By Katherine Sinyavin

In response to recent incidents of police brutality and subsequent political protests, Julian Go, a professor in the Department of Sociology, organized a two-day conference called “Reimagining / Reinventing  Police.” This virtual event, held July 30 and 31, brought together experts from a variety of fields to present their research, ideas, and observations about policing and police reform, and to engage in discussion with other panelists and attendees.

Go says that the “conference was conceived by faculty members in Sociology in response to the protests against police violence that have been erupting across America’s cities.”

“The conference emerged from a recognition that people seem to be increasingly interested in police reform and that previous attempts at reform have not done their job. There seem to be shortcomings and failures in previous attempts to reform policing. We thought that we needed to provide a space in which people who have been thinking about these issues and advocating for different kinds of police changes can come together to share ideas,” says Go.

The conference was free and open to the public – attendees from all over the country joined the dialogue. The audience was “from all over the country and represented a diverse population. Many were professors and students, but others were activists, policymakers, and former police officers.”

Go invited speakers through connections in the Division of the Social Sciences and also extended invitations to those speaking to the media about the issues addressed in this conference. For example, he read an editorial that Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, the alderman of Chicago’s 33rd Ward, had written, saw her perspective as an important voice at the conference, and emailed her team to ask if she would like to participate.

Eight panels were held over the two days. Every panel ended with a Q&A, where the audience had the opportunity to ask the speakers questions. Many questions probed for, as Go said, “real-world solutions to difficult problems of racism and policing.”

The first panel, “Reinventing Police” explored the necessity of police reform from different angles. Philip McHarris, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Yale, discussed policing at a housing project in Brooklyn; Alyasah Sewell, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Emory, talked about the long-term health implications of oppressive policing; while Alex Vitale, Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, discussed the politics surrounding police reform.

The fifth panel, “Comparative Perspectives: Latin America, France, the UK” explored historical and current practices in policing in different parts of the world. Adam Elliot-Cooper, research associate at the University of Greenwich, talked about policing in the UK and its close connections with slavery; Yanilda María González, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, discussed policing and the difficulty of police reform in Latin America; while Musab Younis, lecturer at the Queen Mary University of London, described past and current protests against policing in France.

Videos from the conference are available on the Division’s YouTube channel.

Because this conference was held virtually over Zoom, it could reach a much wider audience. However, at a virtual conference, “attendees miss a lot of the informal discussions and the in-person dynamics that can really advance discussions,” Go explains. “There is an energy and electricity in a room where there are speakers that can stimulate minds a little bit better than over Zoom.”

For Go, one of the highlights was that many of the panelists questioned the title of the conference, which referred to “reimagining” and “reinventing” police.

“Many speakers criticized those terms, suggesting that the concepts did not characterize enough of a radical transformation and preferring ‘reinventing public safety.’ To me, this was a highlight because it signaled that the conference had done its job: to get people talking, criticizing, and debating possible alternative futures.”

Go emphasizes “how grateful the Sociology department is to the Division of the Social Sciences for providing a platform for controversial and critical voices. We are allowing a lot of diverse opinions to be offered, and I think it's wonderful that the Division, in the true spirit of the University of Chicago, is giving us a space to do this.”