Minnesota Law

Spring 2024

Just Policing: A New Sawyer Seminar at the University of Minnesota

Can policing ever be “just?” That question will be at the center of a Sawyer Seminar at the University of Minnesota, slated for the 2024-25 academic year. “Just Policing: Transnational Perspectives on the Definition and Possibility of Justice in Law Enforcement” will bring together leading scholars and community activists to think about policing and its future. 

Sawyer Seminars are funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support comparative inquiry on pressing social issues through the perspectives of scholars from a variety of fields. 

Through a transnational and humanities-based approach, participants in the Just Policing Sawyer Seminar will seek to understand how historical narratives of policing have shaped justice in law enforcement. Conversations and public events during the Seminar will focus on the histories of policing in the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well as on contemporary efforts to reform or abolish policing. Scholars and activists will build upon historical analysis to reimagine what constitutes justice in policing. 

“Our goal is to build a space for students and faculty to think together and productively about the field of carceral state history and its future potential directions,” says Yalile Suriel, assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota and one of the interdisciplinary faculty members leading the seminar. “By examining policing around the globe, we will explore the many ways that policing has developed and operates.” 

Prof. Susanna Blumenthal

Other faculty involved in the seminar include University of Minnesota Law School law and history professor Susanna Blumenthal; history scholars William Jones and Patrick McNamara; sociologist Michelle Phelps, who authored The Minneapolis Reckoning: Race, Violence, and the Politics of Policing in America; Sarah Balakrishnan, a scholar of West Africa who completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota and is now an assistant professor of history at Duke University; and sociology graduate student Eric Seligman

The group plans to bring speakers to campus who are at the forefront of policing research and thought. “We hope they will spark not just discussion but also ideas that push the field in new directions,” says Suriel. 

Taking a historical, transnational approach 

A historical and transnational approach is imperative for the seminar, says Blumenthal. “There are many reasons to regard the U.S. as exceptional, both in terms of the scale and severity of punishment in this country,” she says. “But we need to think historically and look beyond our own laws, institutions, and practices if we are to meet this moment. We need to better understand how our models of policing have both shaped and been shaped by those in other times.” 

Suriel says that much of the conversation on policing remains focused on the United States and that seminar leaders hope a transnational perspective will open new queries about the histories of policing and point toward solutions for the future. 

Balakrishnan is one of the scholars bringing this transnational view to the seminar, having researched issues about policing across British colonial Africa, especially Ghana. “Policing is not just an issue in the U.S.,” she says. “The origins of policing differ greatly so we need to trace them to understand common themes. I want to understand better what the role of policing is and has been in societies in comparison to their needs.” 

Prof. Sarah Balakrishnan

People often think of issues of police brutality as new issues, but Jones, whose research focuses on labor and race in the U.S., says there is a long history of reform efforts. “We can all benefit by understanding why these efforts have succeeded or failed, and in the context of a really long history, we can start to identify the lessons learned,” he says.

Bringing multiple perspectives to bear 

Jones recently wrote a report with Community Change and the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School about collective bargaining and how it might help with police accountability. When he saw the call for the Sawyer Seminar, he readily signed on to be part of the initiative. “There is a cluster of scholars working on this topic nationally and globally,” he says. “A comparative approach with interdisciplinary perspectives can help us step outside our own discipline and think in new ways. Sociologists and legal scholars have been paying attention to policing for quite a while but it’s a relatively new topic for historians.” 

Prof. William Jones

For Blumenthal, the Sawyer Seminar offers an invaluable opportunity for sustained, interdisciplinary conversations. “This project can bring in students and faculty from the Law School who have investments in this field into conversation with scholars in other disciplines as well as activists and community leaders working within and beyond this university,” she says. “I’m very excited about the way the Law School can be part of these conversations and the collaborations and institutional changes that may result from them.” 

Inviting community into the discussion 

This Sawyer Seminar will have a significant public-facing aspect. Leaders agreed early on that they wanted to engage people who are working on policing reform in the conversation. “We bring the academic lens but the community who will attend can bring real-world experience to help with the generation of ideas,” says Balakrishnan. 

Professor Michelle Phelps

Phelps notes that this work is particularly important in the city where George Floyd was murdered and where city leaders and residents are grappling with major changes to public safety. “While the charter amendment failed at the ballot booth, changes to public safety are still happening on the ground that will continue to shape policing here and nationally,” says Phelps. “The Sawyer Seminar on Just Policing will bring together scholars, activists, community leaders, and the public to ask: ‘What might it take to create just policing?’” 

Sustaining a year-long conversation 

The Mellon Foundation funding will provide for a research assistant, two Ph.D. candidates, and a postdoctoral scholar for the Seminar. A group of about 15 graduate students will meet weekly to hear from faculty, postdoctoral scholars, and guest speakers from around the country. Approximately three times each semester the public will be invited to a presentation and discussion. 

“We have in mind a series of wide-ranging interdisciplinary conversations, even as we focus intensively on policing, with the aim of rethinking what we do in the name of public safety,” says Blumenthal. “Our hope is that the Seminar will foster transformative work that advances the cause of justice.”