How Peer Mentorship Can Change Police Departments’ Cultures

The criminologist Geoffrey Alpert says that it’s not just the substance of constructive criticism that matters—it’s also whom that criticism comes from.

An NYPD officer at a gathering for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, in Brooklyn (Stephanie Keith / Reuters)

Geoffrey Alpert has, since 1975, been researching how police conduct themselves, and one finding borne out in his work is that many police officers see themselves as “warriors” against crime. He’s seen that dynamic on display as he’s studied studied racial profiling and the use of force in some of the nation’s most controversial departments, including in Miami and Los Angeles.

Alpert, who is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, has advised police departments throughout the country on how to reduce the use of force and increase trust between the public and law enforcement. One change he commonly recommends is for police officers to provide more constructive criticism to each other.

For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with Alpert about how the balance of affirmation and criticism plays out in police departments, as well as in conversations with his own students. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Elisha Brown: Your research recommends that police officers critique one another on their performance, and that officers might be more receptive to advice coming from an equal than from a superior. What are your thoughts on peer-to-peer mentoring?

Geoffrey Alpert: It’s important to share what you know and support people. Even police officers, when they get too involved or don’t get involved enough, need their peers to correct them. It’s sad to see when people don’t do it—everyone from a police officer to an academic.

Brown: Do you see elements of mentorship when studying police-community relations?

Alpert: Absolutely. We see young police officers mentoring kids and working with them. It’s a mutual understanding, so the cops can understand what the kids are going through and the kids can understand what the cops are going through.

Brown: What made you passionate about criminology research?

Alpert: My first job was in Miami in the 1980s. It was a mix of crime and social change. With all the crime and problems down there, it turned me into someone who really enjoyed doing criminological research.

Brown: Who was your first mentor?

Alpert: I had two. A sociologist named Kenneth Polk, and for my Ph.D., a sociologist named James Short. I learned that just because they approached their work a certain way, it didn’t mean I had to. I passed that along to my students. History has important lessons, but sometimes negative lessons are just as important as positive lessons.

Brown: Who do you pass those lessons along to?

Alpert: I have four or five Ph.D. students that I’ve mentored over the past couple of years. And another young faculty member who I work with and try to share the lessons of my history and my life with.

Brown: What is your mentorship style?

Alpert: A lot of the time it’s hands off, but if it’s something I think is important and that people can learn from, then I get aggressive. I try to get at the reason behind why they made a particular decision. That’s when I do my best mentoring and coaching.

Brown: How do you hope your research will impact society?

Alpert: Some of the research I’ve done on high-speed chases, and use of force, already has. Departments have adopted some of my policy recommendations, and I think it’s saved some lives. There’s nothing more fulfilling than to see a change that you’ve encouraged and shown through scientific methods to work.