Research Spotlight: Professors probe behind the yellow tape

For many of us, the only familiarity we have with any kind of crime is whatever is shown on CSI, Law & Order or The Wire.

Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Robert Jackall focuses his studies on intelligence research and criminology. (Sevonna Brown/Photo Editor)

Unsurprisingly, these television shows often paint an inaccurate picture of what crime is actually like in order to maximize dramatic effect. The investigation of a crime and the prosecution of a perpetrator is a more nuanced, complicated process than it is made out to be on television. To explore the issue of crime, I spoke with three professors at the College who do cutting-edge research in different fields related to criminalistics and criminology.

I first spoke with Professor of Natural Sciences Lawrence Kaplan, a criminalist and forensic scientist who teaches the popular non-major course “Chemistry in Crime.” His current research is in fingerprinting. “Many people think that you just dust for fingerprints, but there’s dozens of ways to do it,” he explained. “It depends on the surface that the fingerprint is on, whether it’s a porous surface, or a non-porous surface like glass or metal or something like a plastic bag. I’ve been researching new methods of detecting fingerprints on skin, with lasers playing an important role.”

Kaplan’s experience in the field has been extensive. A self-described “criminalist” who does not specialize in a particular field, he has worked with “a number of professional crime labs” including the Albany crime lab, the New York State Police Forensic Investigation Center, the New Jersey state police, the Connecticut state police and the Florida department of law enforcement. However, he has restricted his current work to consulting for different police departments in Berkshire county. “I don’t enjoy testifying,” Lawrence said. “It’s an adversarial system. The lawyers are not particularly kind, and they’re not paid to be. They try to trip me up as an expert witness or belittle or trivialize what you say. And when a jury hears scientific evidence, they blank out if it doesn’t resemble a CSI show. When I testify, I’m there for the sole purpose of describing what I found. I have no axe to grind.” Currently, when Kaplan does forensic analyses for the police, he does not testify and the evidence that he analyzes does not leave the custody of the police.

I next spoke to Professor of Psychology Saul Kassin, who is on leave for the semester. We discussed his research on the psychology of juries and on false confessions, and I was astounded to learn how much of police and judicial policy lags far behind discoveries in the psychological community. To conduct his research on juries, Kassin created mock trials so that the jury could be closely observed (the filming of real juries is illegal). In one mock trial, he demonstrated that although jurors are instructed by the judge to make their decision a certain way, they can make up their mind along the way and make preliminary judgments. “It was remarkable to watch a judge basically tell the rules of the game after they’ve played it,” Kassin said.

Kassin’s current research focuses on false confessions. He told me that a shocking 25 percent of wrongful convictions are caused by false confessions. “Confessions have always been considered the gold standard of evidence that can be presented to a jury,” he said. “Juries are profoundly influenced by confessions, but innocent people confess to crimes they didn’t commit and this evidence isn’t perfect.” Kassin’s work was cited in a recent piece of New York State legislation that requires juries to see videotapes of interrogations, and he also worked with the American Psychological Association to legislate required DNA testing regardless of confession.

Finally, I talked to Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Robert Jackall, who is currently engaged in intelligence research but also did criminology work in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In his work with the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the New York City Transit Police (now a part of the NYPD), his most significant research focused on the phenomenon of occupational crime. “When the police talk about crime, they talk about how 90 percent of the crime is committed by 10 percent of the criminals,” Jackall said. “What this means is that the most serious kind of crime that people have to address is occupational crime – a group of people who choose to do crime as a way of making a living.”

He told me one particularly vivid story that demonstrated the prevalence of occupational crime. His first interview with a criminal in the course of his research was with an armed robber named Rasheem. Rasheem had been part of an operation that stole money from subway ticket booths, used the money to buy crack cocaine, sold it at marked-up prices in South Carolina, bought guns in South Carolina and then sold the guns at marked-up prices in New York City. “Rasheem took over the interview,” Jackall said. “He said to me, ‘Professor, what do you want? You want to know why I does what I do. Do you have any idea how much money I was making when we was riding high on the J [New York subway] line? I was making $8000 a week, and I could f*** at will, and you want me to get a regular job?’”

As Jackall described it, prison is simply an occupational hazard for criminals. “Rasheem had rings on every finger, gold sleeves for all of his teeth, he bought expensive jewelry for his girlfriend and he brushed his teeth with Moet,” he said.

I asked if he had any idea of how to reduce this kind of crime. “I wouldn’t pretend to guess what should be done,” he said. “But these guys make their living from organized, systematic violence against other human beings, and no amount of education or persuasion is going to make them want to stop.”