Applying Anthropology in Criminal Justice Evaluation: An Interview with Patricia San Antonio

Police Call Box, Washington, DC © Jennie Simpson 2014

Police Call Box, Washington, DC © Jennie Simpson 2014

Welcome to the latest edition of the Practicum feature! In today’s column, I highlight my conversation with Dr. Patricia San Antonio, an applied anthropologist who has worked in the field of monitoring and evaluation of criminal justice programs for the last 20 years. Dr. San Antonio is a senior research analyst and project director at a social sciences consulting firm in the Washington DC metropolitan area.  In the interview we discussed Dr. San Antonio’s career, her focus on monitoring and evaluation of criminal programs and the unique contribution of applied anthropologists in criminal justice work. Read on for more!

Jennie Simpson: I understand you began your career after graduating from Arizona State University in 1991. Can you describe your career trajectory after returning to the Washington, DC area?

Patricia San Antonio: In graduate school I focused on the anthropology of work, urban communities and ethnicity. I did my work in Japan in an American-owned technology company with Japanese employees on ethnic relations. It was non-traditional already, and when I got my PhD, and was looking for academic work a lot of people said to me, well you’re not really a Japan expert, I don’t really know what you are. And even though I got interviews the kind of consensus was, “You don’t really fit into traditional anthropology.” However, starting early in grad school, I had done a lot of fieldwork. I had also worked in urban communities in upstate New York, with elders, ethnic Eastern European and Italian elders. And so I had a strong fieldwork background, and I really wanted to do that. I came back to Maryland, which was my home, from Arizona State and I was just trying to find anything. And I found, just by looking in the want ads, that they needed interviewers for a University of Colorado project on middle school students…In the meantime, one of my friends, who I knew through grad school called and said that he heard about a federal project and they were actually looking for ethnographers. It was to work in Baltimore, to work with these family support centers and low-income young mothers, teen mothers, and it was related to Head Start. They actually called it an ethnography, and I haven’t really seen that since, especially in federal work. The job was about half-time, and I did observations, interviews, focus groups, wrote reports, and went to meetings. They had twenty-six sites, and there were a couple of sites in very low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore and then one in the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Somebody in the Eastern Shore asked me what I was doing and when I told them, they asked me if I would do a project for them. And it was evaluating an educational program for at-risk kids. And so I did that. I trained them to interview and analyze their data and help them evaluate as a final report. That’s how I started. And then my personal situation, my mother had a stroke and suddenly my ability to be out in the field everyday- and I was starting to get independent work, really starting to look for people to help me. I couldn’t do it anymore. So I went and I started teaching at night as an adjunct, just so I could continue in the field while I was taking care of my mom, and helping my father take care of my mother. One of the things that happened was while I was doing that, I got the chance to work on a process evaluation of a police corp training program. I got it because I had all the experience in inner city Baltimore and it was based in Baltimore. It was a community policing initiative funded through the federal COPS office.

JS: What was the scope of work for this project and how did it intersect with your own interests?

even though I got interviews the kind of consensus was, “You don’t really fit into traditional anthropology.”

PSA: It was a program to train community police officers for Baltimore, and I did a process evaluation of the training program. It included a lot of observation, interviewing, fieldwork. I started going on ride alongs and started going to posts. That’s how I really got into the law enforcement work. When you say your [career] trajectory, it gives you the feeling that you should know where you’re going to end up. But when you start, it’s just getting your foot in the door. And you just start. And what I think happens is your interest takes you further and further into it. And so I did that, and became very interested [in law enforcement]. I had already worked in these communities, pretty poor communities, and all of a sudden I was in them again, but from a little different perspective- with young men and women, mostly men, who were learning to be police officers in these communities. And I don’t think any of these people in the training program were from the Baltimore area. So they were seeing some of these areas for the first time, after I had already had three or four years experience there, so it was interesting to me to see what they were going to be dealing with. And then seeing also the issues between the police department, and how that worked, and implementing community policing, which is a little bit different. I think they were having kind of a hard time figuring out how to integrate it into the department.

JS: What did you bring to the project that was uniquely anthropological? What skills and methods did you use in this work?

PSA: My background in the anthropology of work, thinking about how people do their work, how they think about it, how they organize it, the constraints they have in those jobs, that’s what I think really helped me. And also the perspective of trying to understand why something is happening- what they say is happening and what should be happening…I remember going on a ride along with a police officer, and it was a pretty poor area of Baltimore, but also an industrial area, and parts of it were kind of nice because it was near the Inner Harbor. We actually went from one hotel where a movie actor was there to shoot a film and there was an autograph collector who wouldn’t leave. We left there and went to a family funeral where one of the daughters was high on crack and breaking up the house to something where a little kid in one of the row house neighborhoods yelled racial epithets at someone and it just emptied the row houses and it became this huge community issue about this little 7 year-old who had used the n word. I was amazed to see what this police officer encountered in a single shift, from really wealthy people all the way down to really unstable family situations… I remember one of the guys who went through the training and became a rookie. He had a Masters in sociology, and he was very thoughtful. He would talk about his role, what he was doing and why he was doing it. He was telling me once, the constraint with being a community police officer was you were stuck in a particular area working in the community. It wasn’t that it was bad. But if you wanted to get anywhere in a police department, you had to know how to do stuff. You had to know how to handle whatever problem came your way. And that really came with experience. So you really needed to be out there, handling all these different calls, going in to all these different situations and learning what your role was and how you could manage it. And if you were just stuck in one area working with community members you never got anywhere.

I thought the best cops were kind of like ethnographers, they had to be

There’s a famous case in Baltimore actually where there was a drug dealing dispute. It turns out two men went into a family home and it was a very grisly murder of all the adults in the home. But left were minor children, dogs, drugs, guns and it was very grisly. And he told me he went to the scene, and it was chaos. Absolute chaos. Then he watched an older cop come onto the scene, and he took charge because he was the senior officer and within 25 minutes that thing was just totally working. The guy said, the minor children need- call the social worker. Get the truck out to corral the dogs. Evidence takes the drugs and guns. You go house to house. He got things cordoned off. And he told me, that’s what I want to be able to do. I thought, police officers take care of stuff that we never have to deal with…They’re not just oppressors. You get to know them as people and you see them trying to learn how to negotiate it. And I could see a lot of empathy officers had for the people they worked with, too. A kind of sense that there were real constraints to what people could do. And you know, I thought the best cops were kind of like ethnographers, they had to be. I also understood that phrase about the bad apple, because so much that they learn, they learn through oral culture. Through example. And that’s kind of like what anthropologists do.

JS: You now specialize in monitoring and evaluation of justice programs. Can you describe one or two projects that have had particular importance or meaning for you and why?

PSA: Even though it didn’t last a long time, this project I did with Girl Scouts Behind Bars. I still think about it. It got me reading a lot of written work by prisoners in our system, women and men. The program is for incarcerated mothers and their daughters. What they do is bring the girls to the facilities- the prisons- and they have Girl Scout meetings in the prisons. In a lot of these places, mothers can’t touch their kids. They’re separated by plexiglass. But in this, they can actually come together and the mothers can have some connection with them, physically as well as getting to know them. They usually couple that with parenting classes for the women. So helping them interact with and parent their daughters even from prison. This was an evaluation of the program and one of the things I did is I went and actually observed one of these days and I met a lot of the women prisoners. That day really stuck with me. I went to the facility for one day and then I worked on the evaluation for much longer.

PSA: The other one was the American Indian youth police academy. After seeing the police corps academy [in Baltimore], which was mostly male, it was neat to see an academy- a summer-type school- for kids, which was gender equal. Even the instructors were half female and I really liked that. I thought, “wow, that’s how it could be.” The women were FBI agents, Secret Service agents, police chiefs, police officers, state troopers- so women who were in criminal justice and corrections. And I just thought that was great. I really thought that was an incredible experience. I would love to see that in other police trainings.

JS: What is uniquely anthropological in your work?

PSA: An understanding of context. For example, when we do focus groups, I feel very comfortable with that. I feel like I can understand not only what we need to know but who we’re going to be talking to, how we need to approach them to think about and talk about the topic. So it’s not just, I have a list of questions but also an understanding of what’s going to help the people we’re working with. Or how can I elicit or give people a chance to talk about what’s important to them. A lot of times things we didn’t think were issues but kind of emerge- I feel like that’s something that anthropologists are really good at identifying.

JS: How have you negotiated the uneven terrain of power in your work with justice programs and criminal justice systems and organizations?

Policing often has a lot of political implications. You’ll get into situations where people will be concerned about what you’re doing or they’re worried about what you’re going to write.

PSA: Policing often has a lot of political implications. You’ll get into situations where people will be concerned about what you’re doing or they’re worried about what you’re going to write. Or they’ll suddenly revoke your access. I’ve had all of that. I’ve had a couple situations where I was sweating how I was going to handle it. But I think that’s also part of, that’s what happens when you get access to people. And you’re also really getting into what they’re doing and understanding it. That’s scary for people. When they get to see how much access you have, when they begin to see your understanding of it. They worry they can’t control it. And it’s never the police officers who are like that. I found that it was much more administrators, much more higher up. They’re worried about how am I going to control what you know. And is what you know going to bite them in the ass basically.

JS: In closing, I asked Dr. San Antonio what suggestions she had for emerging scholars and early career anthropologists interested in pursuing an applied career path focused on criminal justice systems, policing, and security in North America. She suggests:

  • Volunteering with direct service organizations that focus on justice-involved populations and offer prevention and mentoring programs.
  • Internships with organizations, such as the Vera Institute of JusticeThe International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Police Executive Research Forum, and The Police Foundation.
  • State and local criminal justice coordinating councils and program offices. Emphasize the skills that you bring to the table: observation, interviewing, analysis.
  • Data analysis in corrections settings. Learn quantitative skills!
  • Become familiar with evaluation methods and implementation science- the push for evidence-based policy, practice and research and performance measurements is here to stay.
  • Keep your eye on emerging issues that are particularly suited for anthropological methods and analysis, including policing and special populations (LGBTQ adults and youth, homeless individuals, people with mental illnesses, and ethnic minorities), domestic violence, trafficking, and migration.
As always, we welcome your feedback. If you have any suggestions for this feature (topics to address, individuals to invite, etc.) send an email to with the word “Practicum” in the subject header.

3 thoughts on “Applying Anthropology in Criminal Justice Evaluation: An Interview with Patricia San Antonio

  1. Pingback: Police as ethnographers | Modern Policing

  2. Pingback: Around the Web Digest: Week of July 27 | Savage Minds

  3. Pingback: DragNet: Sept 22 – Oct 5, 2014 | Anthropoliteia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s