Scrutinizing Crime: Chris Smith

Assistant Professor of Sociology Chris Smith researches crime and inequality, criminal relationships, and criminal organizations. She is also deeply committed to supporting and mentoring students — especially those typically underrepresented in academia.

Chris Smith - UC Davis
Chris Smith

Chris Smith received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2015 and joined the faculty at UC Davis that same year. Her work has been published in American Sociological Review, Crime & Delinquency, and City & Community, and she has an advanced book contract with University of California Press.

Smith’s newest project investigates officer-involved fatal encounters. She says that while some criminal justice statistics are available, journalism and citizen science are covering the content better, albeit with much missing information. To fill this void, Smith and her team are creating a database, Police and Civilian Outcomes of Threatening Encounters (PACOTE), inclusive of “detailed information on fatal police shootings and comparative cases of non-fatal police shootings.” Her primary objective for the project is to contribute to the national discourse on police violence, a conversation that is not currently informed by much empirical evidence.  

Scraping data by hand 

Collecting data for this project — which was supported by a 2015-16 Individual Research Grant from the UC Davis Institute for Social Sciences — was a systematic and painstaking process. Every 24 hours, the same keywords had to be searched for in online news reports on threatening events. Up to three hours a day could be devoted to this effort. As search results come back, every article was scoured by human eye. With no servers set up to scrape for data and no adaptive technology in play to code the results, this was a uniquely human labor-intensive project.

The data may help researchers better understand the interactions between police officers and civilians, highlighting mechanisms that may explain variation between fatal and non-fatal encounters. Completion of this in-progress database will allow for an analysis of such encounters. 

In 2015 alone, police officers killed 1,145 civilians. Says Smith, “In a criminal justice system already fraught with racial, gender, and class bias, it is unclear whether these fatal police shootings were predictable outcomes of the current criminal justice system or if there is something more systemic happening during the threatening interaction between police officers and civilians.”

Analyzing threatening events

Analyzing threatening events - Chris SmithSo how far along is the project? Smith reports that downloading and organizing are complete, and the team is currently coding 11,638 news articles collected from the daily searches. “To date we have identified 5,640 threatening events between police officers and civilians across 2015, and we have coded 1,381 threatening events that resulted fatally and nonfatally from January 2015 to early April 2015.” Still, she says, there is much work to do before the final results are ready for review. 

Nonetheless, analysis of the first portion of the data has begun, and these preliminary findings “show that about half of threatening events between police and civilians in our sample end with police violence directed at the civilian and about 18% end with fatal police violence.” Police killed more white civilians; however, the findings also show that when blacks were involved in threatening interactions, theirs, as compared to whites’ and Hispanics’, were more likely to end in violence than not. 

Engaging students as active learners

Though committed to her research, Smith also values her role as an instructor. In 2017, she co-led an ISS Proseminar titled Social Network Analysis for Social Scientists, which began by introducing graduate students to basic network visualization and customization and went on to train them in advanced modeling and the visualization of complex data. In her department, Smith regularly teaches SOC 150: Criminology and SOC 151: The Criminal Justice System to undergraduates, as well as a graduate seminar on the methods, theory, and application of social networks. Her main focus for undergraduates is to develop a solid foundation for data literacy and to make and critique evidence-based arguments.

In 2016, Smith was a selected faculty member for the Center for Educational Effectiveness’ Engaged Learning and Teaching Community. In this community of practice, Smith collaborated with like-minded faculty members from other disciplines to further develop evidence-based pedagogy and practices. Smith’s pedagogy focused on Team-Based Learning, a method of instructional delivery that engages students as active learners, critical thinkers, and collaborators.

In one of her classes, her team-based learning culminates in a “Poster Day”, when teams of undergraduates showcase and communicate their research to other invited faculty and students. Smith values the way these days help preparing students to discuss their work, as they will likely have to do in job interviews down the line.

Supporting the underrepresented

Smith’s commitment to students does not end in the classroom. She also mentors many undergraduate students through the PACOTE lab. As a first-generation college graduate herself, Smith understands her ability to make a difference for students from backgrounds similar to hers, and she is intentionally attentive to it. 

To this end, she staffs her undergraduate lab with students who are typically underrepresented—in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomics, citizenship, gender, sexual orientation, or family history—in order to provide opportunities for social science research to those who might otherwise miss out. In this research setting, undergrads volunteer and learn key skills in basic spreadsheet use and data management, supplementing their nascent resumes. 

Finding a balance 

In her research, her teaching, and her service, Smith sets a high standard for herself. Her inclination is always towards producing the best results, which inevitably leads to ever-greater time commitments. 

“I don’t know how to not create, to not do things, to not be myself,” she says. There is obvious tension in finding the balance between such high aspirations and healthy living, but there is no doubt that if anyone can find that optimal space, Chris Smith can. 

— M. Rossi

This article originally appeared on the website of the UC Davis Institute for Social Sciences