“I was one of those people who watched shows like CSI when they first came on the air…”
Dr. Sandy Jung’s eyes just rolled out of the back of her head. “Oh no! No, Keira, don’t say that! Noooooo!”
Dr. Keira Stockdale is a psychologist with the Saskatoon Police Service and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Saskatchewan in the department of psychology. She is the current Chair of the CPA’s Criminal Justice Section, and she’s explaining what got her interested in psychology and, in particular, the psychology of criminal justice.
Dr. Sandy Jung is a Professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton. Her research is in forensic psychology, and she is trying to keep it together as she hears the words she dreads the most. TV shows that represent criminal justice science, in inaccurate and badly misleading ways, have been a thorn in her side for some time, it seems!
“I’m cringing because I hear this from students all the time. They get interested because they watch these TV shows and it’s sexy, it’s very interesting. To be honest I never watch crime shows and I still hate them to this day! So when students recommend something like Dexter to me, I just can’t. I won’t.”
Any student who thinks they’re getting into the world of CSI when they head off to school is quickly disabused of the notion. No crime is solved through DNA analysis and the identification of eucalyptus on a shoe sole in an hour. Very few investigations are enhanced by the taking off, and then putting back on, of sunglasses over the majestic riff of Won’t Get Fooled Again. This is, of course, true for Dr. Stockdale as well. She continues,
“I went to U of T to do a forensic science degree. And in the process of doing gel blots to compare the DNA to see if they match at a crime scene, I realized that the classes I was taking about the people who were actually perpetrating these crimes were way more interesting. From there I was fortunate enough to do a placement with the OPP in their Behavioural Analysis Unit. After that I just continued to get more and more people-focused, and that took me down the path of clinical forensic psychology!”
Yes, the Behavioural Analysis Unit is a real thing. Many of us even know all the shorthand – BAU! Unsubs! CODIS! Thanks a bunch, Criminal Minds! It will likely not come as a surprise to learn that a real-life BAU has precious few private jets, video-game spinoffs, or cameos by Jason Alexander. Dr. Stockdale says,
“When you walk in there are no pictures of people and phones ringing and all that – it’s just a quiet office where people do really good investigative work. They also develop risk-assessment tools or other methodologies that we can use to combat crime such as domestic violence and internet-facilitated sexual exploitation.”
So what, then, do psychologists who specialize in criminal justice actually do? Is it like B.D. Wong’s character on Law & Order, or more like John Francis Daley’s character on Bones…”no”. Dr Jung says there are two main types of psychologist involved with criminal justice, but that the field is incredibly broad with hundreds of different specializations.
“A clinician is probably the prototype of what we think of as a ‘Criminal Justice Psychologist’, but that’s only one half of it. The other half is the research and experimental psychology side. Not just research within practical settings like correctional or treatment facilities, but also research in terms of how the legal system intersects with psychology. Every decision that we make has a psychological component to it – it’s making decisions about how you interview a witness, or a suspect. How you’re gathering data and how you interpret it. And in the courts there are so many different decisions that get made that psychologists examine, like sentencing or jury decision making.”
Jury decision making, you mean like that guy in Bull who…”absolutely not”. Dr. Stockdale says that most psychologists who work in this space are, in a way, jacks of all trades and masters of just one or two.
“To be a good forensic or criminal justice or police psychologist, you’ve got to be a good generalist. We’re bringing a lot of our general psychological knowledge and our clinical understanding into this area of practice. At present, working with a police service, I’m working with an interdisciplinary team that tries to assess risk and intervene with serious violent offenders. The team has prosecutors, police, community probation, correctional facilities and mental health workers – and also psychology residents. We’ve developed risk assessment tools as psychologists that our partners in, say, probation or policing use. So part of our work is educating this team about how we can work together to really help these justice-involved individuals with histories of violence. Many have mental health needs, and we want them to get the services they require while promoting community safety. At present, we’re looking to develop greater virtual services and we’re also doing some great stuff with big data, predictive analytics, and modelling to try to improve risk assessment technologies. How do we assess needs for our clients, how do we know who’s at risk for re-offending, and why. We’re also applying that same technology to missing persons cases.”
One of the most well-known missing persons cases in the past decade in Canada happened in the Village in Toronto. Between 2010 and 2017, eight men from the gay community went missing. It was eventually determined that they had been murdered by a serial killer, who was arrested in 2018. The handling of the initial investigations by the Toronto Police Service into these missing people has come under heavy criticism and led to several inquiries and reviews. The external independent review was conducted by Judge Gloria Epstein. It was a failure on the part of the police, and the gay community in Toronto was failed. But Dr. Stockdale is hopeful that meaningful change will come about as a result.
“I’m optimistic that we’re going to see more and more academic partnerships with all areas of criminal justice going forward. We did work around missing persons, that came out of people reported missing in The Village in Toronto. In Judge Epstein’s report, she recommends that police departments (in this case Toronto) work with academic institutions and researchers because then you have people to support you in evaluating your programs and initiatives. People can’t do it alone – it’s a resource issue, but it’s also an issue of cognitive thinking and attitudes. The more we can work in interdisciplinary teams in criminal justice, the more we can guard against biases and maybe test out some of our assumptions or interventions. We can then tailor those going forward.”
The field of criminal justice psychology is always moving forward, always changing, and always (if slowly) getting better. Dr. Jung says the key to this is knowledge mobilization – the process by which research comes up with data and answers and then translates that work into real-world changes and best practices.
“We need to have a lot more knowledge mobilization going forward. There’s still a ton of research that has to be done, but we need to do better at implementing things that we already do know. There are some really nitty-gritty practical questions that we can help to answer. We know that high-risk groups should receive more supervision, but where is the cutoff? How many hours should we spend administering treatment? We’re disseminating this information, but we’re not putting it to use in practical terms the way we could be. The reality is that it takes about seventeen years before any evidence gets implemented. I remember hearing that citation once and thinking ‘well, that’s depressing!’”
Seventeen years is indeed a depressing statistic, and change can certainly appear slow. But Dr. Stockdale says she can see that change in many facets of criminal justice, including the work that she herself has done.
“I look at some of the psychological assessment reports that I wrote for justice-involved individuals years ago, and I realize just how much practice has changed. Canadians are known internationally for our development of risk assessment tools and technologies. Assessment years ago was a judgement call – will this person re-offend? Maybe? Now it’s a lot more structured and evidence-based. Now we look at a bunch of factors and figure out where we can intervene or provide support to reduce a person’s risk for violence, sexual offending or general criminality. Our treatment programs are much more focused than they were decades ago, as we really hone in on these dynamics or changeable factors.
We’re moving from negative and stigmatizing labels toward more positive language. Like ‘justice-involved individuals’ instead of ‘offenders’ or ‘inmates’. We are also moving away from focusing on the negative in treatment of people – and I think this is particularly important for youth in the criminal justice system – we’re accentuating the positive things like strength and resiliency.”
Another way criminal justice is changing is in terms of social justice. Again, this is a very slow process, as the justice system has so many giant components that it is a huge ship to steer. Dr. Jung says that researchers in the area have historically stayed in their own silos, but that this is changing now with social media and digital data making collaboration and interdisciplinary work easier and more accessible. She also says there is a long, long way to go before the justice system in Canada and those around the world achieve the equity toward which they strive.
“There are a few court cases that really brought attention to something that everyone already knew existed, but that we hadn’t investigated as much as we should have. It takes those cases to remind us that this is an incredibly important issue. When it comes to equity diversity and inclusion, there are certain subgroups that have been looked at but not all – we’ve done very little when it comes to gender, for example. I’d say we’re barely scratching the surface of the issue.”
Dr. Stockdale says that in thinking about issues like Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous oppression, she thinks about how little training in these matters she received when doing her clinical psychology PhD. In addition to educating teams, there’s a need to continue to discuss these issues more broadly. We’re moving into an era of smart prisons and risk-assessment apps, so she thinks maybe we can use technology in positive ways to move us down this road. She is also an advocate for a larger overall shift in philosophy.
“I think there’s a need to involve community groups and organizations, special interest groups who work with some of these populations and people. We, as criminal justice psychologists, like to apply science, but we also recognize that’s only one way of knowing. And in the justice system we have to be open to and respectful of other ways of knowing. That will be a challenge going forward, and I think we need to put a lot of focus there.”
Even the TV crime shows that create interest in criminal justice are starting to make a shift toward social justice themes – at least they’re trying. It’s often awkward, and sometimes ham-fisted, but then most of those shows are already awkward and ham-fisted. We know by now that it was not televised crime shows that got Dr. Jung into psychology – so what did?
“I was going to go into psychiatry, initially. I took a course in the third year of my undergrad at UBC with John Yuille and Robert Hare. Dr. Hare is the developer of the psychopathy checklist, and I found that so interesting and sexy and all of a sudden I was interested in a whole different field. From that point onward I started volunteering in some labs and gaining interest in both eyewitness testimony and psychopathy. I knew at that point I was in for good. It’s been quite a journey from there – I would never have thought I would go from doing forensic mental health to today working with police detectives on how they manage offenders in the community.”
Alright, one more pop culture reference. Dr. Robert Hare appeared in the 2003 award-winning Canadian documentary film The Corporation, where he appeared to conclude that, were a corporation a person, it would check almost all the boxes on the psychopathy list. However, in later edition of his book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, Hare suggested his comments were taken out of context by the filmmakers, and that in practice a corporation really wouldn’t meet the criteria of being called a ‘psychopath’.
As the vast subject of criminal justice grows and matures, and the psychology that accompanies it does as well, both Dr. Jung and Dr. Stockdale want to make sure we know that things are, in fact, getting better. That no matter how bad something looks today, remembering what it might have looked like twenty or thirty years ago shows that we are in fact making progress. Dr. Stockdale says,
“You’re safer now than you would have been in previous times, just walking around. Back in the 80s there were all these Stranger Danger campaigns and this kind of thing, imagining that you were most in danger from that unknown person who was lurking around a corner somewhere. Now of course, we know that you’re most at risk from people you know, and we’re all more aware of that now. We may not like these true crime podcasts, or cringe at CSI type TV shows, but I think there may be a protective function in that some of the evidence we’ve learned in criminal justice that’s talked about on these platforms has actually made us safer.”
Dr. Jung cringes.