Victor Kappeler, foundation professor and associate dean of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University
The shrill sound of a speeding police car has most of us turning to look as we scurry out of the way but giving little thought to where it is going, what has happened or who is involved. Police and the criminals they pursue are interesting, scary and even a bit exciting, but not something we expect to encounter in our own lives. Still, we can’t get enough of crime on the big and little screens, and our penchant for the grisly knows no bounds. Murder, kidnapping and theft become thrilling plots, and shows involving the police, FBI or Homeland Security give us a terrific view of how things are really going out there. Or do they?
Out to dispel the myths surrounding crime and its effects, Victor Kappeler, foundation professor and associate dean of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University, has spent the past 30 years working with local and federal law enforcement to improve policing policies and procedures, enhance relations between police and the community, and bring outdated ideas of crime prevention and punishment into the new millennium. Kappeler is a gifted teacher and prolific scholar who has written and co-authored several books and dozens of articles, and served as a consultant to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. He has helped turn EKU’s School of Justice Studies into a nationally and internationally recognized program and placed Kentucky squarely on the map of progressive justice education.
Jokingly referring to his early interest in law enforcement as “pragmatic and practical,” Kappeler describes his perception of the police officers he saw around his Woodridge, Ill., neighborhood. “I came from a working-class background, the son of German immigrants, and I knew I didn’t want a blue-collar job. The police were driving around in air-conditioned cars. It was a better life.” But fancy cars weren’t all he considered as he contemplated both his environment and his future. “I understood crime,” says Kappeler, “and I knew the way out of poverty was education. I wanted to actually do something.”
After earning an associate degree in juvenile justice and a bachelor’s in police administration from EKU, Kappeler worked as a criminal investigator/police officer for the University of Kentucky’s Department of Public Safety. But memories of what he witnessed growing up were fresh in his mind, and a desire to make things better became a guiding force. “I was struck by the inefficiencies and injustice in police operations,” Kappeler says. “They seemed detached from the community, and there was a capacity to use violence.”
Today’s police leadership reflects an affinity for higher education and boasts many officers with advanced degrees, which can go a long way in creating innovative programs and easing the tension that often exists. Kappeler wanted to encourage this and rid the police-community relationship of much of the violence, racism and injustice he noted. He also did not want to suffer the physical and emotional wear and tear he observed in so many of the older officers. “I saw their problems and saw myself in 20 years,” says Kappeler. “And I did not want to become that.”
Kappeler’s desire to improve things from within led him to attain a master’s degree in criminal justice from EKU in 1985 and a Ph.D. in the same from Sam Houston State University in 1988. After serving at Central Missouri State University as an assistant professor in criminal justice administration and an associate professor of police studies, he accepted an associate professorship at EKU in 1992. With an immense respect for law enforcement, Kappeler focused his work on bettering the relationship between police and the community, and dispelling what he refers to as the “thin blue line” mentality. “The public perception is not reality,” Kappeler says. “We internalize the media version,” a version readily reinforced by a Hollywood-driven aesthetic that sends fans careening toward stylistically portrayed violence and deviance as a means of entertainment. The glamorous iteration of murder, rape and other violent crime feeds our morbid curiosity but does little to provide insight into the mechanics of crime: Who does it, why, and what can be done to reduce it? These questions are the basis of Kappeler’s research and scholarship, and largely define his professional goals.
“We sensationalize violent crime,” says Kappeler. Whether that crime comes from the constant barrage of television and Internet news coverage or something we pay $12.50 a pop for at the theater, we develop a profile and narrative that is inaccurate, incomplete, and often driven by unrealistic fear. “We need an empirically based picture of what crime is all about,” he says. “Otherwise, the distortion makes the public aggressive in terms of the justice system, and that distortion turns into policies that don’t work.”
In Community Policing: A Contemporary Perspective, which Kappeler co-authored with Larry K. Gaines, chair and professor of criminal justice at California State University-San Bernardino, the authors present a new perspective regarding the police-community relationship. An excerpt from the first pages regarding a change in “the American police institution” exemplifies Kappeler’s paradigm shift: “It is a dramatic change in the philosophy that determines the way police agencies engage the public. It incorporates a philosophy that broadens the police mission from a narrow focus on crime and law enforcement to a mandate encouraging the exploration of creative solutions for a host of community concerns—including crime, fear of crime, perceptions of disorder, quality of life, and neighborhood conditions.” In short, the police and citizenry need to work together if progress is to be made on crime prevention, elimination of stereotypes and elevation of individual security and standard of living within the community.
One aspect of Kappeler’s vision is a shift in control from police-dominant to an interdependent relationship between the community and law enforcement. “The police surrender some control to the community,” says Kappeler, “and we can have a real partnership.” That partnership creates a symbiotic relationship between the public and the police, which is critical if the real issues surrounding crime are to be addressed. Kappeler adds, “We have too many social and political problems that become police problems, and police are seen as negative.”
Citing a misdirected social and budget impetus to have more officers and build more prisons, Kappeler notes the blind spot in state and federal policy. “We have the wrong image of the homeless, and we don’t want to spend tax revenues on issues like mental health and low-income housing—which is cheaper than building prisons,” he says. “Instead of prison for many, we should be addressing substance abuse, unemployment and lack of job training.”
The view of prison as a rehabilitative process was almost entirely abandoned in the 1970s as reports of negative results were widely published. Robert Martinson’s well-known 1974 article “What Works?—Questions and Answers About Prison Reform” offered a simple, deflating premise: Nothing works. His conclusion that rehabilitation had little effect on recidivism rates helped reshape the view of prison from one of “fix the problem” to one of “contain the problem.” While a viable argument certainly can be made for keeping criminals off the street, placing them in an environment that accomplishes little more than make them better criminals does an enormous disservice to both the perpetrators of the crime and the society in which they live. “Why return them to the same environment?” asks Kappeler. “Substance abuse is a huge problem, and our programs are not there yet. Meeting with parole officers once a week is good, but we need to divert more money to rehabilitation programs.”
His desire to address problems from the ground up keeps Kappeler rooted in the police-community relationship. When asked about the current state of policing, his admiration and respect for the men and women in blue are obvious. “Policing has progressed dramatically,” states Kappeler, “and the police have become more progressive than the politicians. Crime is down, brutality is down, and police departments are more engaged in the community.”
Kappeler has been a consultant for dozens of local police forces, state and federal law enforcement agencies, and various criminal justice organizations, and has provided expert testimony in several court cases. His work with the Lexington Division of Police as an educational and training consultant has helped foster the concept of community policing, and Kappeler is complimentary of the work being done in central Kentucky. “Lexington does a good job,” he says. “They have recruits out picking up trash in neighborhoods, they hold neighborhood meetings, and they have one of the most highly educated police forces around.”
The cornerstone of Kappeler’s community policing philosophy is dispelling outdated concepts or stereotypes associated with crime. These myths, as Kappeler refers to them, exaggerate and exacerbate events and actions related to criminal behavior, and create new or unnecessarily emphasized social problems in their wake. In The Mythology of Crime and Criminal Justice, Kappeler and co-author Gary Potter, an EKU police studies professor, address this tendency toward sensationalism as both a driving force in the public’s perception of safety and fodder for political policy. The book begins with the authors’ perspective and an explanation of the dangers associated with assigning mythological status to pragmatic problems that need real solutions. “As crime-related issues are debated and redebated, shaped and reshaped in public forums, they are conjoined with social and cultural values,” they write. “Once transformed into an expression of deep-seated cultural anxiety, the mythical social problems are incorporated into the public consciousness. The power of crime myths comes from their seemingly natural explanations of crime. Crime myths can shape our thoughts about and reactions to almost any issue related to criminal justice.” And how we, the public, view and respond to these issues is as much a part of the process as the crime and the criminals.
Kappeler believes the disconnect between perception and reality has led to a frustrating disconnect between sound ideas and political policy. “Democracy is expensive,” he says. “We have too much politics, too many policies used by one party or another that don’t work. The wealthiest nation should be able to provide the most basic services.”
This frustration is one of many factors that compel Kappeler to be in the middle of things, fighting for programs and policies that do work. He has taught at the FBI Academy, participated in the mediation process in the courts, and written extensively on the unfortunate results stemming from misrepresenting and misunderstanding crime and its role in society. “We don’t have to be experts on these issues,” he says. Citing the classic example of the starving man stealing food, he reiterates the importance of viewing the situation realistically rather than ideologically. “It may not be someone stealing food, but there is cash involved, connections, links between crime and eating. The economy is horrific, we have inaccessible housing, and inequity in society is dramatic.”
When asked about the future of policing and criminal justice, Kappeler finds encouragement in some aspects, disappointment in others. “Crime is down, and there has been a turnaround in the drug war,” he says. “But technology allows for more force in some situations, and there is more heavy-handedness.” Still, continuing research on what works and what doesn’t offers even more reason for hope. “The Pew Research Center is working with incarceration rates,” says Kappeler. “In the past it was three strikes and you’re out. Now there is a softening of mandatory sentencing and an increased public awareness of the sentencing.”
Kappeler is the recipient of countless awards and honors for his work and scholarship in criminal justice and police studies. In 2013, he received the Distinguished Service Medal from the Lexington Division of Police, was named Top Professor for Lifetime Achievement by Affordable Colleges, and in 2011 earned Eastern Kentucky University’s Excellence in Scholarship award from the College of
Justice and Safety. But these accolades only graze the surface of a life dedicated to understanding the causes and effects of crime. Kappeler’s mission to view crime honestly, dispel misconceptions and create solutions that actually work makes him a leader in his field and a feather in Kentucky’s cap.