Traci Burch, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, presented Hamilton’s annual Constitution Day Lecture titled “Public and Media Attention to Officer-Involved Killings.” Her talk detailed the constitutional right to protest and examined how effective protests are in holding police accountable for officer-involved killings.
“Protest is a fundamental right of the American people,” Burch began, going on to give an overview of the First Amendment. She then described Supreme Court precedents that help define protest as we know it today, emphasizing Americans’ right to peaceably protest. Burch particularly acknowledged the recent surge in protests and police violence against protestors throughout the United States. “I think it’s important to highlight here that protests, even the peaceful ones, face violence from local, state, and federal officers,” she said.
Noting the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, Burch detailed the importance of studying how often officer-involved killings receive media attention and how protests can affect political change. She presented statistics on officer-involved killings in the United States over the past several years and her own findings on media underrepresentation of officer-involved killings. Burch said that a lack of media coverage on officer-involved killings, perpetuated in part by police and city efforts to conceal and reframe the killings, has led the public to recognize and protest over some deaths more than others.
“Protests fall short in a number of ways because the public is not equipped to undertake regular investigations of police conduct,” Burch said. As such, a lack of public “perceptibility” of officer-involved killings leads some victims to go unrecognized despite protests occurring over similar incidents.
However, protests influence politicians and public discourse surrounding victims. Burch noted that protests signal to politicians that they need to pay attention to the demands of minority groups and demonstrate the prevalence and significance of specific issues to the public. “Black Lives Matter has gained in popularity, especially after the death of George Floyd ... and now the majority of Americans think that police violence is a problem,” she said, providing an example of how protests have impacted American political thought.
After her lecture, Burch fielded questions about counter-protesting, defunding the police, and methods of responding to those against the Black Lives Matter movement.
In addition to teaching at Northwestern University, Burch is a research professor at the American Bar Foundation. She is the author of Trading Democracy for Justice and co-author of Creating a New Racial Order. Her work has also appeared in journals such as Law and Society Review, Criminology and Public Policy, and Political Behavior.
The lecture was sponsored by the Government Department and the Victor S. “Torry” Johnson III ’71 Fund.