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Surveying on Surveillance

Criminal justice students gather public opinion on law enforcement use of drones and body-worn cameras before and after the Oct. 1 shooting.

Research  |  Sep 26, 2018  |  By Pashtana Usufzy
two people with clipboard talking a man

Milia Heen, a doctoral student in criminal justice, and a team of UNLV students, including Larry Johnson, are surveying local citizens about the use of surveillance technology by enforcement agencies. (Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)

When a criminal justice student team began surveying neighborhood residents about their opinions related to policing and surveillance technology in 2017, they had expected some challenges. Going door to door asking community members to answer questions about drones, body-worn cameras, and police procedures isn’t an easy thing to do.

Then the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas happened.

Student team members were now meeting residents who either worked at the Route 91 Festival, or helped victims and survivors. Now knocking on doors and asking people to share their opinions about law enforcement took a different turn in the team’s approach to the research gathering, said Milia Heen, a Ph.D. criminal justice student who is coordinating the survey research.

“We’re going to be looking at the impact of Oct. 1 on community perceptions towards police and public safety and people’s receptivity to surveillance equipment,” she said.

Heen helped lead a team of undergraduate and graduate researchers from the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs who have surveyed more than 1,500 Clark County residents in 53 neighborhoods. The team finished data collection in August and expects to release results next spring. The research will include comparisons of how people feel about law enforcement before and after the events of Oct. 1.

The research project is extracting data on how public perceptions of law enforcement affect attitudes toward the use of surveillance technology by enforcement agencies.

The students have been researching these topics under the guidance of UNLV criminal justice professors Joel Lieberman and Terance Miethe on a project funded by a grant the faculty members received from the National Science Foundation.

The data collected includes opinions of residents from low-, middle-, and high-income levels in neighborhoods with predominately Latino, black, and white populations.

Though Nevada was named by the Federal Aviation Administration as one of six drone test sites in late 2013, the unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs, drones) have not been widely implemented by law enforcement agencies here or even across the nation. On the other hand, body cameras are now ubiquitous. A law signed by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval last year mandated that police agencies statewide provide body cameras to officers who interact with the public.

Though support for body cameras is generally high across the board, the same can’t always be said for drones. Previous research conducted by Lieberman, Miethe, and Heen indicates individuals with lower incomes and those who emphasize individualism tend to have higher rates of opposition to drone implementation.

Delving Deeper

In the current surveillance project, the researchers are digging deeper to understand how race and ethnicity affect opinions of surveillance methods. The research group created an online survey in order to compare national and local trends.

Most people believe body cameras can provide transparency, said Miethe.

“I think the bottom line about the national data is that there is clearly a racial divide in terms of public attitudes toward police procedural methods and justice issues. Racial differences in public views about body cameras and drones are not as pronounced,” said Miethe.

Given those qualms as well as the frayed ties between police and some communities across the country, research on public attitudes toward surveillance might be helpful to both police and the community, Heen suggested.

“The project allows us to bring together two major current societal trends, which are police-community relations in the Black Lives Matter era and the oncoming integration of aerial drones into everyday life. It is important to understand how these two factors interact and will impact people,” Lieberman said.

The information can provide local law enforcement agencies in Southern Nevada an opportunity to hear community concerns about the tools and address them before drones and other such technological advancements are widely implemented, Heen said. Such responsive policing is useful to enhance trust between police and their communities.

“People that are down and out and have had some pretty rough and negative experiences with police — we're able to give them someone to talk to about it. I think law enforcement is paying attention to those people's concerns, and hopefully we can talk to different police departments and share the data,” Heen said.

Solution-Oriented Research

"With this project, I feel like we're able to gauge what the public thinks about police, drones, video cameras, government," said Cristian Reyes, a master's student who has been part of the project for about a year. "I never knew there would be so many different voices, so many different people's opinions."

Yanneli Llamas, a senior undergraduate who is double majoring in criminal justice and English, said the research experience has provided her with a range of new opportunities. As a local high school student at a career and technical academy, Llamas majored in law enforcement and had frequent and positive contact with police. She's since been able to compare her experiences with those of the people she meets, and it has reinforced her belief in the strength of Las Vegas' law enforcement community.

"I hope law enforcement sees it in a celebratory way because the research shows that they've been putting in the work but there's still so much more to be done," she said.

Megan Silvia, a senior who plans to graduate in the spring, said engaging in research has encouraged her to pursue graduate work, something she had not previously considered.

“People — a lot of times — hear the word ‘survey’ and they think, ‘Oh surveys don’t matter. They’re not going to make a difference,’” she said. “But sometimes there are big changes as a result.”

Heen estimates roughly 40 students have worked on the project so far, some of whom have gone on to apply for local law enforcement jobs. For those students specifically, this is an opportunity to hear honest feedback from the community they soon may be policing.

Heen’s own path to graduate work began with an unplanned offer to do research as an undergraduate student at UNLV. To see other students take the same path is “like coming full circle,” she said.

"It's research methods in action," she said. "In the class, everything is by the book and it seems like it's just this perfect process. Nothing goes wrong and everyone answers. But they're really seeing research in action and dealing with issues."

Reyes, who currently works in juvenile probation, said he initially joined the project because he wanted to get a first-hand glimpse of the research process. Since then, he's learned just what it means to give a voice to the public in such a forum. As a Spanish speaker, he's been able to assist residents who prefer to take the survey in Spanish.

"To be able to talk to them about their experiences with police and how the police work, it was rewarding," he said. "On several occasions, after we were done with the survey, they said, ‘Thank you for allowing me to express my opinion.’ They're not always able to.”