were seeking his guidance as they formed their own hate crime units and task forces.

Then, in 1990, the U.S. passed The Hate Crimes Statistics Act.

“The issue there was, they wanted to pass a federal hate crimes law,” McDevitt says. “But because at that time the groups that were being protected included what was then [known as] the gay community … many states and many senators and representatives wouldn’t support it. So advocacy organizations went for the best thing they could get, which was, if we can’t get a law that makes [hate crimes] illegal, can we at least get a law that says we should count how many there are, so we know what kind of problem it is? That got passed.”

Such a law required a data collection system, and it wasn’t long before McDevitt got a call from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) asking if he could help them devise one. He did so while continuing to crisscross the country with the FBI, training police in how to identify hate crimes, how to investigate them, and how to effectively report the statistics around them. Central to those trainings were the typologies or definitions for hate crimes and hate crime offenders that McDevitt and Jack Levin, now a professor emeritus at Northeastern and co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern, would explicate in detail in two books: Hate Crimes: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed (Plenum Press, 1993) and Hate Crimes Revisited: America’s War On Those Who Are Different (Westview Press, 2002). The typology has become a standard in the field and is currently taught at the FBI Academy, in most police academies, and in more than 30 countries.

Understanding offenders

In his books and trainings, McDevitt details how hate crime offenders can generally be divided into four groups: “thrill seekers,” who may not have any particular animosity toward a specific group but simply attack those they perceive as different for what they perceive as fun; “defensive” attackers, who “think their turf is being invaded by outsiders”; “reactive or retaliatory” attackers who hear about a supposed act of violence and seek vengeance for it; and those offenders he says are often the deadliest — and who he notes are the least common: “mission” attackers, who see themselves as on a crusade “to rid the world of evil as they see it.”

These groupings help law enforcement officials both to understand the motivations behind hate crimes and to investigate them. Statistics behind each category highlight likely characteristics — such as age, gender, and the proximity of their homes to the crime scene — that can provide detectives with insight in their search for perpetrators.

Such insights are critical as, according to the FBI, hate crimes are on the rise. Statistics released by that agency showed a 17% increase in hate crimes in 2017 compared with 2016. The 2016 figures were up nearly 5% from 2015.

“The fact is,” he says, “from a social science perspective, guns have not been a weapon of choice [for hate crimes]. Now we’re starting to see, not a trend toward using guns, but a number of high profile cases where guns have become the weapon of choice. Whether we’re talking about the Pulse Nightclub or we’re talking about a Jewish temple in Pittsburgh, or we’re talking about the shooting in San Bernardino, you have people going out and using guns to go after a particular group.… We haven’t seen strong data about it. We have seen an increase, but it’s not statistically significant yet. But we have seen these highly publicized events, and it just scares me to death to think that that might start to happen.”

Mitigating gun violence has long been among McDevitt’s chief concerns. After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Speaker of the Massachusetts House Robert DeLeo tapped McDevitt to head a Committee to Reduce Firearm Violence. Following eight months of study, and meetings with police, mental health professionals, youth, pro-gun groups and anti-gun groups, the panel released a report with 44 recommendations for how to improve the gun laws in Massachusetts.

“[DeLeo] teased me when he got the report,” McDevitt says with a laugh. “He said, ‘I know I wanted you to make changes, but 44?’ And I said ‘Yeah, well, that’s what the members of the committee think would help.’”

When Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick signed new gun legislation in August, 2014, it contained 42 of those recommendations, a result McDevitt found immensely gratifying.

“I’ve always believed you can use social science to change public policy,” he says. “And here we were able to do good social science that documented the problems with gun violence and work with the legislature to get that passed into law.”

Data, not politics

McDevitt’s scientific approach has not always been well-received. In response to a 2004 study on racial profiling in Massachusetts law enforcement, for instance, some police chiefs expressed their displeasure with the results by personally delivering critical responses to his home address. But this kind of thing, to McDevitt, only confirms that he has done what he sees as his essential job: reporting his findings based on data, not politics.

“We’re social scientists, so we’re not advocates,” he says, “and that’s been one of the goals of my career. My credibility as a researcher comes from the fact that I can’t tell you ahead of time what we’re going to find.”

Since July, McDevitt has been applying his expertise to the development of the college’s security and enterprise continuity domain, which offers courses in national security, risk management, and negotiation, among many others. Having been involved in studies of security at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, and having participated in analysis of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, McDevitt brings to the role a deep understanding of the issues involved in justice and homeland security. He has been drawing upon that knowledge to expand the domain’s approach to teaching about responses to both threats of terrorism as well as natural disasters made worse by climate change. 

“The faculty in the program have extensive experience in the fields of Homeland Security and Criminal Justice and I believe they prepare our students better than any other program in the country,” McDevitt says.

“I’m glad to be able to bring to bear on this role some of the things I’ve learned over the years,” he continues. “We have to understand that we are facing more and more complex threats to our homeland than ever before, and we need to work to prepare our students because they will be making us all safe in the future.”