December 05, 2007

Schafer helps police futurists assess trends

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Even before the latest techno-gizmo hits the consumer mainstream, Joseph A. Schafer is trying to figure out how it could be used to break the law.

Schafer, an associate professor with the Center for the Study of Crime, Delinquency and Corrections at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is part of the Futures Working Group, a collaboration between the FBI and the Society of Police Futurists International.

Schafer recently edited two national reports prepared by the FWG – "Policing 2020: The Future of Crime, Communities and Policing," and "Policing Mass Casualty Events." The general goal of both reports, he said, is "lengthening the horizon."

"We take the long view," he said of the approximately 30-member FWG. "We're trying to get people to look a little further."

The FWG is focused on how to take steps now to deal with crime and justice issues that will probably develop in the future. The group researches predictable trends to prepare countermeasures to foreseeable problems. This kind of foresight involves a whole lot more than just second-guessing the criminally minded. Schafer said, for example, it's not enough to know that online social networks such as MySpace and Facebook are a mainstay of today's teen-age and college-age populations. It is also important to understand how these networks affect the perception of community, and what that means in practical terms.

"We've got people who spend more time online and feel closer to people half-way across the country or even in other parts of the world than they do to their actual physical neighbors," Schafer said. "It is a community, and for some people, their cyber identity is an important part of who they are."

It is also important to study demographic trends to prepare for other potential problems or significant shifts in community. How will a given area be affected by immigration, by a rise or decline in minority populations, by male to female ratios, by changes to the median age of a given population? Answering these questions and getting a sense of how a community defines itself is particularly important, Schafer said, in this era of community policing.

"Policing and Mass Casualty Events" focuses on "big events that influence a lot of people and interrupt government services," Schafer said – events like hurricanes and wildfires.

Putting it simply, the researchers found that "bureaucratic approaches don't work particularly well" in emergency situations. That may seem obvious, with the problems of Hurricane Katrina so widely publicized. However, Schafer said, it is true on the microcosmic level of a community as well. And the solution isn't as simple as it might seem.

"Police officers are pretty well-conditioned to wait for orders," Schafer said. There is good reason for that. Police officers – and the municipalities they represent – have liability and civil liberty issues to consider. A governing body doesn't want to be saddled with a lawsuit because a police officer exercised excessive or improper individual judgment – even during an emergency. Hence, Schafer said, handling emergencies cannot be about loosening authority, but rather about teaching police officers how to use discretionary authority.

"Officers use judgment on a daily basis – just not the type of judgment often needed in these types of situations," Schafer said. "Officers need to be better prepared to use their judgment properly in more extreme and unusual circumstances."

Generally, Schafer said, both issues – mass casualty events and policing for the future – require curiosity.

"We need to be more curious," he said. "We need to think about the future and what we want it to look like. Then we have to look for a path and find a way to get there."

"Policing and Mass Casualty Events" is available online here:

"Policing 2020" is available here:

Schafer joined the faculty at SIUC in 2000. He teaches courses in sociology of policing, criminal justice management and administration, policy and program evaluation and extremist organizations.