By Hailey Stiehl
Duke Graduate School Communications Intern
At a time when relations between police and communities, particularly marginalized groups, are highly strained, one of the key questions is this: How do we know what the most important factors are in helping and harming the relationship between police and community?
The answer to that question could lie in Ajenai Clemmons’ research.
Clemmons, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in public policy, has concentrated on examining police relations with community members, particularly with young men who grew up in heavily policed areas. In her research, she centers on conducting in-depth interviews about the experiences of both African Americans and European Muslims.
“As a scholar, I wanted to examine the precise safety needs of residents who suffer from both high crime and heavy-handed policing tactics,” said Clemmons. “Then, I wanted to tie that understanding to policy recommendations that law enforcement agencies and municipal leaders could implement.”
Two key experiences helped lead Clemmons down her current path of research: helping to establish a government agency in Denver composed of civilians that oversaw police investigations and directing policy in Washington D.C. for a national association of Black state representatives and senators.
After her experiences in Denver and D.C., Clemmons moved into her research, something that would take her not only into Duke’s own backyard, but also across the Atlantic to England.
“I’ve spoken with dozens of African American men in East Durham and Muslim men of Bangladeshi descent in East London to find out what they need from police to be and feel safe, how they assess police performance, and their actions and non-actions when they feel that police have not met their expectations,” Clemmons said.
During field work in both locations, Clemmons focused on conducting in-depth interviews, collecting responses, and scheduling appointments with subjects, something that appeared as an unexpected challenge in London’s Bengali community.
“It was harder than I expected to break into London’s Bengali community, because it is so tight knit,” she said. “I recruited a small number of men by posting flyers at grocery stores and barber shops, while on foot in high pedestrian traffic areas, at libraries, and as they exited mosques during Ramadan. But I did not gain momentum until networking led me to recruit players and spectators during soccer tournaments.”
Clemmons said that one unexpected thing she came across in the course of her interviews was the effect that the conversations had on the subjects themselves.
“Every time an interviewee thanks me for our interview, I am struck anew with gratitude,” she said. “Often, men express surprise at themselves that they had so much to say, as well as the sensitive range of topics they covered. They also speak of a weight having been lifted, and that they felt better—even lighter—by the end of our conversation. It has been deeply meaningful to listen as folks have shared their stories, opinions, and recommendations.”
Clemmons’ end goal is to provide recommendations to law enforcement and elected officials on what community members need from police in order to feel safe. One of the greatest recommendations she would give, particularly in regards to current events, is to lend an ear to marginalized voices.
“The truth is that marginalized communities have consistently relayed their concerns and recommendations for years—decades even—and most of society has not been listening,” Clemmons said. “Those who are most negatively and deeply affected by others’ decisions are at best ignored or stifled under the reasoning that they are ‘uneducated’ and ‘don’t know what they’re talking about.’ One thing allies can do is recognize that people have been at this for a long time. While it may be newly on their radar, there is nothing new about the debate.”
Clemmons discussing her research and her experience at Duke