By Kieran K. Meadows
A Dutch communications scholar is conducting research on the way the city’s police department and its critics get their messages out in the public sphere. Based on the work she’s done so far, she believes that the two groups both feel victimized by the other, and what they say in public sometimes exacerbates the problem.
Michelle Knight, a doctoral candidate at the University of Groeningen in the Netherlands, is in New York working on her dissertation. She has already written the first part—a historical look at the police department and its critics from the 1850s to the present. Now she is specifically examining the Sean Bell shooting and its aftermath as a case study.
“People are always surprised that I am studying this,” Knight said. “I have a passion for the New York City Police Department. I have a passion for New York history.”
“And I have a passion for polarized communication,” she said.
Knight was a master’s student of American Studies on an exchange program at the University of North Carolina in 1999 when Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, died in a hail of 41 police bullets while he stood in his home’s vestibule.
Knight didn’t understand how it was possible for something like that to happen, so she closely followed the case and the ensuing debate. She went to New York and arranged meetings with police union and community leaders, and became fascinated they held such a different reality on the events that had taken place. She eventually wrote her master’s thesis on the history of the police department, which became the first chapter of her dissertation.
In 2006, Knight was back in Holland when she heard about the police shooting of Sean Bell, who was also unarmed, and killed the night before his wedding. This time, police had fired 50 bullets. Again, she followed the aftermath online, through the indictments of the officers involved, their trial and subsequent acquittal. As methodology, she chose to examine every utterance of a stakeholder in the New York Times’ reports.
“Everybody watches the NYPD and the various claims-makers interact in the press, on the stage of the metropolis,” said Greg Donaldson, a professor of communications at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “But nobody has really studied it in a scholarly way.”
This week, Knight plans to interview City Councilman Charles Barron, Michael Palladino, the president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, and Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. She hopes she can soon secure interviews with the Rev. Al Sharpton and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
It is clear that not being a New Yorker, and more so, being Dutch, a complete outsider, has helped her gain access to people who are normally reluctant to speak.
“There’s no question she’s gotten into a lot of places that I assume if I were trying to do it, I would have a lot of difficulty getting in,” said Dr. Delores Jones-Brown, the director of John Jay’s Center on Race, Crime and Justice. Jones-Brown said that because international police agencies have looked to the NYPD as a model based on its crime reduction success, it was important for a conversation to continue, to better understand what needs to be changed in order to prevent shootings, like Diallo’s and Bell’s, from happening again.
“It shows how important this topic and this particular incident is in the big picture of police-community relations,” said Jones-Brown.
Knight, meanwhile, says her goal in the end is simply to make a difference.
“I hope my findings can help bring people to better understand each other’s reality,” she said.